Global tech trends tell us that the current business climate is driven by powerful digital forces, and that every company is now a technology company: “whereas technology was traditionally confined largely to operations and execution, its digital expression now informs all aspects of business, from ideation to delivery,” reads Deloitte’s latest report on the matter. With the global headquarters of Coca-Cola, UPS, Delta Airlines and Turner Broadcasting on its soil, and one of America’s most competitive film and television production industries, Atlanta, Georgia, is no stranger to the technological shifts and line-blurring big industry is experiencing. These global trends which, if anything, indicate a greater opportunity through agility and overlap, are not only confined to companies; they also extend to cities – the beating hearts of states. Some cities are better than others in capitalizing on these trends and recreating themselves in an ever changing world. Atlanta is an example of a resilient, innovative city that is visionary and is constantly improving itself through industries and communities and, often, a convergence of both.
However, like many cities which grow rapidly, Atlanta is not without its problems and an inefficient urban sprawl, characterized by disparate residential settlements and gated communities, is one of the city’s most pressing issues. While the city climbs the ranks in terms of economic growth, business environment and career prospects, its lifestyle is anecdotally confined to cars, walkability and use of public transport is low and economic segregation is high. Nevertheless, Atlanta’s administration have found new, novel and disruptive ways to tackle the problems caused by its unequal development, while finding opportunities in its shortcomings – and very often, these solutions are formed in a collaborative manner, co-opting the private sector, academia and other non-governmental organizations.
Atlanta was built in 1837 at the intersection of two railroad lines thus making it a transport and logistics hub, and a gateway to the American South. And it still remains at the forefront of mobility: Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport has been the world’s busiest airport every year since 1998 and the city’s position at the convergence of three major interstates, I-20, I-75 and I-85, made it a popular location for young professionals and the natural home for shipping giants UPS. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s history as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement and, later, the home of Southern Hip-Hop, made the city a magnet for young, culturally-aware Southerners, who flocked to the developing metropolis through the 1970s and 80s. And that’s not to mention festivals that attract thousands of music lovers to Atlanta every year: the Atlanta Jazz Festival, ELEVATE Arts Festival and A3C Hip Hop Festival, just to name a few. With its transport links, Atlanta also became one of the most popular locations for foreign diplomatic missions in the US, and is ranked the seventh most visited city for business travel in the US. However, the rapid urbanization the city experienced, peaking with Atlanta’s hosting of the Summer Olympics in 1996, caused development to expand outwards: the city’s geography, unbound by neither mountains nor waterfronts, enabled a horizontal sprawl that continues to plague the city. Atlanta is home to about 5.2 million people, and is the ninth most populous metropolitan statistical area in the US. Between 2000 and 2010, its population increased by 24% and its urban land area expanded by 35%. However, only around half a million people live in the city proper.
“Atlanta has very low density; the west and south sides of Atlanta have been depopulated, so there’s a tremendous potential for growth. The question we need to answer now is “how does the city become a city in the sense of a public realm?” admits Tim Keane, Atlanta’s Commissioner of Planning and Community Development. In order to fight back, Atlanta has been promoting “smart growth” and mixed development projects in which homes and businesses would be within walking distance of one another, thus enabling Atlantans to commute less by car and walk more. The first phase of a streetcar system has been installed, the underground subway system, MARTA, is functional (though unpopular) and a new bike sharing project will be launched this summer. “Under Mayor Kassim Reed’s leadership, our goal is to be a top sustainable city in the country, and that includes being a top city for bicycle travel,” reiterates Richard Mendoza, Atlanta’s Commissioner of Public Works.
The first impactful move in re-connecting the city is the Atlanta BeltLine – an adaptive reuse project which, in its first phase alone, connected 45 neighborhoods by redeveloping train tracks into a mixed-use public recreational trail. Originating as a master’s thesis by Ryan Gravel at Georgia Tech, the city, private enterprise and community leaders came together to make it a reality. “The Westside Trail, currently under construction, will encompass another three-mile strip out of a total 22 miles circular plan,” confirms Clyde Higgs, Atlanta BeltLine Inc. Chief Operating Officer. “Even though there are trees and gardens everywhere, Atlanta is one of the most under-parked cities in the country per capita,” says Lee Harrop, Program Director at Atlanta BeltLine Inc. of the lack of availability of green, public space. “Luckily, when the BeltLine project began, the city had issued a lot of park development bonds and the two forces working together made sure land acquisition for parks was around the existing trails. Not only did it enable the creation of parks, but, essentially, a network of parks.” Meanwhile, Atlanta BeltLine Inc. has committed to develop affordable housing around the trails. “We’re not just building, but we’re restoring existing ones which have become unlivable,” says Paul Morris, Atlanta BeltLine Inc. CEO, referring to the depopulated west and southwest areas of the city. “We just finished one that’s all three-bedroom; affordable family homes are rare in any city. Meanwhile, the city is looking to institutionalize inclusionary zoning across the whole of Atlanta. In our calculations, the stock of affordable housing that can be created would double if this legislation passes.”
