A couple of years ago, my son was drawing a picture of a city which, as he explained to me, had the ability to fly into space (most everything he starts drawing turns into a flying machine eventually). He said: “this city is a rocket ship!”That phrase stuck with me. In a simple way, it brings to mind a city’s constant movement forward and its potential for achieving greatness. I ended up writing a song about it. I do occasional songwriting and recording these days, but for several years, long ago, I was a serious musician performing and recording with local bands. One of the places I loved performing most was Homage Coffeehouse on Trinity Avenue in South Downtown. The block of buildings where it was located was a grungy spot, pictured in its current state below. It was, and still is, surrounded by a massive and ominous moat of surface parking lots and a couple of large abandoned buildings. (I wrote about this block of buildings in what has fittingly turned out to be my most popular post.) Standing on that street in 1993 and looking around, I became aware that at one time buildings filled all those spaces that are now parking lots. It used to be a vibrant place. The grid of streets and small city blocks looked like the perfect set-up for accommodating vibrancy. That gritty and challenged place is where I really fell in love with the city, and where I decided that I wanted to somehow volunteer my time toward helping it become a better place. I think this blog has been a decent start toward that goal. Thousands of people from all over the world visit this website every month to read my posts (I have over 22,000 Tumblr followers). I’ve met several people who’ve moved downtown recently and who told me that my blog influenced their decision. My thoughts have made their way through local and national news outlets for quotes and interviews, giving me a chance to speak about urbanism and Atlanta to a large audience. I’ve even been contacted by major real estate developers asking for advice about the downtown market (don’t worry, I referred them to someone else – I’m no real estate expert). It’s been very gratifying and I thank you all for reading; and a special *big* thanks to the readers who’ve sent me nice messages and emails in the past couple of weeks with kind words about the blog. They were appreciated.A few parting thoughts…This blog’s five-and-a-half year deep dive into urbanism has given me some insight into how placemaking works, and I’ve developed what I think is a fair guess at how things need to unfold in the city for a brighter future. Atlanta will continue to improve as a place because of the the great work being done here by committed citizens, planners and good developers (yes, I have finally learned that there are really good developers out there doing very cool things). But those improvements will be slow and painfully incremental without better leadership. City leaders bend over backwards as they prioritize mega developments like stadiums and corporate relocations. That’s when they bring out the big guns and use all the available municipal tools for making something happen – rezoning, tax breaks, grants, partnerships, fees…whatever it takes. Leaders are likewise capable of prioritizing things like safe streets, blight, disused land near transit stations, geographic segregation of economic classes, the need for comprehensive services for people experiencing homelessness…all of this and more. Those issues should be getting the priority treatment. Atlantans: don’t be afraid to step up and lead with boldness or to support others who will. Stand up to the voices that dismiss ideas about good urbanism by claiming “that won’t work here” or “Atlanta isn’t that kind of place.” A great city is never a single kind of place. It has multiple personalities that all serve a diverse and changing population. Innovations in urbanism can have a positive impact on all those people and help the city roll with the changes in a sustainable way.If a leader tells you that Atlanta is “world class” because it has attractions and offices that appeal to suburbanites, challenge that view. A great city center doesn’t exist to serve suburbs. Instead, it’s a livable place that carefully juggles the needs of residents and visitors together, while prioritizing the former rather than the latter. And that city center has to be surrounded by equitable, vibrant places that compliment each other more so than they contrast each other. Rather than a disconnected collection of neighborhoods of varying health, Atlanta should be a city of strong neighborhoods – ones that invite economic diversity and that fit together with roads that safely facilitate the full range of multimodal traffic.All these moving parts need to be guided by leadership that understands the best and boldest ideas for urban livability and vibrancy. The parts have to move like gears in a big, beautiful machine. A machine that’s like a big rocket. This city is a rocket ship.Your pal,Darin Givens
