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Atlanta: positive energy, positive future?

Atlanta is a city defined by the Olympics.

The 1996 Summer Games left their mark on this fast-growing capital city, both in appearance and in the thinking of its citizens. There is more housing, more safety measures, more trees. People have a more positive outlook. But can this positive energy make Atlanta a sustainable city? That's a question - and a challenge - for the years ahead.

"The Olympics definitely left a green legacy," says Trees Atlanta Executive Director Marcia Bansley of her work and others'. "Four parks got complete makeovers...the area where Centennial Park stands is now green where it wasn't before, and they're in the process of greening it further by planting portions that were asphalted to support temporary Olympic venues.

"But there's a non-green legacy, too. There is a lot more asphalt around what was the Olympic Stadium, which will be a huge heat island. There should be more trees there."

Trees. Because of the many benefits they provide - filtering out air pollution, slowing stormwater, cooling the summer heat - trees are a key to, and a symbol of, sustainability. Atlanta has come a long way since it ranked last in AMERICAN FORESTS' 1991 20-city survey of urban forests, but it still has a ways to go.

Environmental thinking "is not a universal concept," Bansley says. "The biggest help as far as what's in people's consciousness are the satellite images that AMERICAN FORESTS made of Atlanta's tree loss over time that were published on the front page of The Atlanta Journal/Constitution. (Those images showed tree loss and temperature build-up between 1972 and 1993; see "Atlanta's Changing Environment," Spring 1996 American Forests). That's embedded in people's memory because it looks so much like cancer. It's obviously a devastation...

"At the same time, we have huge development forces in Atlanta. People want growth, and even I would say I want a city that's growing versus one that's dead. So it's a very hard balance to reach."

And that's particularly true in light of the Summer Games, which gave the city something to build on. "The Olympic Games gave Atlanta quite a number of boosts," says Georgia State University president Carl V. Patton. "In terms of international recognition, people have a better idea of what Atlanta is as a city; and it created housing, which helped move Atlanta toward becoming a 24-hour city."

"Downtown housing has clearly promoted the development of neighborhood," says Patton. It's multicultural, multiracial, and crosses age and job spectrums."

Patton is one of the new generation of hands-on city leaders, a man who in the last five years has turned Georgia State into a truly urban university, at the same time recognizing the rich resource that is Atlanta's downtown and how each could benefit from the other.

Patton is currently president of the nonprofit Atlanta Downtown Partnership and co-chairman of the Housing Task Force of Central Atlanta Progress (CAP), a nonprofit organization of the city's top business executives. CAP'S pre-Olympic goals included more housing downtown and increased safety for residents and visitors (accomplished through the creation of a 55-member Ambassador Force). It also established the nonprofit COPA (Centennial Olympic Park Area, Inc.) to spur development along the western perimeter of Olympic Park, and there is now on the drawing board an $88 million hotel, housing, and office development interlaced with greenspace. Also being studied: the feasibility of a business park on 50 acres northwest of the park in a federal empowerment zone, which gives special tax incentives for businesses hiring residents out of the zone - a projected 1,500 jobs.

Dominated now by Centennial Olympic Park, the city's downtown is far greener than it used to be (more than 12,000 trees were planted before the Olympics), there are new sports facilities, hotel occupancy rates remain high, citizens are using MARTA more, and, most important, there is renewed optimism and pride.

Says Ronnie French, executive director of the Atlanta Downtown Partnership, "The Olympics made everybody a believer, not only in themselves, but in the city."

Challenges Ahead

Atlanta's city-building may be well underway, but major challenges loom ahead. Georgia State's Patton details some of the concerns: The need for a commuter rail system that will ease the trip downtown for residents of north Georgia, a change in the state Constitution to allow motor fuel taxes to help finance mass transit. Any delays in funding transportation alternatives, he warns, will precipitate a transportation crisis.

And that's something the city cannot afford. Atlanta's metro region is the eighth largest in America, and by 2020 will have an estimated 4.2 million residents. It leads the nation in residential housing growth, with a typical suburbanite driving nearly 39,000 miles a year on clogged expressways in sometimes polluted air.

Edward Macie, regional urban forestry coordinator, U.S. Forest Service, southern region, feels the tug-of-war so common in growing cities. An Atlanta resident for the last 15 years, he says, "People are trying to reconnect with nature, recognizing that our current value system is discordant."

