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History Shows Transportation Improvements Critical to Economic Growth

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In part five of this series on urban design, Perkins+Will principal David Green discusses the collaboration that took place between public authorities, the private landowners and developers, and the general citizenry of the area when Atlanta city leaders in 1922 dealt with transportation issues similar to what we face today.

Beginning more than ninety years ago, the Atlanta region has been concerned with congestion, economic development, and the relationship between the two. Further, the city, and region, put strategies in place for addressing these issues that are still affecting its citizens and its transportation policy. In 1922 there was a need; increase transportation capacity, and there was a plan for meeting this need; widening roads, and there was a way to pay for it.

Cartoon from The Atlanta Georgian, April 21, 1922

In 1922, Atlanta and the region was much smaller and less populated than it is today, but it was planning for growth; and growth, the population understood, came with a cost. The citizens of the region at the time were willing, even enthusiastic, about sacrificing for the future. This included paying special taxes and assessments, as well as donating land, all for the future benefit of the region. From the 1922 Annual Report;

‘A charter amendment secured on recommendation of the commission gives the Council authority to assess all or any portion of the cost of widening or extending a street upon property especially benefited by such improvement. Great progress has been made in various widening and improvement projects by the property owners getting together and voluntarily dedicating the property needed for street widening or assessing themselves to pay the amount of special damages to certain owners. This shows a remarkable spirit of cooperation and a keen appreciation of the advantages to be gained by street widening.’

This excerpt shows a belief in the benefit of cooperation between the private and public sectors, and further, that this cooperation went beyond just respect but included an obligation on the part of individuals to participate in efforts that would result in the betterment of the general population. The Report included a very specific recommendation for how this obligation should be fulfilled;

‘Some fund should be created in Atlanta, either by means of an annual tax levy or through bond issue voted by the people to make it possible for the city to cooperate with the property owners in these important street widening and extension projects.’

And more specifically the Report recommended a list of projects;

‘A bond issue should also be voted to provide for Atlanta’s portion of the cost of viaducts over the railroads, the extension of Broad Street and other important street improvement projects and there should also be an annual tax levy or a bond issue or both to carry forward a comprehensive plan for the acquirement of land for parks, parkways and playgrounds.’

This was happening at the dawn of a decade in which the country’s politics were primarily concerned with expanding business and reducing regulations. But even in this climate, there was a clear understanding that appropriate regulation and taxation were required to move the needs of the region forward; by providing a plan and then funding that plan. The following excerpt indicates the gravity of the situation at the time;

‘Surely, the history of Atlanta, as written to date, as concerns its physical expansion and status, should include all Atlantans to give careful heed to intelligently worked out plans of construction for the future. For the one big reason why our streets are such vexing and fretting problems today – far and away, the Georgian thinks, the most vexing and fretting of all our problems – is because Atlanta never has been built according to plan, but always at haphazard.’ – from February 21, 1922 edition of The Atlanta Georgian, a daily afternoon newspaper

This could easily have been written in the February 21, 2012 edition of the AJC.

In 1922 the newly constituted City Planning Commission was grappling with the same issues we face today, and they made recommendations that are not unlike those currently before the voters of the region. In the past century we have followed the recommendation of the Commission and built new and widened existing roads, but we have done so without much of a plan. The street plan included in the 1922 report was also the first and last one ever done for the city of Atlanta.

As we look back at the intention of the Commission, and understand how transportation has unfolded in the region since, we see that transportation improvements have been critical to the economic growth of the region. We see that infrastructure improvements have directly benefitted property owners in the region. And we see that these benefits have materialized through individual sacrifice and participation.

But we also see that some of the planning principles espoused in the Report have been carried forward while others have not, sometimes with unintended and unfortunate consequences. In the final installment of this brief series we will look at the legal basis for this decision-making process and how we might work towards a strategy that provides for a healthier, safer and more economically robust region.

— David Green is a principal at Perkins+Will and a professor at Georgia Tech in the College of Architecture

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