7 Last Things #2: a few final thoughts about Atlanta as I retire the ATL Urbanist blog after 5 and a half years.While doing research for blog posts over the years, I’ve looked at a lot of mapped demographic data about Atlanta. The most striking images I’ve come across in that time are the ones that show the divided concentrations of races and economic classes throughout the city. This division is something that has come to concern me more and more in recent years, and I wonder if it’s an issue that we talk about, as a city, as often as we should.There are certainly Atlanta neighborhoods where diversity can be found. In the area around Woodruff Park where we live, you can’t walk four blocks on a busy afternoon without passing a variety of people who represent different cultures, races, and age and economic groups. But research tells us that this is not the norm for the city at large, where separations by race and economic class are stark – and they carry a significant impact. Say it with me: we are segregated. It’s an actual thing that’s happening. The top half of the image below, from a 1980s newspaper article, shows the way that majority-black neighborhoods were concentrated in distinct sections of Atlanta at the start of that decade. The bottom half matches those sections with residents who seldom received mortgages from banks or savings and loans from 1981-86. High quality mortgages were reserved for residents of the majority-white neighborhoods.When you look at this division of populations in Atlanta from many years ago (along with the discrimination in home loans), you might shrug it off with a sigh and think “well, that’s the way things were back then, during a period that was not that far removed from the segregation era.” That was then, but this is now, right? Maybe not. Here are some maps from an Atlanta Regional Commission report that show how sharply divided the geography of the city has been within the past few years. The geography of race and poverty match up in a clearly visible way.While it’s true that some level of geographic segregation is found in every U.S. city, it would be wrong to say that Atlanta’s divide is average. We’ve got it bad. Using a statistical measure called a “diversity index,” with data from a Brown University study of census tracts, this recent study finds the City of Atlanta to be the second-most racially segregated city in the U.S. And though geographic segregation isn’t mentioned in the report, one can’t help but assume that it plays a part in the fact that a recent Brookings study found that Atlanta has the biggest gap between rich and poor people in the country. Racial division and economic inequality are both startlingly high in Atlanta.The negative effects of this division are undeniableSo what’s wrong with this picture? Is there any real down side to having these spatially divided communities in Atlanta? Let’s look at some of the negative effects of segregation by race and class. First off, there’s the psychological effect. An excellent piece in the Washington Post titled “Rich people, surrounded by other rich people, think the U.S. is richer than it really is“ explores the ways in which these physical separations can trick residents of solidly-affluent communities into thinking their culture is more prevalent than it is. According to the article, a report published in a psychology journal found that people living in those bubbles of affluence have a skewed view of the existence of poverty in their own cities, and it gives them a diminished opinion of public programs for the poor. It’s easy to imagine why they might make this mistake: If you look around you and see few poor people — on the street, in your child’s classroom, at the grocery store — you may think poverty is pretty rare.Then there’s the economic-ladder effect. A recent piece in Creative Loafing reported that “an estimated 80 percent of black children in Atlanta live in high-poverty neighborhoods…versus 43 percent of Latino kids and only 6 percent of white ones.” It’s no wonder then that a 2013 study found that a child raised in poverty in metro Atlanta has “only a 4 percent chance of making it to the top of the income scale, worse than any other major American metro area.”In addition to hurting their ability to rise in economic class, kids experience a string of other negative impacts when growing up in communities of poverty. Someone in Atlanta who thinks about and works with this reality is Bee Nguyen. The founder of a local nonprofit that works with underserved teen girls, she’s put together a series of forums titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Race that explore relations between races. She knows that our spatial separations play a part in inequality.Referring to the east-west interstate that has historically served as a physical barrier between black and white Atlanta, Nguyen recently told me that “There’s a great education disparity between north of I-20 and south of I-20.” She says that the negative side of geographic segregation has an educational component. “When you have failing schools, the neighborhood itself is not thriving. In conjunction with the schools you have food deserts a higher crime rate and lower access to health care.”Finally, while segregation is hurting Atlanta’s kids, it could also end up hurting our budgets, by making the entire region feel a pinch when it comes to federal support. This year, the Obama Administration announced changes in the way federal housing money will be distributed. Metropolitan areas will have to measure segregation and move