Macie feels frustrated that "Leadership on the local level and leadership in general just doesn't get it. It's So complicated, and the connection between how we're dealing with land use and quality of life is not fully made."

There is a natural time lag between cause and effect, between land use changes and environmental quality, and often that connection is not made a drop in water quality that can be traced back to a loss in forest cover, for example. Macie likens it to a group of people in a room with an open faucet. Everyone runs around with mops and buckets cleaning up the spilled water, but no one has the foresight to actually turn the water off.

But Macie does see rays of hope and some enlightened thinking."It's because of groups like the Georgia Conservancy that we have Cumberland Island; it's because of people like Marcia Bansley that we have the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area and all the trees downtown; there is Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, the Etowah Land Trust, the Georgia chapter of the Trust for Public Land. In fact, the growth of land trusts is phenomenal. Twenty years ago, there was only a handful nationwide; now there are over 1,000.

"I'm even starting to hear some encouraging dialogue from a few elected officials - like my county commissioner, who is talking about sustainability," Macie says. "But even for those who understand it, there is that striking a balance between economic, environmental, and social needs.

"When you think of balance or compromise, you usually think of giving something up. But it's not that; it's a win-win," he adds. "Let's build our cities with some environmental sensitivity; let's build our future to think of the impacts of our actions - sustain economic growth but sustain the environment, while helping the public understand how the resource is working and how it's all linked."

One group helping the public understand how everything is linked is the nonprofit Georgia Conservancy, led by its dynamic president and CEO Carolyn Boyd Hatcher. The Conservancy saw that other cities facing similar dilemmas had adopted "neo-urbanism." "That's a revisitation to the traditional idea that people want to live in neighborhoods, not subdivisions," says Hatcher. "They want to know their neighbors; they want to live where there is mixed housing of older and younger folks and people with different incomes, where you can walk to the store to get a loaf of bread, a newspaper, an ice cream cone."

"We're feeling positive economically - there's a bright future ahead, but the challenge is to manage growth and maintain air quality," says Julie Ralston, director of communications for the Atlanta Regional Commission, the 10-county region's orificial planning agency. "That's going to mean some changes in the way we're developing. If it's the same way as the past 20 years, we could destroy the goose that laid the golden egg."

Before ARC finishes its December 1997 plans - for transportation, water supply, and economic development to guide the area's growth through 2020 - it is inviting citizens to help shape the region's future. Since 1993, ARC has been conducting public forums to review and evaluate different ways the Atlanta region might develop, and the implications of each.

People are beginning to realize that change needs to happen if the Atlanta area is to have clean air and water and reduced congestion, Ralston says.

Hatcher believes the Georgia Conservancy is helping to make that change. "We influence the decisionmakers: the real estate developers, the bankers who loan the money to them, the government officials who make the decisions about zoning and planning.

To that end, the Conservancy has created a Blueprints for Successful Communities program, a series of seminars that it adapted for the Atlanta area. "Included are alternatives to the current ways of doing things - which was basically just building another road. We're advocating pedestrian-friendly communities with sidewalks, easily accessible public transportation, bicycling paths. This is not to say that some roads aren't needed, but based on need."

Chambers of Commerce in the Atlanta area have made water resources and supply and air quality priority issues. They are trying to change attitudes and lifestyles through public education, says Aneli Nugteren, vice president, environmental affairs for the Atlanta Chamber. Goals include increasing vehicle occupancy and reducing the rate of growth in the number of miles residents drive.

For Atlanta to become a truly sustainable city - and for the world to see it as such - will require an Olympic-sized commitment and effort. With vision, public education, and a commitment to working in concert with nature, the city may once again bring home the gold. As the Conservancy's Hatcher said of the diverse alliances formed by its Blueprint seminars: "We have different agendas but the common goal of sustaining the quality of life in Atlanta."

Nancy Dawe, a freelance photojournalist from Seabrook Island, South Carolina, often covers urban issues for American Forests.
COPYRIGHT 1997 American Forests
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Georgia
Author:Dawe, Nancy Anne
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 22, 1997
Previous Article:Achieving sustainability.
Next Article:Greenways: paths to the future.

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