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Atlanta Still Needs to get “Smart”

As a father, I know exactly how much it stings to be told by a seemingly insensitive (but candid) teacher that the precious fruit of your loins isn’t keeping up with the rest of the class.

After the instinctive impulse to defend your kid washes over you, the inevitable second-guessing and self-blaming kicks in:

‘If only I had played Mozart instead of Jay-Z when she was still in the womb,’ you ask yourself.

‘That’s it. No more Nintendo in this house!’ you declare unconvincingly.

And then there’s my all-time  favorite: ‘How is she ever going to get into Harvard now?’

Granted, it has been awhile since I’ve had to grapple with my kids’ academic shortcomings and my own gnawing parental deficiencies.

But I confess to getting that familiar punch-in-the-gut sense of failure all over again after scanning “Smarter Cities” a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The NRDC, a non-profit, environmental advocacy group that does credible work, has ranked the American cities that have successfully implemented “smart growth” strategies.

As I plugged Atlanta’s name into the study’s online search tool, I was disappointed to find we weren’t counted among the smartest of the large cities.

Even worse, Atlanta didn’t make the list at all.


The organization measured nine criteria such as air quality, energy production and conservation, green space and environmental standards and participation.

After the scores were tallied, Atlanta was nowhere to be found among the elite smart cities with more than 250,000 residents.

Topping the NRDC’s ratings in the big city category are Seattle, WA, San Francisco, CA, Portland, OR, Oakland, CA, and San Jose, CA.

Although Atlanta didn’t make the cut, Georgia had at least one bright spot worth bragging about: Athens was named the 14th smartest medium-sized city, a category that included places with populations ranging from 100,000-299,000 residents.

The NRDC cited the Athens-Clarke County unified government for establishing forward-looking water conservation measures, its “pay as you throw” residential recycling program and land-use planning that promoted energy efficiency and affordable housing.

Atlanta’s omission from the NRDC rankings is certainly disappointing but not really surprising.

It’s clear to anyone who’s paying attention that the city – and frankly, the rest of the region – have plenty of remedial work to do in order to improve our environmental and economic prospects.

Progress will depend on whether our leaders can avoid the tendency to start backsliding from some of the slow, but significant gains we’ve been making of late.

For example, although Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin will soon be riding off into the term-limited sunset, her administration deserves kudos for establishing an Sustainable Atlanta Initiative in 2008.

Using startup funding from the Kendeda foundation, the initiative is being led by environmental stalwart Mandy Mahoney along with Lynnette Young, Franklin’s hard-charging former Chief Operating Officer.
The department has set out to first tackle decidedly “dumb” practices within the city government that waste taxpayer money and harm the environment.

The sustainability initiative also plans to expand its mission beyond the corridors of government and eventually make smart growth principles a “business-as-usual” proposition in every facet of city life.

The vision statement for the Office of Sustainability is a plain-spoken call to action that seeks to ensure that:
*  The air is clean,
* Waste is reduced,
* We use less water than is available,
* All buildings are high performance structures,
* Greenspace is abundant,
* Green industries and businesses thrive,
* Clean energy technologies prevail,
* Solutions are equitable and inclusive,
* Transportation alternatives are the norm,
* Communities and urban centers are walkable,
* Quality of life is ensured for future generations

What’s not to like on that list of priorities?

And while the city of Atlanta seems to be on its way to becoming greener and smarter, fortunately it’s not alone.

The Atlanta Regional Commission recently announced that three local governments had won the coveted “Certified Green” distinction for adopting policies that were environmentally and economically sound.

Cobb County was recognized as a “Silver” community last month for a long list of achievements that included upgrading the energy efficiency codes for new government buildings, making its vehicle fleet less polluting and reclaiming an abandoned “brownfield” site and transforming it into a government center.

The cities of Alpharetta and Decatur earned “Bronze” designations from the ARC for such accomplishments as instituting green municipal purchasing policies, improved storm water management practices, employee recycling programs and more sustainable building construction standards.

In the coming weeks, I’ll regularly devote columns to celebrating the local governments, businesses and civic groups in the region that are intelligently embracing the smart growth challenge.

And, of course, I’ll helpfully ding the laggards who are keeping us all behind.

As a parent whose bright kids were, at times, labeled as “underperforming” by their teachers I learned a valuable lesson that also applies in this case:

There’s no shame in not always being the best in the class. But there’s never any excuse for not striving to do better.

Lyle Harris

Lyle Harris rejoins SaportaReport after seven years as MARTA’s chief spokesman. He will be covering three topics critically important to the future of our city, our region and the state of Georgia: Transit and transportation, the media, and marijuana legislation.


1 Comment

  1. Mandy Mahoney August 7, 2009 2:58 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful piece and recognition of the progress that is being made. I agree wholeheartedly that we have a long, long way to go as a city, region, and state.

    Some good news- the Department of Energy’s grants through the federal stimulus package will enable the City to undertake significant energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. 1 project alone that we are doing will generate 11million kilowatt hours of renewable electricity! That will reduce the city government footprint 2%. And that’s only one project!

    I am proud of much that is happening locally. When I think of states like North Carolina and Florida I get a bit disappointed because they are so far ahead of us. But disappointment is not going to help anyone. I just have to see it as good old fashioned competition. 🙂

    Keep up the challenge!
    Mandy Mahoney
    Director of Sustainability
    City of AtlantaReport


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