toward solutions in order to get the money. How did we get here? Will things ever change?To gain a better understanding of the source of our geographic divide, I turned to Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta by Ronald Bayor. It’s a fascinating read and I highly recommend it. The book is far-ranging, but the things that interested me most were details of government-enforced segregation through zoning, and discriminatory housing practices that made it difficult or impossible for many blacks to find quality mortgages – while at the same time maintaining the dominance of white affluence in some neighborhoods. With fifteen years between today and the book’s 2000 publication, I reached out to the author to get a few thoughts on changes in Atlanta since then and also on the way these issues have been framed in recent years (income inequality, affordable housing, and gentrification are currently hot topics in both the national media and in local neighborhood meetings).Here are Ron Bayor’s responses to my questions:————-In the last couple of years, studies have found Atlanta to have very low economic mobility and very high income inequality. It’s a troubling mix. While geography can’t be blamed for both of those problems, do you think that it’s possible that the geographic segregation in Atlanta along lines of race and class has contributed to this lingering (and by some measures, worsening) economic divide? BAYOR: “There is little doubt that class, now more than race, affects Atlanta’s economic problems. The jobs are still found in the suburbs, and the inability for poor people in the inner city, without cars or access to mass transit, to get to those jobs remains a long-term issue. “Rather than investing in an expansion of MARTA or some other form of mass transit, the money is going to business-oriented spending: for example, sports stadiums, that do little for the economic growth of the neighborhoods they are in. I think particularly of the new Falcons stadium.”The subject of housing segregation has been getting a lot of attention recently, both politically and in the media. There’s a growing focus on the goal of promoting racially integrated neighborhoods. Given Atlanta’s unique history of housing practices and its own fight for racial equality, do you think that the city is in a better or worse position when it comes to making progress with better integrating neighborhoods?BAYOR: “There definitely is progress in integrating neighborhoods but not to the level expected when Atlanta moved away from legal segregation. The city’s neighborhoods and schools remain largely segregated. Some of this segregation is due to bank mortgage policies and to real estate salespeople directing whites and blacks to different areas. “On the plus side is the movement of middle class blacks into market rate housing in the city where they live with middle class whites. On the negative side is the suburban segregation as in south Dekalb, the continuation of racially and economically segregated areas in the city, and the lack of government attention to those neighborhoods both economically and politically. “This situation is not unique to Atlanta and is evident in many cities north and south. The failure of Atlanta’s government to improve economically English Avenue and Vine City in general over many administrations is an example of neglect that perpetuates economic and racial segregation.”————-With this issue, the home of Martin Luther King, Jr. should lead, not lagThe discrimination that informed Atlanta’s current geographic divide was both intentional and multifaceted. The solutions that remedy the lingering effects of this divide will likewise need to be intentional and multifaceted. The issue is incredibly complex and can be painful to talk about. But in a city with a rich history of protest against discrimination and segregation, I think it’s right that we should be able to talk about it.Surely the home of Martin Luther King, Jr. shouldn’t be a leader in segregation and its ills. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for Atlantans to be national leaders when it comes to addressing this difficult topic with compassion and with wisdom?One place to start might be a recognition of those times when we come together in a diverse group. Riding MARTA during the week day commute; shopping at Your Dekalb Farmer’s Market, the Curb Market; attending sports events – these are examples of places where we can be in the company of Atlanta’s full range of demographic communities.And while recognizing the diversity in those places and experiences, also question the things that set us apart from each other as residents in our less diverse neighborhoods. Is it “good schools”? (That’s a tricky issue that often divides us along class lines, as school rankings are often a reflection of levels of affluence.) Is it home values? Perceived safety concerns? An effort to gain political clout for a specific community? Question all of these things, Atlanta, and talk about our segregation with a clear knowledge of current conditions, a concern for the future, and a recognition of the past. EDITED TO ADD: For some info on the way that the divided geography of class and race in Atlanta affects public health, see this recent post of mine.
