Atlanta City Design watercolor
On the lower part of the watercolor of Atlanta, artist Christian Sottile has portrayed a beloved city (Special: Atlanta City Design)

By Maria Saporta

In a  City Hall conference room, Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane gently unrolled a mega-watercolor that Christian Sottile, an urban designer from Savannah, had painted of the new Atlanta City Design.

The watercolor captured the significance of the design process and its potential for Atlanta by using a graphic style that dates back to the early 1900s – depicting a desire fort this design tol become part of city’s landscape and identity for decades to come.

For the past year-and-a-half, Keane and Ryan Gravel, manager of the Atlanta City Design Project, have been working on a community-led process to design how we want our city grow.

Tim Keane Terri Lee
Planners Tim Keane and Terri Lee look over the watercolor depiction of how Atlanta can grow and retain its beauty. Credit: Maria Saporta

The Atlanta City Design harks back to Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago – a document that helped reshape the Windy City’s center and turn it into one of the pre-eminent cities in North America.

Like the Burnham Plan, the Atlanta City Design   is being presented in a 410-page book (available now online and soon in print form) that portrays Atlanta as the “Beloved City” – described in David Pendered’s column this week.

“This plan is an aspiration for our future,” said Gravel, founder of the Sixpitch design consulting firm, who participated in the interview by speakerphone. “We are trying to build a better version of who we are.”

The design was unveiled on Sept. 6 at the City Design Studio in Southwest Atlanta on Cascade Road by Mayor Kasim Reed, who said it shows how the city can “accommodate 1.2 million people who will be living in Atlanta in the not too distant future.”

The design takes it even further.

“We can actually see a future in Atlanta that’s better with more people,” Keane said. “There’s a future in Atlanta where Atlanta is way better with 1.2 million people versus 470,000 people.”

Keane seemed to be answering a question posed by Paul Krugman, a columnist for the New York Times, who recently wrote a column – “Why can’t we get cities right?” 

Atlanta is trying to get it right.

The Atlanta Design Project is grounded in five core values:

  • Equity ­– ensuring that all the benefits of nature, access, ambition, and progress accrue fairly to everyone.
  • Progress – protecting people and places with meaning from the market forces that will otherwise overrun them.
  • Ambition – leveraging the disruption of change to unlock new opportunities for people to do what they want with their lives.
  • Access – updating our hub of transportation for a new generation while also building a sense of community and place.
  • Nature – protecting and expanding the ecological value of our watersheds, forest and habitat in the face of rapid urbanization.

The book tackles each of the core values in depth – providing an implementation guide of how we can grow our city and not lose our soul and beauty.

“We are organizing our actions around those values,” said Gravel, acknowledging the difficulty of implementation. “  said. “There’s the hard work of accomplishing equity while protecting places that have meaning in a city that’s about to explode.”

City design map
A close up of the watercolor map of Atlanta – without interstates (Special: Atlanta City Design)
A close up of the watercolor map of Atlanta – without interstates (Special: Atlanta City Design)

Terri Lee, deputy commissioner of Atlanta’s City Planning Department, said the design provides an “overarching vision,” but the city will have to be “intentional about our actions” – especially if we want to be a more inclusive city that is also more mobile with the development of transportation options.

The planning department taking the vision of the City Design and boring down on key areas to help make it become a reality. It is in the middle of developing a transportation plan, an urban ecology plan, a housing strategy for all, and a complete revamp of the city’s Zoning Ordinance.

Keane and his department also are tackling a rewriting of the Tree Ordinance and seeking ways to strengthen the city’s historic preservation efforts.

“This is an ongoing process,” Lee said. “We are trying to figure out how do we infuse this into the city as a whole. We have to be very intentional – driving down to the next level – the NPU (Neighborhood Planning Unit) level. Our goal is to have every one of our employees be able to train anyone on what is our city design.”

While the City Design will not go before the Atlanta City Council, all the tactical plans – those that involve an ordinance or financial support – will go through the city’s approval process.

“This is really the community’s design,” Keane said, referencing how the city design incorporated input from thousands of residents. As a result, there’s a growing appreciation that “you won’t get to a more affordability or more mobility without the city design project.”

Of course, it is an election year, and one of the big questions is whether the city’s future elected leaders will embrace the Atlanta City Design process.

“People falling in love with it,” Lee said. “Regardless of who is in office, people will support the design project.”

At a June mayoral forum, all the candidates running for mayor expressed support for the City Design, even though some were better informed than others.

In a recent telephone interview, City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who also is the frontrunner in the mayor’s race, expressed strong support.

“The City Design Project is deeply rooted in what makes Atlanta special with its five core principles,” Norwood said. “Equally as important is the understanding of the built environment – our neighborhoods and the benefits that they bring to our city. It is where our tree canopy resides. The emphasis is to have the growth occur along our commercial corridors.”

She also liked how the City Design is looking for growth to occur in all parts of the city.

“All of Atlanta should have the amenities and the prosperities that some neighborhoods have had and others have not,” Norwood said. “We need to respect the quality of life of every person in the city as we grow it.”

Atlanta City Design watercolor
On the lower part of the watercolor of Atlanta, artist Christian Sottile has portrayed a beloved city (Special: Atlanta City Design)

Both Keane and Gravel also hope the City Design will help change Atlanta’s mindset. Not only should we embrace our civic identity as “the beloved community.” We need to view our city differently.

“We are trying to build a better version of who we are. Most people see the city with a mental map that includes highways,” Gravel said. “We are describing a future that’s beautiful.”

Look closely at the watercolor of Atlanta that was painted by Christian Sottile. The highways are nowhere to be seen. Instead we can see a city of waterways, forests, railroads and connected communities.

The book says it best: Design for People. Design for Nature. Design for People in Nature.

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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  1. So I read this thing at it certainly is a very pretty document. It is not at all clear, however, how this is a plan for much of anything. There is nothing that is actionable in here. And of course, since this is a product of a bunch of planners, there is not a single financial plan. How does all this fixed rail transit, massive new park systems, bike paths and watershed remediation get paid for? It seems the answer is “Dunno”. Maybe the money spent on this plan could have been used to actually answer that question.

    The hard part of transforming cities is not in dreaming up cool ideas. There is no shortage of them. It is developing the financial and executable implementation plan. Hell, if this group had simply spent this time and effort on figuring out how we can get the Beltline finished in our lifetimes, that would have been a huge contribution.

    And by the way, this document has a whole section on fixed rail transit and just a paragraph on autonomous vehicles. Are these folks not reading the newspapers?

  2. Great document, but to be honest, it feels like a lot of lip service to best practices and policies already in place in the USA’s more progressive cities and states, not anything new and special. Of course, it would be wonderful for Atlanta to achieve all these things spelled out in the Design Guide book, but we all know well that barely any of it gets realized in terms of physical improvements in the ground and societal change.

    If anything, somewhere to start in terms of a better designed Atlanta would be to really improve the execution and maintenance of our built environment in the City. We see too often lazy construction and bad maintenance on our streets, with metal plates everywhere, incorrect traffic signals installed/designed, road lane markings ugly and poorly drawn, random poles and traffic lights with poor design. All those things people see every day and have the potential to appear in films and TV if they were designed well. Nobody wants to see a dangling misaligned traffic light in an advertisement or movie.

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