The Atlanta region is really a mosaic of neighborhoods.
That was the underlying theme of the first annual Regional Neighborhood Summit held on Saturday at the Loudermilk Conference Center and put on by the Civic League for Regional Atlanta.
Surprisingly, nearly 500 people came on a beautiful Saturday to spend several hours indoors to meet their counterparts from throughout the region and exchange ideas on how to improve their communities.
“Where the action is these days is at the local neighborhood level and at the regional level,” said Myles Greene Smith, executive director of the Civic League. “We are trying to get those two levels to understand each other and work with each other.”
For the past year or more, the Civic League has been focusing its efforts on civic engagement, neighborhood by neighborhood.
If Saturday’s summit is evidence, this focus seems to be working for an organization that has been trying to find its way for years. It has been holding a series of meetings and workshops in communities all over metro Atlanta.
It’s in those meetings that Smith has come to truly appreciate the unharnessed power that exists in our region’s neighborhoods.
“It doesn’t matter where we go, everybody in the region wants transit,” Smith said. “And it’s not buses that they want. They want rail transit.”
That’s just one of several of the common sentiments that tie this region together. Participants at the summit demonstrated that different communities share similar concerns throughout the region.
When it comes to their own communities, people are concerned about improving public safety, making smart land use and zoning decisions, providing good education and creating livable neighborhoods with sidewalks and parks.
The challenge is being able to exchange best practices and solutions that can be applied from one community to another.
That is exactly the challenge that keynote speaker Angela Glover Blackwell is trying to meet through PolicyLink, a national research and action institute based in California that she founded in 1999.
“Every problem has a local solution that someone has come up with,” said Blackwell, who wants to export good ideas across the country. “PolicyLink is trying to create a bridge between communities.”
In many ways, that’s what the Civic League is trying to accomplish within the Atlanta region — help neighborhoods learn from each other for the good of the region.
During the summit’s morning workshops, several communities were able to share their experiences with participants. Those communities included Collier Heights, Poncey Highland, the Beltline area and the Mableton Improvement Coalition.
The workshops covered such topics as how communities can shape a collaborative vision for how they want to develop; how to help areas embrace new technology, such as the new LENS Atlanta internet site that goes live on Monday, Sept. 14; how to create civic organizations that last; and getting organized for lobbying and advocacy efforts.
“We are trying to engage people,” Smith said. “We are trying to get people to understand that they can make a difference in the region if they work together.”Lesley Grady, chair of the Civic League and a senior vice president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, said there is a pent-up demand for such an exchange.
On Saturday, when she showed up at 7:45 a.m. before the 8 a.m. registration time, Grady said there 50 people waiting to get in.
“I know there’s a hunger,” Grady said. “People want to connect and they want to get engaged.”
In an email sent Sunday afternoon, Grady was even more convinced.
“I am still elated over the public’s response,” Grady said. “It confirmed and affirmed the League’s decision to be about real citizens, actively engaged and leading sans fancy titles, degrees or offices — filling a niche that business or government could never fill. These are the next generation of elected officials, and the time to begin a regional consciousness with them is NOW.”
During the last session of the day, county commissioners from across the region — Clayton County, Cobb County, DeKalb County, Douglas County, Fulton County and Gwinnett County — spoke to leaders from the various communities.
The good news, according to Sam Olens, who chairs both Cobb County and the Atlanta Regional Commission, is the level of cooperation that’s been building over the few years between county leaders.
“We are now overtly helping each other,” Olens said, pointing to the consensus that’s emerged on transportation planning and Grady Hospital.”
According to Blackwell, President Barack Obama’s administration is responding to the needs of cities. There is an Office of Urban Affairs that is trying to bring together the different agencies that impact cities — the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; the U.S. Department of Transportation; the U.S. Department of Energy; the U.S. Department of Education; among others — are being galvanized to deal with the needs of urban areas in a comprehensive manner.
“Right now we are in an amazing time for things coming together,” Blackwell said of the administration’s goals. “What kind of neighborhood, city, region, state, nation or world are we going to live in?”
By 2042, the population in the United States will become a nation with a majority of minorities, meaning that there will not be a dominant demographic sector.
“We will be a global leader, a place that has no clear majority of people based on race or ethnicity, a place where democracy can flourish with that level of diversity,” Blackwell said. “We will have met the test of this nation’s democracy.”
Again, in many ways, metro Atlanta is undergoing the same transition. Suburbs that have been predominantly white are becoming majority minorities. The city of Atlanta, which has had an African-American majority for the past four decades, is becoming increasingly white. So we are living in a region with diverse communities and jurisdictions.
In short, these neighborhoods are the Atlanta region’s building blocks. Thanks to Civic League, these community leaders will have growing influence in the future of our metropolis.