7 Last Things #3: a few final thoughts about Atlanta as I retire the ATL Urbanist blog after 5 and a half years. My name is Darin Givens and I’m an eco-urbanist. Everything I’ve written on this blog for the past five and a half years has been informed by my devotion to the idea that we need to make our urban places – our “built environments” – as compact as possible in order to spare room for natural ecosystems, or unbuilt environments.This is a *tough* concept to talk about. I’ve gotten some blank stares when I bring it up. On this third-to-last post on my Tumblr blog, I’m going to take a stab at explaining what it means and I’ll also explore the challenges of being an eco-urbanist in Atlanta, a region known for its low-density urban sprawl. The ecosystems of the Georgia Piedmont, the natural area on top of which Atlanta sits, have suffered greatly from urban sprawl. Nature needs space and connectivity – so it’s a problem when urbanized areas become spread out in a zig-zag form, like a net. Imagine the thick cords of that net being the roads and buildings of metro Atlanta, and only little pockets of disconnected nature are able to poke through the holes. We’re fragmenting nature and that hurts biodiversity. [“Urban sprawl, west Atlanta metro area, Douglas County, Georgia,” photo by Flickr user by Alan Cressler]Containing Atlanta’s urban explosion Is this kind of sprawl inevitable in Atlanta? There are people who claim that it is, chiefly because we have no barrier to contain it like other cities do. Consider Boulder, Colorado. It has a physical barrier – a massive mountain range – that prevents it from spreading out in all directions. In Atlanta we have no coastline, no mountains to provide a barrier to prevent an outward explosion of urbanization. That makes us more like Austin, Texas.But even though Austin also lacks a coast or a mountain range, it doesn’t sprawl outward like Atlanta does. Why? Largely because of planning. They’ve focused on preventing it there since the 1990s. [Image source]I don’t accept the “no natural barrier” argument for Atlanta’s sprawl. Certainly the lack of barriers provides a challenge, but it shouldn’t serve as an excuse for harmful practices. We don’t need mountains or coastline. We can use a combination of respect for nature and good urban planning to guide development in a more sustainable direction. If there’s a single phrase that sums up eco-urbanism, it’s: “if you love nature, live as far away from it as possible.” Of course we do absolutely need greenery and trees and parks in our cities to make them livable and attractive. Just don’t mistake those fragmented pieces of nature for something they are not: healthy ecosystems with complete habitats for a full diversity of native plants and animals.Why do I stay in Atlanta?So why am I here? Why do I stay in Atlanta instead of moving to NYC or some other place where the goodness of compact cities is already understood on a wide scale?There are two reasons: change and inspiration. This place is always changing, and I’m constantly inspired by the good people here who are dedicated to making sure that this change takes a positive direction. Now here’s the thing about change – it’s messy. There’s good and bad. But the key takeaway is that the Atlanta region isn’t static, so there’s a chance to take the challenges born from that “bad” change and turn them into opportunities for improving the region. Messy changes = interesting opportunitiesFor example, consider the major demographic shift happening in our suburbs, where poverty has grown by leaps and bounds. [Image source]From 2000-2011, poverty grew in the Atlanta suburbs by 159 percent; a much higher rate of growth than what was seen in the city. This has resulted in a situation where people who can’t afford a working automobile are increasingly living in car-centric places that were built for middle class residents – ones who had little trouble buying cars and keeping them in working order. At first this seems like the type of change that is irredeemably negative. But consider this: a boom in suburban residents who need alternative transportation options could result in greater political will for transit expansion, bike paths, and improved sidewalk coverage in places that have lacked those things.Population growth in general can be a messy type of change. The Atlanta region is expected to house 8 million people by 2040, up from the current 5.5 million count. This growth is inevitable in a world that is increasingly more populous and that is seeing a constant shift toward urban areas, and away from rural ones. But here again, the pressure of accommodating all these new people could prove to be a driving force in adopting more sustainable new developments – ones that fill in the gaps of already-urbanized areas rather than continuing to expand our footprint outward. Atlantans who inspireThat’s where my second source of hope comes in: the inspired ideas of this generation of Atlantans. These aforementioned challenges – and many more – can be met by engaged citizens who want this to be a place that’s easier to walk and bike in, who want better transit, and greater equability in economic opportunities. From my experience, this generation seems to be understanding that tweaks to the structural form of the city can play a big part in meeting these challenges.From popular happenings like Streets Alive to events organized by the local chapter of Congress for New Urbanism and the Center for Civic Innovation, the outlets for getting together, getting involved, reaching out and affecting policy are growing every year. Here are a couple of examples of the way that inspired ideas and positive change can end up creating good urbanism in Atlanta:1.) 