April 3, 2018

Aspiring to the Beloved Community: How Atlanta Is Preparing for the Future

A historic Atlanta postcard.

photo by: toml1959/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Atlanta, Georgia, and the surrounding metro area is one of the most popular places to set up shop in the TV and film industry, but it’s usually standing in for another city. A few productions that come to mind include Stranger Things, The Hunger Games, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Black Panther, 24, and Passengers. There are dozens more. Can its character be so easily interchangeable with that of other cities? To the creators of the Atlanta City Design Project, the answer is a layered but definitive “no.”

“When you see an image of a city, you know what city you’re looking at—New Orleans, San Francisco, Washington, D.C.,” says Ryan Gravel, a planner and designer who oversaw the Atlanta City Design Project, which released a 410-page book in September of 2017 called The Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community. It’s a roadmap of sorts that defines the city and sets a path for its future. “Atlanta is a different kind of place for many different reasons that haven’t quite translated yet into the physical form of the city. One of the challenges for a city like Atlanta," Gravel adds, "is that we think about our position in the city relative to the highways."

It’s a logical perspective. An estimated 2 million people use the highway system encircling Atlanta every day. From an aerial perspective of the city, its crawling highways bisecting, curving, and merging obfuscate the rest of the landscape. “Spaghetti Junction,” where I-85 and I-285 intersect, is a nerve-wracking tangle that’s as representative of the city as Centennial Olympic Park. The beltway is an essential component of Atlanta, but it’s not the heart and soul of the city.

“The highways ignore the local condition,” Gravel points out. “You look out at all the traffic and it’s hard to see what this place is about. But when you look beyond the highways and to the natural form of the city, it actually makes a lot of sense.”

Beyond a sea of granite, concrete, and red clay is a city chock-full of history. The land that became known as Atlanta belonged to the Creek people before the British colonized Georgia in the early 1730s. In 1837 a small railroad junction called Terminus cropped up. One decade later, the rapidly growing town was renamed Atlanta. The railroads made Atlanta a valuable asset during the Civil War for both sides. Though most of its buildings had been burned in 1864 by the Union Army, the city rebuilt and its population increased, as did schools, civic institutions, and neighborhoods.

By 1900, streetcar suburbs boomed in Atlanta—neighborhoods like Virginia-Highland and Peachtree Hills exist as reminders today. While streetcars offered an attractive mode of transportation, they also increased racial tensions because the tracks often literally divided neighborhoods by race. Later, sidewalks narrowed to allow easier access for automobiles, which often made pedestrian life in Atlanta difficult, especially for those who couldn’t afford cars (author Margaret Mitchell, who wrote Gone With the Wind, was killed by a car while walking downtown in 1949).

Renaissance Apt. Located on the downtown side of Auburn Avenue.

photo by: Stan Kaady

A view of the Sweet Auburn Historic District.

The fervor for urban growth that captured most of America immediately after World War II could be found in Atlanta, too. Atlanta expanded its physical boundaries, but its racial boundaries expanded at a slower pace. African Americans remained in the city’s center while white inhabitants moved away and towards the developing suburbs. The construction of the Downtown Connector in the 1950s cut through many historically African American neighborhoods, causing further strain. But other neighborhoods thrived, such as Sweet Auburn, a National Treasure of the National Trust. By the mid-20th century, it was the cultural and economic epicenter for African Americans on the east side of Atlanta. Atlanta residents like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy became leading voices for the Civil Rights movement. In 1973, Atlanta elected its first African American mayor, Maynard Jackson.

Neighborhood associations like the Uptowne Neighborhood Association (UNA) were founded starting in the late 1960s by residents of places like Midtown to protect the area’s residential character from development. There are about 150 neighborhood associations today that provide feedback to the city on its growth and development. Other groups cropped up to encourage economic development of places like the Peachtree Corridor Area, which led to big businesses moving downtown. (In 2017, there were 15 Fortune 500 companies with headquarters in Atlanta, and more than 50 percent of all jobs in Atlanta are in the Peachtree Corridor Area.) By the early 1990s, Atlanta’s skyline was dramatically different from its appearance in the middle of the 20th century.

An aerial view of Atlanta.

photo by: Doc Searls/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

An aerial view of the Peachtree Corridor, where many of Atlanta's major businesses are located.

