Atlanta’s economic future is inextricably tied to having a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly core that attracts college-educated professionals.
That was the assessment of a recent gathering of CEOs for Cities that brought together about 65 local leaders to contemplate what it would take to make “Atlanta an engine for the American dream.”
That was the question that Julia Klaiber, director of external affairs for CEOs for Cities, posed to a panel of business and civic leaders.
The assumption of CEOs for Cities is that our urban areas must be the “renewed engines for human activities in a complex world” where “talented people come together in dynamic environments,” Klaiber said.
According to CEOs for Cities, it comes down to three factors: quality of talent; quality of place; and quality of opportunity.
Quality of talent can be boiled down to the percentage of residents who have a four-year college degree. That’s the greater contributor to region’s per capita income. The more degrees, the higher the income.
In metro Atlanta, 34.6 percent of the population has a four-year college degree or better — which places the region 12th among the top 51 metro areas, Klaiber said.
Given today’s mobility, people with talent can easily relocate.
That’s why “quality of place” and “quality of opportunity” are so important. In looking at the migration patters of college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds, the most mobile population segment, the most popular place for them to live is within three miles of the central business district.
Klaiber said that the neighborhoods with three miles of the CBD experienced a 61 percent growth in its 25-34 year-olds with a college degree.
“So while the image of the “white picket fence” is hardwired into American politics, it is inconsistent with what young, educated people say they want,” Klaiber said. “Overwhelmingly, they want compact, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods that substitute local businesses, arts & culture, recreation and vibrancy for the previous generations’ sprawling yards, three-car garages and in-home entertainment centers. Mostly, what young adults are seeking in downtown neighborhoods is vibrancy.”
In short, many urban residents are willing to pay a premium to live in the central city with all its amenities.
High on that list is an area’s “walkability.” The more walkable a community, the higher its home values. Klaiber said communities can be measured by their “walk score,” where people are within walking distance of their daily destinations.
While “density makes a lot of people squirm,” Klaiber said that density contributes to a city’s economic vibrancy.
“Cities are nothing if not dense collections of people that enable the connections and creativity that spur innovation and job growth,” she said. “Indeed, job accessibility is highest in the core of urban areas. If we count the number of jobs within three miles of a person’s home, people who live in the center of urban areas, on average, are far closer to more jobs than those living in the suburbs.”
But one of Atlanta’s major drawbacks is its lack of density — a situation that contributes to our current economic drag.
“Choosing a housing location near lots of jobs, rather than near one job, makes much more sense to younger workers who change jobs more frequently,” Klaiber said. “So when we hear that what America needs is “jobs, jobs, jobs,” CEOs for Cities says what we need is investment in strong, vibrant core cities.”
In the panel discussion, developer/builder Egbert Perry said it will boil down to regional competitiveness. The Southeast is competing with the Northeast corridor, which has a highly-developed passenger rail network connecting its major cities.
“The Southeast, in the next 50 years, will be defined by how transit is developed in this region,” Perry said, adding that high speed rail was an essential ingredient in “raising the region’s competitiveness.”
Catherine Ross, a Georgia Tech planning professor who has been researching the emerging development of megaregions, said there’s a danger that Georgia will be left out of the high speed rail debate.
“It’s going to go to Charlotte,” said Ross, who half-jokingly said that the U.S. version of high-speed rail is trains going 90-120 miles per hours versus twice that speed in other parts of the world. “There’s no discussion of how it’s going to come to Atlanta.”
Albert Bogaard, president and CEO of Parkmobile USA, offered an outside view of Atlanta saying that the city works well as a U.S. headquarters for a European company.
He said Georgia could increase its competitive edge if it developed its rail infrastructure.
“With high-speed rail, you can make Savannah as suburb of Atlanta,” Bogaard said. “High-speed trains can help the perception of where you live and where you work.”
In her talk at the CEOs for Cities panel, Klaiber offered a gentle warning towards metro Atlanta and the choices it currently faces. “Waiting on old economic models to save us is foolish and a waste of time,” she said.
Quoting the organization’s chairman, Paul Grogan, Klaiber said: “For cities, there is no permanent success and no permanent failure. Cities inevitably go through cycles, and to the extent that you can make smarter civic decisions, you can shorten the down cycles and lengthen the up cycles.”
It will be up to metro Atlanta to decide whether it wants to be stuck in its old dispersed development patterns that depend on roads and cars to get around; or whether we want the region to embrace the sustainable development patterns of the future with compact, pedestrian-friendly town centers that can be connected by transit.
Our economic future depends on us making the right decision. The choice is ours.