COVID pushed public meetings online; more Atlantans join in neighborhood planningThe ATL playground in Woodruff Park. (Credit: Sinan CC BY 2.0)
By Maggie Lee
Since COVID-19 pushed Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit meetings online, more people are going, and having a say in their community development.
Online meetings aren’t perfect, but some virtual component may become a permanent part of Atlanta’s NPU system.
“What I’m seeing … is that it’s more convenient for people to stay at home than to go to a brick-and-mortar meeting place,” said Eric Toomer, chair of NPU-Q, on the far west side of town bordering Cascade Road.
Like most of the other 24 NPUs, Q skipped some meetings in the spring when COVID-19 was new and everybody was figuring things out. And then Q switched to doing meetings virtually, with options to call in by telephone or link in via Zoom.
Average meeting attendance is up since the NPU went virtual, Toomer said. And he thinks that going online is an opportunity to get more people engaged.
He anticipates the NPU will continue virtual meetings next year and attendance will be up even more once the publicity around them is better.
Online or on the phone, NPU meetings are similar to what they’ve always been. They often start with a couple of official updates, maybe from a zone cop or code enforcement or an Atlanta City Council member.
Folks who want something like a zoning change or a festival permit make their asks. The NPU is the city’s avenue for residents to help shape their own neighborhoods by voting and sending recommendations to City Council on zoning, land use, and other planning-related matters.
And the NPU is going to be tough on a builder with a sketch that isn’t to everybody’s taste, or on a liquor license-seeker who doesn’t keep their property tidy.
But the NPU attendees are the ones who have to live with all the planning decisions.
And besides, it often happens that the project or the parade may just be better, and will certainly be better-liked, if neighbors help shape it and if the community benefits from it.
A city tally of NPU attendance over two years broadly confirms what Toomer and many other NPU regulars say: that more neighbors are coming to these neighborhood discussions now that they’re online.
The city data isn’t perfect — for example, a developer might bring 10 people to do a presentation who get counted as “attendees” when they log in, though they’re not voting neighborhood folks. Somebody who logs in, then leaves, then re-enters another way might be counted twice.
But still, Rebecca Rice, chair of Downtown’s NPU-M, says attendance is up overall and has no problem believing attendance got near 200 people in September when they were debating bylaws. Controversial topics always attract attendees, but to have well over 100 people is very unusual.
“I’ve heard anecdotally, I’ve heard several people with young children say that it’s much easier for them to come via Zoom, and for people who used to have transportation barriers,” Rice said.
Meetings are attracting people who are now working from home, said Jasmine Hope, a regular attendee of NPU-K who used to have to fight Buckhead traffic if she was going to get to the NPU meeting spot in Hunter Hills after work.
But she’s missing some of of her fellow regulars.
“There are a lot of people who are not as tech-savvy, that would rely on these meetings for a lot of information and just don’t have internet, or don’t have email and don’t have the same access to the information,” Hope said. “So I haven’t really seen some of those people show up.”
She said it’s a similar story at the Mozley Park Neighbors Association, where she’s secretary.
But she’s also finding neighbors who didn’t realize they could call in via telephone; so she’s encouraging them to try to attend that way.
On the far east side of town in NPU-O around Kirkwood, outgoing secretary Kip Dunlap said virtual meetings are somewhere in between being a good thing and a bad thing.
It’s less commitment to go an online meeting, he said; for newer, younger, tech-savvy residents like him, it’s easier and quicker to just log into someplace than cycle there.
But there’s a technology gap for older residents, he said: “Not everything is the same in terms of access.”
Speaking up can feel risky, he said, in a virtual space where you can’t see the faces that you’re speaking to.
And Zoom can become kind of a “production endeavor,” Dunlap said. Getting people to be able to speak and present when they need to, getting votes tallied the right way, getting people unmuted.
It’ll be up to each NPU to decide how it wants to continue after COVID-19, said Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane. He said the city has already provided support for virtual meetings and will continue to provide those things like software and training for virtual meetings and virtual voting.
Keane suspects that after COVID-19, many NPUs will move toward a hybrid model of both in-person and virtual options.
“I feel like [NPUs] are an area where virtual attendance has really made the system better,” Keane said.
Either way, there are several reasons to get involved in NPU, said Toomer, over in Cascade.
It’s the way you help decide what you don’t want your neighborhood to be and what you do want it to be.
An NPU has standing to approach developers, community organizations, City Hall and others and lobby and seek what they want, be it a grocery store, a park or anything else.
“As a community as an NPU, you can do stuff,” Toomer said. “The city is telling you, ‘You have a voice.’”