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Design Thought Leader

From Atlanta’s Earliest Days, Transportation Improvement Tied to Economic Development

In part four 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.

As we discovered in last week’s article, residents in Atlanta and surrounding areas were grappling with issues that were similar to those we face today, especially providing transportation infrastructure improvements to reduce congestion and realize beneficial economic development. Ninety years ago, at the dawn of the automotive age, the correlation between infrastructure improvements and the development of the city (and region) was at the heart of the planning process, and it remains so today. While some of the concepts have remained — widening streets to move traffic more quickly and grade separating streets to gain efficiency (yes, grade separation was around long before the federal highways were constructed) — others have been lost.

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

In the early 20th century, governments and citizens had a much stronger belief in the beneficial relationship between government-controlled planning and private landowner participation. This was due in part to the belief that the improvement of the transportation infrastructure (something public) had a direct impact on the value of land and the capacity to develop that land (something private). This is so embedded in the thinking of the day, that in the 1922 Annual Report a section is titled, “Profit and Loss in Street Widening.” The Report goes on to demonstrate the value to the private property holder of transportation improvements, declaring that property values are directly tied to, “the speed and ease with which vehicles can move along the street.”

This illustration from a 1922 Annual Report demonstrates the value to the private property holder of transportation improvements.

This idea is further evidenced in the discussion pertaining to the regrading of streets, going so far as to propose that regrading would provide for the expansion of business (economic growth) and, “would enormously enhance the value of all property affected.” But along with this, the Report makes clear that some existing private land and other assets will be required to make this work. The private landowning and development communities participated in this process.  They provided resources to the city with the understanding that it helped them as well as the larger community.

At the time, however, the understanding of transportation infrastructure included mass transportation (the electric trolley) as well as cars and trucks. The Report outlines a strategy, including a recommended plan, for the accommodation of both automobile traffic and streetcar traffic. The Report recommended, for the sake of efficiency, the separating of streetcar traffic and cars, designating some streets for cars and others for trolleys. At the time, more than half the streets on the city’s plan were earmarked for trolley traffic (traffic, at the time, included both trolley and car), with the remaining streets designated for cars. In addition to designating existing streets there were also a number of new streets that were proposed, again, both for cars and for trolleys.

This street map from 1922 shows the proposed improvements to streets in downtown Atlanta

The basis for the success of these planning efforts lay in the creation of a plan of streets. The major street plan, as outlined in the Report, served two purposes. It allowed for the manageable growth of the region as well as the creation of a document; a clear guide that provided simple information as to the location of future improvements. It was intended to address the challenges that come from haphazard development patterns. Unfortunately, this recommendation (the foundation for both the infrastructure improvements and zoning implementation) was never realized, and the cooperation between the government and private development became a series of individual negotiations instead of the collaborative planning process originally envisioned. But this wasn’t the future envisioned by the Report’s creators.

View of Peachtree Street downtown in the 1920s

In 1922, as the region began seriously planning for its future, it was clear that the foundation for the fast-growing region was predicated on cooperation between the public authorities, the private landowners and developers, and the general citizenry of the area. And at the time planning for the future included a comprehensive transportation system; one that could accommodate a, “…street burden (that) will under normal conditions increase twice as fast as population, i.e., with a 100 per cent [sic] increase in population there will be a 200 per cent [sic] increase in traffic.” The planners of the time knew it was coming; they just had no idea of the magnitude of the transformation, but they did know that the only way to stave off unintended consequences was through cooperation.

In the next installment we will discuss how this was (and was supposed to be) funded.



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