In the past several decades, walkable neighborhoods with diverse building stock and a mix of businesses have grown more attractive to many Americans. Atlanta is going through yet another regeneration, this time with an outcome that takes preservation into account.

It was on that precipice that Gravel began working with the city’s planning commissioner, Tim Keane, and the city’s planning department in 2016 to develop The Atlanta City Design. The document pinpoints the physical form of the city and the aspects that create Atlanta’s character so that the city can develop a path that better reflects those aspects in the coming years.

“A lot of what we have in here isn’t new. It’s things we’ve been talking about in Atlanta for a long time. [The document] was about crafting a narrative about the different dialogues and putting them all in one place,” Gravel notes.

Gravel is quite familiar with Atlanta’s built environment and landscape. For his master’s thesis in 1999 at Georgia Tech, he acknowledged the city’s lack of transportation alternatives and its existing historic railways and developed an idea that evolved into the Atlanta BeltLine. 22 miles and counting of trails along the defunct railway connect neighborhoods and have created spaces for public art, preserved the natural landscape, and renewed interest in nearby shops, restaurants, and neighborhoods, including many filled with historic resources.

It’s not out of the ordinary for a city planning department to monitor aspects like population growth, demographic shifts, and economic development of a city, but viewing Atlanta as a “design,” according to Gravel, is unusual. But it’s also essential for a city that’s still unearthing itself more than a century after its establishment. And the city won’t stop evolving while its planners set about determining what characteristics, tangible and intangible, define it.

Atlanta's population is expected to triple within the next 20 years, placing the emphasis on illuminating a path for its future in the here and now. How does a city stay ahead of that kind of demand while also prioritizing the protection of its historic assets, existing communities, and livability that make it attractive in the first place?

“We have to be more conscious about the physical place we’re creating,” says Gravel.

To figure out how Atlanta should look in the future, Gravel and the team navigated the city’s history to see what really defines it. They kept coming back to its role in the Civil Rights movement. In a 1957 speech at Brandeis University, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted that the attainable ideal for the movement was to create a “beloved community,” where neighbors are compassionate and inclusive, living peaceably together, without friction. Atlanta was King’s home and community, and his legacy is still very much ingrained in the city.

“We have to be more conscious about the physical place we’re creating.”

Ryan Gravel

If the ideal is that Atlanta will burgeon into a beloved community, what needs to happen? What would that kind of Atlanta look like? The city lost many of its oldest buildings during the Civil War, and its skyline now consists of highrise glass commercial structures offset with the occasional one-story masonry building; sprawl is a major issue. It’s home to the world’s busiest airport, and it’s become one of the leading Southern cities to move to. To become a beloved community, as it turns out, involves several components.

The Atlanta City Design is an all-encompassing document. “Whether you’re talking about a transportation project or a preservation plan, the starting point is the Atlanta City Design,” says Gravel.

Gravel developed five core values that best describe Atlanta: equity, nature, access, ambition, and progress. These are often values that urban centers struggle to obtain or maintain. The Atlanta City Design includes some examples of how to apply these values to Atlanta. These involve protecting neighborhoods associated with the city’s Civil Rights legacy, paying closer attention to housing affordability, protecting the city’s ecological resources along the Chattahoochee River, improving public transportation for everyone living in Atlanta, or rezoning neighborhoods to reduce traffic. If Atlanta can find a balance between the five values, it’s very possible that it can become (and continue to be) a truly livable city.

The Atlanta City Design isn’t a straight-up preservation blueprint for the city. But neither does it ignore the worth of Atlanta’s historic assets, either. The theme of preservation is woven into the document. One can find its presence in the section on rebirth, which notes that recent reinvestment in Atlanta’s streetcar neighborhoods has led to increased desire for pedestrian access and proximity to downtown amenities, priorities that the National Trust has discovered are widespread.

In the section on progress, Gravel notes that good examples of moving forward include protecting existing places that are important to people. The Atlanta City Design prioritizes the preservation of nature, too. Atlanta’s tree canopy coverage is generous, and ensuring that its natural habitat is protected while the city grows is one of the tenets of good growth and progress. And within the section on progress, Gravel identifies the necessity of developing a Civil Rights legacy plan that preserves important landmarks associated with the movement, as well as prioritizing the economic case for preservation of Atlanta’s defining historic areas.

“We don’t want to become a different place,” says Gravel. “We want to become a better version of Atlanta.”

Meghan White Headshot

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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