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Designing an inclusive, growing Atlanta while protecting neighborhoods and tree canopy

Atlanta City Design Project

Map of Atlanta shows the growth corridors and the conservation areas (Atlanta City Design Project)

By Maria Saporta

The concept of the City of Atlanta doubling or tripling its population in the next 30 years may sound overwhelming.

Where are we going to put all these people? And will we need to sacrifice our beautiful tree canopy, our treasured neighborhoods and our quality of life?

The City of Atlanta – under the leadership of Planning Commissioner Tim Keane and planner Ryan Gravel – is in the middle of a grassroots effort known as the Atlanta City Design project to try to find the secret formula of how we can grow our population and become an even more beautiful and vibrant city as well.

Atlanta City Design project

The symbol of Atlanta is the Atlanta Phoenix – a metaphor that has helped the city aspire to new heights (Atlanta City Design Project)

When presenting a draft of the Atlanta City Design project at the Downtown Public Library on Oct. 4, Gravel boiled it down to one word – Aspiring.

“The city design is really an aspiration of what we want the city to become,” Gravel said adding that we should build a city “on the notion of a beloved community” proposed by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “If properly designed, growth can be good for the city.”

A preview of the draft plan provides insight into the that secret formula – a planning concept based on conservation areas and growth areas.

Growth – allowing relatively higher densities – would occur in the city’s core and along its major corridors. But the neighborhoods, parks and low-rise industrial areas would be conserved and preserved to keep Atlanta’s quality of life.

By steering growth to corridors and activity centers, it provides an opportunity to create more pedestrian-oriented corridors that can be better served by transit – reducing the need for people to get around by driving their own cars.

Atlanta City Design Project

This Atlanta map portrays the corridors and the central core where growth would be welcomed (Atlanta City Design Project)

Or let me put it another way, it is hard to imagine our city being able to absorb twice as many cars as there are today on our already-congested streets. That means we are going to have to shift to other ways to get around and other ways to live.

Fortunately, that shift is already taking place. Walkable urban neighborhoods have become far more popular – both inside the perimeter and outside the perimeter.

The City of Atlanta is banking on growing its transit and alternative modes of transportation – including bicycle lanes, wider sidewalks, safer crosswalks, more streetcars and the exploding use of on-call car services – such as Uber and Lyft.

Gravel described the transportation priority of the City Design project as placing “people over cars.” Traffic calming, ride-sharing, transit and having more people walk and cycle also would create healthier citizens and a cleaner city.

Gravel broke down the fundamentals of the design process into five buckets: nature; access; ambition; progress and equity.

Or put another way, the Design Project likely will make the following recommendations:

* Embrace Ecology;

* Design Mobility;

* Remain Open;

* Balance Priorities; and

* Include Everyone.

The presentation went into great detail of Atlanta’s unique history as the home of the Civil Rights movement, to its aspirational past to become an ascending city in the South, and how its natural ecology has shaped the city we have today.

Atlanta City Design Project

Map of Atlanta shows the growth corridors and the conservation areas (Atlanta City Design Project)

“The city is going to change, and the most strategic change is going to be inclusion,” Gravel said. “We know that historically change has not benefited all of us. Most of the growth is in the north or east side of town. That’s about to change with an influx of new people. The new folks moving to the city are higher income. We know the city’s black population is declining. It is easy to fear that the Atlanta we love will be destroyed.”

But Gravel quickly continued to say that if we uphold our core values and we are strategic in how we implement our planning and design principles, we will be able to avoid the affordability pitfalls that have taken place in other fast-growing cities like San Francisco.

For Atlanta, it means staying true to our values of inclusivity and openness to make sure we are building a city where everyone can enjoy a better quality of life.

Atlanta Design Project

Ryan Gravel presents the draft report of the Atlanta City Design Project at the Downtown branch of the Atlanta-Fulton County Library (Photo by Maria Saporta)

And a solution is directing growth to the places in between our sacred communities – the corridors, the parking lots, the forgotten spaces that can be transformed into some of the city’s most special places – think the Atlanta BeltLine.

“Corridors head out in different directions – there are growth corridors and green areas,” said Gravel, who was instrumental in bringing the vision of the BeltLine to Atlanta. “Draw a line around the neighborhoods and protect the tree canopy and industrial areas. Those are the conservation areas. The growth areas like downtown (and corridors) have significant capacity for growth.”

The Atlanta City Design project is seeking involvement and input from citizens all over the city. It is holding multiple public meetings, and it will have another session at the Public Library on Nov. 3 to get reaction to the draft report.

If our citizens embrace this process, it will make Atlanta a more prosperous, vibrant and inclusive city.

Atlanta City Design

Atlanta City Design

Atlanta City Design

Atlanta City Design

Atlanta City Design

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. Burroughston Broch October 12, 2016 5:23 pm

    In my opinion, your concern about the City’s population doubling or tripling in the next 30 years is misplaced.
    For the population to double in 30 years the average annual increase would be 2.4%; to triple in 30 years the average annual increase would be 3.7%. The Census estimate for 2015 shows an average annual growth rate of less than 2% per year since 2010. I don’t trust Census estimates since they estimated the population at 450,000 in 2010 but the real Census population was only 420,000; that was over a 9% error.
    As far as the tree cover, how does it compare today to 1970 when the City population was 7% greater than today’s estimated population? Based on my memory, today’s tree cover is much reduced, so I question the correlation with population.Report

  2. atlman October 13, 2016 6:01 am

    Burroughston Broch 
    Here is why the population of Atlanta is projected to grow at an increased rate over the next 10-15 years:
    Not just that link mind you. Notice the links on the left side: Kaiser, Honeywell, KPMG and GE plus some others not listed such as NCR and several mobile payments companies. So there are about 10,000 jobs, mostly in the tech sector, moving to the Midtown area alone in the next 5 years, with some of them moving from the suburbs such as NCR and Coca-Cola’s IT division and others being relocated or consolidated from other areas in the country such as Honeywell and GE. 

    Quite naturally, those people are going to need somewhere to stay. This may have been a problem 20 or 10 years ago but no longer. With the ongoing new housing boom in Midtown and downtown – which the Civic Center, Turner Field and Underground Atlanta redevelopments will add to in addition to the previous activity that has gone on for several years near the Beltline and Streetcar – there will be plenty of housing options available that are brand new, aimed at high income professionals and close to the new employment centers and other amenities.
    For the companies that are relocating, a great deal of the current workforce will simply choose getting new jobs over the increased commute, and to a workplace destination that many of them find … unappealing. Those – as well as the balance of the workers from companies that are relocating to the city from outside the Atlanta metro area entirely – will be replaced with either graduates of Georgia Tech/Georgia State/Emory or with people who relocate from other urban areas i.e. the GE workers that will relocate here from the northeast. 

    A major reason – though not the only reason – for Atlanta’s population stagnation was a lack of desirable places for higher income people to work and live outside of Buckhead, particularly after a lot of the employers that were once downtown absconded for north Fulton and the suburbs. As this situation appears to be reversing itself, the population stagnation will come to an end also.Report


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