50 percent of new properties developed in the region from 2009-2014 happened in walkable urban places. This includes developments including those near MARTA stations and ones near the Beltline, like Ponce City Market (pictured below, with extra cool points for reusing an old building). It’s a promising trend for good urbanism in general, and it’s an environmentally sound type of growth, because apartments, offices and stores are getting built within the existing urban footprint rather than over undeveloped land on the fringes. 2.) Positive transportation changes have happened as well. Bike commuting rose 400 percent in the first decade of this century in Atlanta. MARTA use is rising. These are positive trends that will continue to produce fewer daily car trips per household and hopefully a reduced need for land-hogging car infrastructure over time.With all the changes and inspired ideas in Atlanta, I’d say cautiously that we’re basically winning when it comes to growing in a better form. But there’s a big caveat to that: there’s no plan in most places in the region for preventing new sprawl from happening. News stories come out from time to time heralding the end of doldrums in the construction industry thanks to a new subdivision getting built in the exurbs. Convincing leaders of the benefits of good urbanism should be an ongoing effort. Another big caveat: find someone who lives in the region’s existing car-centric sprawl – who can’t afford a functioning car – and that person will probably not agree that we’re “winning.” For the sake of both safety and class equity, retrofitting sprawl for further infill and for walkable infrastructure is something that local governments across the region need to address. But isn’t sprawl part of Atlanta’s identity?Can Atlanta achieve widespread buy-in on the benefits of better built environments? Or do we just throw our hands up and accept the news headlines that tell us Atlanta is the sprawl king of the U.S. and allow that to be a key part of our regional identity? I say “no!” Reject that identity. These sprawled-out, car-centric environments have become a social justice issue and an environmental justice issue. This is, in essence, our New Orleans flood. It’s our Detroit economic devastation. And just as those places are now defined by the way they are overcoming those hurdles, Atlanta can be the place that overcomes sprawl damage. This is the generation that can do it. So let’s embrace that new identity and own the issue, for the sake of creating a healthier society and a healthier environment. Sweetwater Creek State Park
7 Last Things: #4. A few final thoughts on Atlanta as I retire the ATL Urbanist blog. The Atlanta region is famous for its car-centric sprawl, which separates houses and destinations from each other – via distance and street configuration – in a way that demands car trips. We often think of this type of built environment as being exclusive to the outer suburbs, but that isn’t true. When it comes to mobility options there’s good and bad to be found in both the burbs and the city. Just as there are wonderfully walkable places in the outskirts of the region (check out downtown Woodstock), elements of car-dependency can can end up marring even our best intown efforts at walkable urban development. A mixed-use, compact place like Atlantic Station (below) can be a pleasure to walk through once you’re inside. But approaching it on foot or bike from another neighborhood is a challenge – and the streets themselves are at fault.Writer James Russell noticed this phenomenon, which I call ‘drive-to urbanism’, when visiting Atlanta recently. After checking out the string of mixed-use density around the White Provisions complex on Howell Mill Road, he wrote a post that ends up being overly harsh, but that has good insights nonetheless: “Sprawling Atlanta Tries to Be a City”:“There are sidewalk fragments along Howell Mill Road, but you wouldn’t call it walkable. The area itself is isolated from the rest of the city, as so many neighborhoods are, by highway and other infrastructure corridors.” The affordability factor Those challenges for pedestrian and cycling mobility on roads like this make for a situation where builders likely expect that people will drive to communities – even mixed-use, compact ones – and understandably provide a lot of parking. But all that parking raises the cost of rents, exacerbating what is already a growing affordability problem intown. A study shows that the average dollar amount that a parking space adds to housing costs is $225 per month, but keep in mind that this number falls in the middle a a really wide range of values. In a place with really high land values and construction costs – such as Midtown Atlanta for instance – this monthly costs would be much higher.So there’s a lot to be gained from