The revitalization of depopulated neighborhoods, including Atlanta’s once-bustling Downtown, is also being ushered by other city-stakeholders. With an international airport for easy travel to and from California, pilgrims heading for Atlanta include movie makers and media producers, resulting in a multi-billion dollar industry thanks to state-wide tax incentives for production: a prominent example of the merge between government, transport and media production. In addition to the economic impact of $6 billion, the Motion Picture Association of America declared that “the 158 feature film and television productions shot in Georgia in 2014 generated more than 77,900 jobs, including nearly 23,500 workers directly employed by the two industries.” Chris Hicks, the newly-appointed Director of the Mayor’s Office of Film and Entertainment, explains to us the new educational programs in media production in development to provide the film-ready local talent necessary for such large scale productions: “We want to establish a pool of talent here that the projects that come here can choose from, this will ensure sustainability. We want to be able to help the city from a developmental standpoint and so we’re looking to gain the power to be able to green-light projects instead of just receiving projects approved by the State of Georgia. One huge area we’re hoping to do this for is digital entertainment. There’s a wealth of new outlets just focused on that.”
By being agile, early-adopters, Atlanta has the potential for being a huge hub for digital media. “Media producers come to Atlanta and benefit from our wide range – from scenic countryside to great, urban architecture. But then they go home,” says Hicks. However, with long-established media credentials since the formation of CNN in Atlanta in 1980, and an ever-growing pool of technical talent being churned out of the city’s big universities, the opportunity for a big tech or media (or more likely, a convergence of both) disruption to come out of the city is ripe. As media continues to provide attractive opportunities (“The Mayor has stressed excellence and we’re beating our projected numbers by about 30% this year,” says an animated Hicks), the growth of Atlanta’s tech and engineering sectors is being concurrently supported by the likes of the academic alliances and a number private-public-partnerships that foster innovation and both are revitalizing the city in their stride. “There’s a lot to be accomplished still, but if you look at the younger leadership that’s beginning to emerge in Atlanta, whether in the City or in the technology ecosystem, we’re in really good shape going forward. We already have the infrastructure, we just weren’t making the most of it,” says Michael Cassidy, President and CEO of the Georgia Research Alliance. “Transit and mobility are still big problems but in a way, that’s encouraging these young professionals and new companies to move back downtown. And our urban core needs that.”
With inclusionary startup incubators such as the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI) and DigitalunDivided’s BIG Innovation Center both slated to take up prime Downtown real estate this year, the stimulation of the city’s center is as much a result of the public sector as it is the private sector. “We hope to create access to opportunities, whether directly for the women who go through our program or the local communities they serve and employ,” explains Theia Washington Smith, Executive Director at WEI, referring to the wider social impact supporting entrepreneurship can achieve. “We’re not trying to be the next Boston, or Silicon Valley. We have our unique characteristics here, and we’ll encourage our graduates to stay in Atlanta.”
Meanwhile, the city has invested time, effort and resources to ensure the downtown area is not just a business destination, but a recreational one too, where residents can work, live and play. “What I’ve been trying to do through my career is figure out ways to make sure that art is accessible to all,” says Camille Russell Love, art entrepreneur and Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. This office was established in 1974 by former Mayor Maynard Jackson, and is responsible for initiatives like the Neighborhood Arts Grants Program to bring art to local communities through art residency programs, as well as ensuring a cultural education in schools through the facilitation of field trips and exchanges. “The upper end of arts, what we call SOBs (symphony, opera and ballet), were dedicated to people who live in Buckhead,” recalls Love, referring to a high-end neighborhood of Atlanta, filled with luxury condos and gated communities. “We used to struggle to get these venues to let in a class of school children; now they call me and ask us to bring students! Through our work with and grants for cultural organization, our big aim is to get people to come to Atlanta, and for Atlantans to enjoy the same access.”
Is Atlanta’s notorious urban sprawl coming to a halt? While it seems unlikely that Atlantans will be ditching their cars and forgoing highway commutes just yet, there’s a growing case for businesses, academics and professionals alike to move Downtown. With a robust physical infrastructure, increased opportunities and growth – in both size and appreciation for – green, public space, the willingness and incentives for the greater Atlanta community to interact, innovate and enjoy their city are also mounting. Revitalization, whether as the main goal, or a by-product, is driving Atlanta’s resurgence as a connected city where all stakeholders have a say.
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