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City of Atlanta designing for its future

Atlanta's skyline

Atlanta's skyline from Piedmont Park right before sunset (Photo by David Luse)

By Maria Saporta

The City of Atlanta is going where it has never gone before. It is developing a “design” for the city.

In January, the City hired Ryan Gravel, best known as the visionary behind the Atlanta BeltLine redevelopment, to be the manager of the Atlanta City Design Project.

The goal of the project will be to design a vision for what Atlanta should look like decades from now and to develop a set of growth and development principles for the city.

The role, which may be unique to Atlanta among major U.S. cities, was the brainchild of Tim Keane, the City’s relatively new commissioner of Planning and Community Development.

Ultimately, Keane would like to do a complete overhaul of the City’s zoning ordinance – a process that could take years.

Atlanta's skyline

Atlanta’s skyline from Piedmont Park right before sunset (Photo by David Luse)

But before the Department gets as granular on issues related to a citywide zoning ordinance, Keane would like to have a grander vision of how Atlanta will evolve.

First, Atlanta has to answer a couple of questions.

“How big a city do we want to be?” Keane asked. “And how do we design ourselves for that growth? We are trying to chart a new course.”

Atlanta currently has about 450,000 residents. Given the demographic trends of people moving to live in central cities, Keane said Atlanta’s population could double in the next 15 years.

So If Atlanta wants to be pro-active, it would try to plan for that growth and direct it to the areas that can absorb new residents.

First on Keane’s list for higher density is downtown Atlanta, which he said could have many more residents. Given the level of transit and walkability, downtown could become much more robust.

“There’s a tremendous amount of unused land in downtown,” Keane said.

But both Keane and Gravel, however, want to start the Atlanta Design Project with its natural environs – the rivers and creeks, the forests, the ridges – the fundamental features that give the city its landscape.

“We are talking about starting with a foundation of green connections,” Keane said. Once they have a good understanding of the natural environment, the planners will then work with community groups and citizens to decide which parts of the city can handle more density.

“Neighborhoods are not going to change substantially,” Keane said.

But what could change are the places in between. Atlanta’s major streets could become more urban; and spaces that have been vacant could be viewed for future development or green space.

Gravel said they are just starting with the Design Atlanta project, learning how other cities have tried to be proactive by adopting enlightened policies. For example, in the 1990s, Vancouver, set policies to protect views of the water and the mountains, to protect the waterfront, to define the heights of buildings and to build narrow towers.

“The idea is to only shape a design that is unique to Atlanta,” Gravel said. “The process needs to be unique to Atlanta as well.”

Gravel said the railroads helped shape Atlanta’s growth – defining the major corridors and helping form the city’s neighborhoods. Then highways split several of those communities apart.

Atlanta skyline at night

Atlanta’s skyline from Piedmont Park at nightfall (Photo by David Luse)

“As the city and the region transitions to a more urban environment, we will do better if we embrace that change,” Gravel said. “Fortunately our relationship with cars is changing with ride share and automation. Think of how much land we dedicate to parking, especially downtown.”

Gravel said there are some givens.

“We know that we love our tree canopy, and we know we love our neighborhoods,” Gravel said. “If Atlanta grows by a half million people, we want to be sure we become more about what Atlanta wants to be. There’s a natural tension between keeping Atlanta green and greater urbanization. It’s about how we strike that balance.”

The plan will be to engage citizens and to figure out how to make decisions “at the local level,” Gravel said, adding that the city will be reaching out to get public participation.

Other issues also could be addressed in the Atlanta Design Project – how to best protect historic assets; how to make sure there’s street-level retail on the city’s streets; how to keep the city affordable for all its residents; and how to improve the quality of our public realm.

Gravel said he is not aware of another city that is approaching its future in the way Atlanta is doing through the Design Project. What he does know is that he is working with “people who have really good energy about Atlanta.”

If we do this right, we will build a city that is uniquely Atlanta; and Atlanta will be able to play an even more important role by setting the tone for the region.


The Atlanta City Design Project will determine how the city can become more urban and also more natural as we achieve our goals. Comprehensive strategies for densification and restoration of nature will guide the city’s physical growth. The plan will also set goals for total population and employment in Atlanta. It will then propose strategies for achieving these goals. Strategies will relate to the physical, economic and social aspects of the community in an effort to:

  • Evaluate current demographic trends and create specific demographic goals in terms of

1). Population growth

2). Race, income and age distribution

3). Employment by sector

  • Include a business plan outlining the economic framework of the plan in terms of high-level strategies for the city revenue and city expenses as well as the cost of critical investments.
  • Evaluate the physical opportunities and constraints of the City to guide the design. This includes evaluation of current property conditions, land use by area of the City, water supply issues and conditions around the municipal boundary and potential annexation.
  • Establish a pattern of urbanism proposing density strategically located to coincide with existing and proposed rapid transit access, the Beltline and other proposals.
  • Propose the physical structure of nature in the city to include protection and restoration of creeks and rivers, conservation of natural areas and a system of greenways and urban forest within this natural structure.
  • Propose achievable but aggressive big moves to substantially change the course of the City physically to achieve a higher quality public realm and stronger neighborhood fabric.
Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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  1. Tess Vismale February 23, 2016 8:37 am

    Watch out. Lol.Report

  2. John Burger February 23, 2016 8:42 am

    Let’s hope they heed Jamestown’s concerns: “They let people put up too much schlock in this city.”

  3. SteveHagen February 23, 2016 10:37 am

    Loved this story!!!   I moved here from Miami which went thru a very lengthy new planning and zoning process which had a design form / approach.       It turned out well but the leaders have failed to execute on one important element, green spaces and parks.    

    Lets hope Atlanta gets that right and there is no reason it shouldn’t as there is ample vacant land.    

    Get it right and older people as well as young people will populate the urban core if it offers safe walkable areas, well landscaped parks and green connections.    Add great schools and you will compete well with the suburbs!Report

  4. SteveHagen February 23, 2016 10:40 am

    PS.  The public must be involved. Start with several day long charettes.Report

  5. Helynn Ball Carlson February 23, 2016 10:56 am

    It is about time!Report

  6. KYW February 23, 2016 11:02 am

    Possibly the Atlanta Snow Globe! Happy to hear about it.Report

  7. Noel M February 23, 2016 11:56 am

    A huge opportunity for the city. Very glad to have Ryan Gravel helping to lead the charge.Report

  8. Syd Janney February 23, 2016 2:53 pm

    Such a hopeful development. Collaboration on the mayor’s team. The urban connections visionary in Gravel and the pragmatic planner with Charleston chops in Keane.Report

  9. jimat944 February 24, 2016 9:22 am

    SaportaReport Capitalism’s lg predicted urban return a catalyst alwys discussed tho, frm “the mecca” to mariasaporta 1st being a #urbanistReport

  10. OlmstedPleinAir February 24, 2016 10:20 pm

    mariasaporta SaportaReport #PleinAir painting version of Lake Clara Mere + Midtown OlmstedPleinAir Apr 25-May 1 http://twitter.com/OlmstedPleinAir/status/702694552474357760/photo/1Report


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