Atlanta must not lose its historical advantage of being a city willing to dream
To aspire or not to aspire. That is the question facing the City of Atlanta today.
Historically, Atlanta has always been an aspirational city. Back in the late 1800s, it willed itself to be the capital of the New South by putting on national events, such as the Cotton States Exposition in 1895.
The following century, Atlanta willed itself to be the “world’s next great city” or the “city too busy to hate.” It also built what is now the world’s busiest airport. And it aspired to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
In short, Atlanta is a city that has always aspired to be something grander than the city it has been. And then it has had to live up to its own hype by turning its dreams into reality.
But during our most recent mayoral election, none of the candidates offered an aspirational vision. Instead, they focused on all the problems facing the city — from budget shortfalls to underfunded pensions to our public safety shortcomings.
Now that he has been elected the new mayor of the City of Atlanta, Kasim Reed is staying on message talking primarily about the budget, pensions and public safety.
In several speeches during the past couple of months, Reed has repeated this theme:
“You will not hear me launch a whole new series of initiatives,” Reed told people attending Park Pride’s recent 9th Annual Parks & Greenspace Conference.
At the annual breakfast of Central Atlanta Progress, Reed told the room full of business and civic leaders that he would support funding for the Peachtree Corridor, a new Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert hall for the Woodruff Arts Center, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the Atlanta Beltline.
“What you will not see are many new initiatives from me,” the mayor told those attending CAP’s breakfast. “I would rather do a smaller number of things very well. I don’t believe in mediocrity, and I don’t want any part of it. It may not be me who started them, but I’m going to be the man who will get it done.”
(But Reed never mentions which projects and initiatives he will cut from the city’s agenda list).
Reed also is fond of saying that that the 25-year Beltline redevelopment project should be done in 10 years rather than 25. And yet it is unrealistic to put an end date to many of these initiatives. Cities continually evolve. The Beltline may never be finished, and that should not be our end goal.
Reed’s streamlined approach is distinctly different than the one of his predecessor — former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin — especially after her first couple of years facing a budget crisis and having to rebuild the city’s sewers.
The longer she was mayor, Franklin spent increasingly more time and energy envisioning the Atlanta of 50 years from now.
As Reed is able to lasso control of the city’s budget challenges, he too could focus his energies on creating a vision for the city of the future, much in the same way that Franklin was able to do.
In a keynote address to Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture, Franklin shared her views in a speech titled: “Imagining a Better Future.”
Although I wasn’t able to attend her talk, she sent me her prepared remarks. In these excerpts, she defined her leadership style, one that I believe is different from Reed’s.
“Today in order for any place, any city to be the best — it must change, grow in attitude and perspective, expand its mission and focus, join forces with new allies and renew alliances with longtime partners using experience and dreams to form the basis of the relationship,” Franklin said. “For any city to be its best it must embrace its history, learn history’s lessons, discard that which is no longer relevant and expand its perspective. It is the combination of history and vision which can propel a city’s vision.”
Later she added:
“As mayor, the hardest work I tackled was imagining the future, the city 50 years from now and what difference my actions or inaction would mean. Imagining how our successes and failures would impact the health and welfare of the city and its residents in 50 years was the topic of endless senior staff meetings, political discussions and my musings. Imagining the incredible contributions this generation could make in forming a foundation for future success became a filter for how I would spend my time and use the extraordinary resources every mayor has to community goodwill and expert advice. “
And then it sounded as though she was speaking directly to Mayor Reed.
“I hear both political and business leaders say they will concentrate on one or two priorities, not push themselves to take on too many challenges at once,” Franklin said.
For extra emphasis, she then highlighted the following paragraph in bold yellow.
“This sounds great and may be a successful way to communicate your goals in the media or to get re-elected or get your business contract extended, but the number of challenges and opportunities doesn’t change because you ignore them or dismiss them as unimportant.”
By definition, a city’s or a state’s or a nation’s scope of work is multifaceted. In fact, it often is incomplete to tackle certain challenges in a narrow way.
Take crime and public safety. A mayor can make it a top priority to add to the number of police officers to the city’s streets. But to make a community truly safe, it needs life on the streets. People walking on sidewalks. Storefronts and restaurants lining the streets. People living and working in the same communities that are adorned with pleasantly landscaped corridors.
Isn’t it safer for Atlantans and visitors to be in a city with lots of street life and activity rather than a city that’s just armed with police officers watching our every move? Of course, having a robust public safety network — with adequate officers and fire fighters — is critical in any major city. But that is only one ingredient needed to create a safe city.
So as our new mayor continues in his first term at City Hall, he can herald back to the spirit of Atlanta’s long line of visionary mayors. In the words of Mayor Franklin speaking to Georgia Tech’s architecture students, our leaders must “reach for the stars” and “make the future spectacular.”
Franklin said that “we do know from history that without taking risks and subjecting ourselves to some ridicule, Atlanta would likely be the insignificant city some of the leaders predicted 180 years ago. We are the future we create.”
So when we ask ourselves the question — to aspire or not to aspire — we must not only take care of our city’s day-to-day needs, we must continue to dream. Atlanta must continue to be aspirational.