building better connections to our new communities. Walkability and affordability can both be improved by making our streets more attractive for trips outside of a car. To get some insight on what the city can do to address this need, I spoke with Tim Keane, Atlanta’s head of planning. ——–Interview with Tim Keane, Commissioner of Planning, City of AtlantaHow can the city address the problem of what I call “drive-to urbanism,” where you have little pockets of walkable density that aren’t connected to each other or to the rest of the city by any means – at least not in a comfortable and safe way – other than car?The step that will address the issue you’re raising is a complete rethinking of the streets. Not in a small way but in a big way. Not, “should we repair the sidewalk and put in the ADA ramp,” but to utterly think of the right of way as a different thing.The streets in Atlanta, with very few exceptions, are completely maxed out for the car. We’ve scraped out every bit of the right of way, over many years, for cars. And for cyclists and pedestrians it’s a bit unnerving. That’s something we’re really going to need to face over the next few years, having to carve out space from our streets – from the cars and for the others.The quality of life in our city, going forward, is completely dependent on the way we can remake our streets for something other than cars – for walking, for cycling. Whereas before we thought the only way to get our quality of life higher was to get the congestion down and get the cars through the intersection faster, now it’s the opposite of that. And not in the suburbs, where you’ll probably want to still eke out every bit of space for cars; but in the city.The city can’t be a better suburb than the suburbs. All we can do is be a better city. We’ve got that market. We’re the city. Well, what does it mean to be a better city? What it means is that you can walk and ride your bike and get on a bus or a train for some things. Let’s take Marietta Street and Howell Mill Road. Those streets could be remade into streets where you’d love to ride your bike or go for a walk.And this includes people who drive everywhere and never get out of their car. We all share this. This is not an us versus them thing. You might drive to every single thing you do. You might drive two blocks to the drug store.The issue, though, is that your trip two blocks to the drug store is going to get more difficult whether we remake the streets for bikes and peds and transit or not. As a matter of fact you might argue that it’ll get even worse if we don’t because not only you – who wants to drive two blocks to the drug store – but everybody else who’d rather walk or bike has to drive. It’s as simple as that.Do you think that’s something that has to be sold to Atlantans as far as winning over hearts and minds on this issue?Oh my gosh, it’s a huge job. I mean it’s just been proven so many times. This is not something we made up.And what we’re really talking about is you’ve got in places like West Midtown or in lots of places like Ponce City Market where things are getting denser – but what about the urbanism? That means the streets. Yeah, we’re getting denser, but is it becoming an urban place?I would argue that the private sector in many cases is doing a fantastic job. If you look at Atlanta compared to other places just in the south – because in every city people are building stuff like this to some degree – but if you compare Atlanta to what’s going on in Charlotte or Raleigh or other fast growing areas, the quality of the private sector [here] is high, comparatively. Everybody’s trying to innovate architecturally.The issue is the public side of it – the public realm and coming to grips with that kind of remaking. I mean, you’ve got the private realm remaking former industrial properties and commercial properties, remaking them into denser, more urban style forms of living. But what about the public realm?And by “public realm,” you’re mainly talking about the right of way of streets?I’m mainly talking about streets. The reality is that streets are the most prevalent and significant public spaces we have. The city is pursuing the remaking of Martin Luther King Boulevard on the west side. And that should become a great public space.And when it comes to these things I’m not necessarily talking about big streetscape projects where you’re really fancying the street up. That’s not the point. It’s not to be tricky about the streets. It’s to be meaningful about how you allocate space on our streets for everyone. And I mean the cars, the pedestrians, the cyclists, the transit vehicles. Inevitably, what that means, is that the pure right of way that has been devoted to just cars goes down. Perhaps significantly.Chicago has done a great job on some of their streets in downtown. They are carving out space for bikes and transit for this very reason: “We can’t beat the suburbs of Chicago on driving but we [meaning downtown Chicago] can beat them on everything other than driving.” It’s an economic development issue for them. They’ve invested in their bike infrastructure so that jobs would come there.We’ve gotta be really aggressive about bikes because people who are moving to cities, they expect to either not own a car or to not use it that much.