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Finding hope in people who believe in public spaces and planet Earth

By Maria Saporta

After a brutal presidential campaign and election season, it has been a struggle to envision a brighter future for our nation and our world.

My emotions have vacillated from despair about the future of our planet to concern about the future of our cities to empathy for the millions of people seeking a better life – hoping to find comfort and acceptance in America.

With that backdrop, I attended two distinctly different events last week that helped give me hope for the future.

The first was the latest offering from the Atlanta City Design Project on Dec. 6 at the Atlanta Central Library. The featured speaker was Matthew Lister, director of Gehl Studio New York, whose talk was about “Putting People First: Public Space and Public Life.”

Tim Keane

Tim Keane introducing Matthew Lister at Atlanta City Design Project program (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The second was the 25th anniversary the Captain Planet Foundation gala at the InterContinental Hotel in Buckhead on Dec. 9.

The gala began in the early 1990s as a way to carry on the mission of Captain Planet – an animated cartoon series that began when Ted Turner was running Turner Broadcasting System and CNN that aimed to teach children and young people about the magic and fragility of Planet Earth.

At both events, it was comforting see people who continue to be dedicated to making cities a better place for people and to leaving the Earth no worse from the wear and tear of 7.4 billion people inhabiting our planet.

Tim Keane, commissioner of the Atlanta Department of Planning and Community Development, set the stage for the City Design Project – explaining that Atlanta could double or triple its population in the next 25 to 30 years.

“Atlanta is not known for the public realm – we have a tremendous amount to do in this regard,” Keane acknowledged, adding that public spaces will become even more critical as more people call the city home.

Matthew Lister, director of the urban design firm – Gehl Studio in New York, defined public space as the area a group of people create when they  are “outside of their businesses, their homes and their cars.”

Matthew Lister

Matthew Lister, in brown sweater, takes Atlantans to Margaret Mitchell Square to see what works and what doesn’t (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Cities that have quality spaces for people are safer and more fun because people love looking at other people. They also can make urban spaces more inviting and beautiful – adding to everyone’s quality of life.

“Public life needs to be an intentional driver in how cities are made,” said Lister, who explained the firm’s founder Jan Gehl believed in creating public life in the spaces between modern buildings in the 1960s. He was part of the new thinking of people and cities – Jane Jacobs and William “Holly” Whyte – urbanists who wanted to understand the magic of cities.

“It was about putting people first and  rebalancing the city,” Lister said. “It wasn’t about taking options away. It was about adding options.”

Gehl measures how people use public spaces to see what works. “We measure what people are doing and where they stay,” Lister said. “Vibrant places invite people to stay longer…. Provide people with opportunities to sit and stand.”

In 2007, Gehl worked with then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to redesign Times Square – a place that had no public square. Today, Times Square is an example of how a 21st Century street can become a place for people and not just as a conveyance for cars.

Lister advised Atlanta to try to implement projects in a temporary way to help with a culture shift – helping people adjust to a new way of using streets and public spaces.

“Having people experience it themselves” can change the conversation and help people understand the value of the public realm, Lister  said. “Doing pilots and prototypes get more and more voices to the table.”

Ted Turner Jane Fonda Rutherford Seydel

Ted Turner greets his ex-wife Jane Fonda as his son-in-law Rutherford Seydel waves at the Captain Planet 25th anniversary gala (Photo by Maria Saporta)

At the Captain Planet gala, more than 700 people – including several actors, musicians and performers – came to pay tribute to Captain Planet himself – Ted Turner.

“It is up to us – every man, woman and child,” said Laura Turner Seydel, chair of the Captain Planet Foundation, who called the gala one of the most diverse gatherings in Atlanta’s history.

Her son, John R. Seydel, who is the brand new director of sustainability for the City of Atlanta, described himself as a Captain Planet Planateer, called the earth a “small blue dot” in space that needed to be treasured.

Environmentalist Dr. Edward O. Wilson – known as the father of biodiversity, put it this way: “We can share this precious planet so that all life can prosper,” adding he was “overwhelmed by the magnitude of the effort” that’s underway. “The way things are going in the professional conservation community, it gives me hope we will soon address the biodiversity depletion we are now experiencing. You inspire me.”

