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Who Decides What ‘Good Urbanism’ Means in Atlanta? You Do.

Our recent Urbanism Meetup inspired some great discussion, and it reflected the growing interest among Atlantans toward improving public engagement with the city government to ensure good urbanism. 

Posted on January 23, 2017 by Darin Givens [ATL Urbanist]

By design, ThreadATL is very much a group effort — we need help with defining what “good urbanism” is for Atlanta. It’s a big concept, and clarifying the definition requires input from a lot of residents and planners and leaders and business owners.

Luckily, there’s a growing interest among Atlantans in becoming engaged with the processes that shape the form of our city, and there’s a clearer understanding of the ways in which that form affects us and reflects us on a daily basis. Good urbanism can make our neighborhoods strong. It gives us places that we can love, and becomes an outward sign of the way we want to interact with the city and with each other.

This interest in local placemaking was on display last week at Condesa Coffee where we held our first Urbanism Meetup. (We hope to continue these at other locations around the city.)

The Urbanism Meetup

At the Urbanism Meetup at Condesa Coffee, mayoral candidate Cathy Woolard and City Councilmember Felicia Moore participated in discussion groups. Photo: Lauren Welsh.

When it comes to placemaking in Atlanta, residents have a big role to play. The excitement of helping to turn Atlanta into the city we want is palpable. As Beltline mastermind Ryan Gravel once said: “Atlanta isn’t perfect. But you can redefine what it’s going to be and that’s fun.”

The spirit behind that statement is very much a part of what we want to do with ThreadATL: give city leaders and voters a means of understanding and enabling the best practices in urbanism that have emerged in cities around the country and around the world in recent years. Having gatherings and discussions about these ideas is going to be an essential part of the effort.

To get the conversation going, we asked the attendees of last week’s well-attended meetup to break up into discussion groups and answer some basic questions. What is good urbanism? How to we spread the message to people beyond the bubble of existing urbanists?

Below are some of the notes that were taken within the discussion groups.

Notes from the Discussion Groups

From Daniel Snider, who’s developing a tool for funding local projects, called Pillyr. His group mostly discussed “What things could be done immediately to improve the urbanism of neighborhoods?”:

  • Fix streetlights…effective lighting improves safety and encourages residents to use and occupy spaces (ex. why was the mural done at Boulevard Tunnel not paired with effective lighting? At night residents still avoid that tunnel on foot.)
  • Sheltered bus stops. We can request them through MARTA but if funding is an issue then we can look at interested neighborhood residents to raise funds to purchase them.
  • Working with MARTA Army to keep stations clean and route information accessible at bus stops. Many major cities offer schedules, and more effective apps to keep commuters informed.
  • Streets Alive is one of the best examples of tactical urbanism in the city. It gives residents a chance to experience major streets by foot or bike without the danger of rushing vehicles. More can be done to “occupy” some of these permitted/temporary public spaces with seating, pop-up libraries, cafes, etc.
  • Support local urban agriculture. The city of Atlanta has set a goal of providing a local food source within 1/2 a mile of 75% of Atlanta residents by 2020. We may be a city in a forest but are many rooftops, abandoned lots, and other properties that could benefit from hosting new green/agricultural spaces.
  • The city’s process to approve public art is tedious one. Eventually this needs to be streamlined but in the meantime promoting and funding public art, especially small projects that are supported by neighborhoods/NPUs.

From Brandon Ley, co-owner of Joystick Gamebar and Georgia Beer Garden. His group mostly discussed “What are the biggest hurdles to good urbanism in Atlanta?”:

  • The through-line of all topics seemed to be that the city doesn’t engage in neighborhood building because everything comes from the top down and not from the citizens up.
  • We had a long talk about the NPU system and how it needs to have more teeth and be more effective through technology and engagement on the city’s part.
  • Since we had Felicia Moore and Cathy Woolard in our discussion for a while, we focused a lot on the shortcomings of the city government, especially when it comes to listening to what people want. It was said that it feels like the City Council works for the mayor and for reelection, not the people.
  • Look at advocating for changes to strengthen our NPU system. It is something only Atlanta has and (to get poetic) it is the thread that connects the citizens to the government. We need to address the disparities in power and effectiveness between the different NPUs and connect the different NPUs to each other so that they function within the scope of a larger, overall vision for the city. Think of what a monthly meeting of 25 NPU representatives and 16 City Council members could do. Council would have to answer more directly to it’s citizens.

From Darin Givens, ThreadATL co-founder. My group mostly talked about “What is Good Urbanism? What does it look like in our city?”:

  • Better engagement: Taking advantage of information technology to reach out to residents for engagement. Not everyone’s going to go to an NPU meeting. Engagement shouldn’t be the exclusive to people who’s schedules allow them to be in those NPU meetings or who have the time to catch up with how those meetings work.
  • Showing results: the city should have ways of showing what the results of engagement are. Did the time you spent on providing your input matter?
  • Respect for people: Good urbanism is participatory and it respects resident’s ideas. It should always respect the value of the people who live in the community.
  • Respect for places: understand the value that buildings have to neighborhoods. The history and stories that residents conenct to old buildings is something the city should weigh in all development decisions. Example from the Wesstside of how the city can get this wrong: the old YMCA building that was torn down and replaced with a new structure, against the wishes of many in the neighborhood.

The whole event was very inspiring. I’m looking forward to seeing more of these happen in the future and to continue these conversations.

As an urbanism-advocacy group, ThreadATL is about seven months old. Matt Garbett and I are the ones who’ve been doing most of the interviews and hosting of gatherings so far, but there’s a team of people who work to keep this group going.

That team is slowly-but-surely propelling this effort into something with an actual organizational structure, one that will hopefully have 501(c)3 status some day. If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer, please sign up!