Georgia Conservancy promotes healthy growth through Blueprints program

By Guest Columnist KATHERINE MOORE, growth management and Blueprints program manager with the Georgia Conservancy.

Earlier this year, community leaders in the working-class neighborhoods of northwest Atlanta reached out to the Georgia Conservancy for help.

These residents aren’t “NIMBY’s” trying to stop developers from clearing land. They’re not seeking to chase off any big-box stores or industrial plants.

So, why did these concerned residents contact us? The answer may surprise you. They want help shaping – not stopping – development.

The Georgia Conservancy is not a ‘no-growth’ organization. Far from it. We realize there’s a need for communities to have both a healthy economy and a healthy environment. Indeed, the two go hand-in-hand.

The Georgia Conservancy is so committed to this philosophy that we’ve built a robust growth management program that has helped dozens of cities, counties and neighborhoods across the state plan for their future growth in a more sustainable fashion.

This program, called Blueprints for Successful Communities, recently worked with Newton County, the Lindbergh-LaVista neighborhood in metro Atlanta and the Pinpoint community near Savannah.

And we also offer a smart growth clinic called Good Urbanism 101 designed to help a range of professionals and community leaders learn how to foster more sustainable communities.

Earlier this year, we held this course for the first time in Savannah. Our fall 2010 Atlanta seminar kicked off last week, attracting a diverse mix of participants including planners, architects, engineers, government officials and neighborhood leaders.

Our Blueprints program and ‘Good Urbanism’ courses underscore our firm belief that growth can occur in a sustainable, equitable and efficient manner that is also respectful of natural resources and enhances quality of life. Being “green” doesn’t mean disavowing economic development.

Consider Newton County east of Atlanta. The Georgia Conservancy helped this fast-growing county craft a plan that encourages pedestrian-friendly development while protecting more environmentally sensitive areas.

We’re also involved in a three-year project on Georgia’s coast to help local leaders in eleven counties shape future development in a way that pushes plans for future growth away from rare and ecologically important habitats. We believe this is a true ‘win-win’ scenario.

Sustainability is certainly a buzzword these days. It’s used to describe everything from LEED-certified buildings to alternative energy projects.

Our Good Urbanism 101 course, presented in conjunction with professors from Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture, shines a spotlight on a less common, but critically important, way of looking at a community’s sustainability – the subdivision of land into blocks and streets.

Through six lessons, lecturers walk students through a history of laws and decision-making that have had unintended consequences that limit sustainability. For instance, parking requirements often lead to the creation of huge surface lots that only exacerbate urban and suburban sprawl.

The bottom line: development decisions must reinforce walkability – that is, a more dense street grid than is common in most communities today. Otherwise, our built environment cannot accommodate change over time.

Our land development framework – the size of blocks, lots and streets – is our most permanent feature of the built environment. We must focus our attention on this. It’s this perspective that shapes all of the Georgia Conservancy’s Blueprints projects, in addition to being the fundamental premise of the Good Urbanism 101 course.

This gets us back to northwest Atlanta. The area, officially known as Neighborhood Planning Unit G (NPU-G), largely missed out on the real estate and economic booms of the past two decades. There’s not even a grocery store within its boundaries.

On a recent sweltering summer day, NPU-G chairwoman Ola Reynolds and one of our staffers drove around the area for nearly two hours without passing by a single store to buy a bottle of water. But Reynolds and others in her community remain bullish on NPU-G’s future.

For example, several troubled public housing developments have been demolished in recent years, one of which has been transformed by private and public dollars into a sparkling mixed-income community. And NPU-G is home to the Atlanta Industrial Park, a bustling economic engine just inside I-285.

Reynolds says the now-cleared public housing properties are ripe for redevelopment, which could bring in sorely needed shops and services. And new job training centers in the industrial park could help the next generation of NPU-G compete for jobs in the new economy.

Our NPU-G Blueprints project kicked off in August. We’ll follow that up with a planning study in Augusta’s Harrisburg community early next year. And thanks to a grant from the Home Depot Foundation, we’ve added staff to our Growth Management program so that we can work with even more communities.

Helping communities like these strike a balance between their economic and environmental needs cuts to the heart of what we do at the Georgia Conservancy.

Led by our president, Pierre Howard, and our board of trustees, the Georgia Conservancy recently adopted a five-year strategic plan that includes a new vision statement: A Georgia where people and the environment thrive. It’s a philosophy that drives every decision we make.

We invite you to learn more about our organization at our Georgia Conservancy website. There, you’ll be able to read more about our Blueprints program as well as all of our work from Georgia’s coast to the state Capitol.

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