Perhaps the most touching moment came when former Atlanta resident Jane Fonda expressed her admiration of her ex-husband Ted Turner and his support of Barbara Pyle who created Captain Planet. She emphasized the show’s theme: “By Our Powers Combined” when addressing the gala’s audience.

“I’m so proud to be here on the 25th anniversary of the Captain Planet Foundation,” Fonda said. “I’m so proud of you Laura, and I’m so proud of Ted for what you’ve done.”

Captain Planet

City of Atlanta’s Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, American Rivers’ Jenny Hoffner with environmentalist E.O. Wilson (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Captain Planet Ted Turner

Ted Turner, the human version of Captain Planet, with cartoon character Captain Planet (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Jane Fonda Ted Turner

Jane Fonda gives Ted Turner a warm hug at the Captain Planet Gala (Photo by Maria Saporta)

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 December 12, 2016 9:23 pm

    Maria, Tim Keane has repeatedly claimed the City could double or triple its population in the next 25-30 years, and again used this claim to set the stage for this meeting. Keane should check his calculations before voicing this unlikely and illogical claim again.

    According to the latest Census Bureau estimate, the population was 463,878 on 1 July 2015 and the average yearly increase since 2010 was 2%. If this average yearly increase continued for 25 years, the population would be 64% larger than in 2015 (761,000); if it continued for 30 years the population would be 81% larger than in 2015 (839,000). Neither would produce anything near a doubling or tripling of population in the next 25-30 years.
    For the population to double in the next 30 years, the average yearly increase would have to be nearly 2.4%; for the population to triple in the next 30 years the average yearly increase would have to be over 3.7%. The odds of the City accommodating sustained growth at this rate are nil.
    A caution about the inaccuracy of Census Bureau estimates. They estimated a City population of 500,000 in 2010 and then counted the population as only 420,000. Mayor Reed was livid and threatened to take legal action against the Census Bureau. That tempest quickly blew out to sea and we never heard another word.
    We shall know more when the 2020 Census results are available.Report

  2. Kyle Kessler December 13, 2016 12:51 pm

    Burroughston Broch Commissioner Keane’s claim is based on an assessment done by Arthur C. Nelson. The assertion, as shown in Professor Nelson’s presentation, is that 2-3x growth is a “strategic opportunity” for the City of Atlanta to capture a larger share of the metro region’s growth if the City provides the kinds of places people want to live.


  3. RWW December 13, 2016 1:10 pm

    Perhaps you should do what Barack Obama, Jon Stewart, Tom Hanks and Andy Young suggest, and that is give the guy a chance. He hasn’t even taken office yet.Report

  4. Burroughston Broch December 13, 2016 1:28 pm

    It is unrealistic. Look at the Atlanta Regional Commission’s reports in which they forecast the majority of growth to be outside the core counties.Report

  5. Ron Hammerle December 14, 2016 1:04 pm

    May I add another tribute to Barbara Pyle for not only her work with Captain Planet but for her internationally-acclaimed work and photography, which together have helped advance the environmental movement.Report

  6. mariasaporta December 15, 2016 12:09 pm

    Burroughston Broch Burroughston, I don’t think you can look at what’s happened in the past 20-30 years to be an indicator of what will happen in the next 20-30 years. There is so much construction of new apartments and development right now in the City of Atlanta that I believe the 2020 census will be eye-opening for the whole region. As always, thanks for reading and commenting.Report

  7. mariasaporta December 15, 2016 12:10 pm

    RWW The cabinet picks speak volumes.Report

  8. Burroughston Broch December 15, 2016 4:13 pm

    It does – good choices rather than idealogues.Report

  9. Burroughston Broch December 15, 2016 4:19 pm

    Maria, that’s exactly why I focused on the Census Bureau estimate for the last five years to include only this growth period. I did not focus on the fact that the Census Bureau’s 2015 estimate is still 6.7% less than the 1970 Census.Report

  10. RWW December 15, 2016 5:40 pm

    Burroughston Broch Exactly right. They deserve a chance, too.Report


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