Archive for February, 2011

Georgia’s communities may lose ground in planning for their future

Maria Saporta –

Since when has planning become a dirty word?

An effort is underway in the Georgia legislature to remove a state requirement on local governments to develop comprehensive plans for their communities.

If passed, this legislation — Senate Bill 86 — could send Georgia back decades to a time when growth could occur in a totally haphazard way with few guideposts on what is the best way to grow a community.

Unfortunately, two organizations that should know better — the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia — have endorsed this legislation, presumably pushed by some of their members who would rather not have to answer to state guidelines.

The closest analogy I can think of is that I don’t like stopping at red lights. But I know that if red lights didn’t exist, total chaos would ensue. We have laws because they give order to our society and structure to our lives.

It was in that spirit that former Gov. Joe Frank Harris, a conservative Democrat from Cartersville, established the Growth Strategies Commission in the late 1980s. Legislation requirement communities to develop comprehensive plans grew out of that commission. Again, the idea was that Georgia was enjoying unprecedented growth, and it made sense to plan that growth in a way that was best for local communities, for their regions and for the state.

Joel Cowan, a visionary developer who was campaign chairman in Harris’ two gubernatorial elections, served as chairman of the Growth Strategies Commission. (It was no accident that Cowan also was the founding chairman of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, a body that can link transportation investments with land-use and development plans).

Cowan is understandably upset that the state is considering dismantling one of its most valuable tools to make sure that Georgia grows in a rational way.

“I think it is a severe step backwards,” Cowan wrote me in an email Sunday. As he explained, the state law was a way to protect communities from having to bear the brunt of developments of regional impact, otherwise known as DRIs.

If a major development is located in area, the surrounding communities end up being impacted by traffic, water pollution and other consequences of growth. Having a comprehensive plan for a region actually help communities make sure their own quality of life is not lost.

“For instance, look at the large Georgia Power plant that is on the Chattahoochee River between Coweta and Carroll counties,” Cowan wrote. “There is an enormous revenue impact on simply which side of the river they choose to build. Both get jobs. But the negative impacts affect many downstream counties. So that is one example of why it is an important procedure.”

Another key player in the Growth Strategies Commission was John Sibley, who served as its director. Sibley went on to become president of the Georgia Conservancy and has worked with several environmental efforts. He also is one of the few founding GRTA board members.

As Sibley sees it, the Georgia Planning Act of 1989 “was meant to advance regional thinking — by building regional plans from local plans.” It’s hard to find a reason why a regional approach to growth is not in our best interest.

Sibley said the planning act was the “first critical step” in Georgia’s “long, slow progress toward thinking about transportation investments and land use in a coordinated way.” Study after study has shown that if metro Atlanta ever wants to really address its traffic problems, it needs to strategically link its transportation plans with its land use development plans.

“A process was created for every local government — large and small — to have a plan, looking five years out at a comprehensive set of elements, instead of having only short-term, ad hoc considerations to inform decisions,” Sibley said.

“Perhaps the most innovative aspect of this new approach was that a land-use plan was a necessary element of a comprehensive plan,” Sibley continued. “Land use would be considered right along with transportation and other elements. Up until that time, most local governments in Georgia had not given any attention to land-use planning or to the relationship between transportation investments and land development patterns.”

Sibley said the state provided local communities a carrot of “several pots of state money” that was only available to communities that had a “qualified local government status,” including the development of a comprehensive plan.

Georgia became a national leader when the bill was passed, and Gov. Harris even won the annual award of the American Planning Association for his leadership.

“Even though the Georgia Planning Act was on the leading edge at the time, it was supported by a broad and clear consensus,” Sibley recalled. “

That included local government associations, including both the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

“In the decades since, the Act has become routine practice,” Sibley said. “Every local government has been through the process. It has been refined over time in the recognition that not every small locality can be expected to plan with the same rigor as a large metropolitan city or county.”

Sibley also believes that the act has saved taxpayer dollars because it has helped communities better understand developments can have long term impacts.

“As our understanding has evolved in Georgia, the benefits of coordinated planning, particularly with respect to transportation and land use, have increasingly been reflected in state policy,” Sibley said. “We have come a long way since the state first encouraged local governments to think in a comprehensive and coordinated way.”

By telling local communities that comprehensive planning is now optional would be a major step backwards for Georgia — a state that still anticipates major growth and development for decades to come.

Planning is the one way we can make sure our state and our communities grow in a coordinated way that is best for everyone.


February 21, 2011 at 5:48 pm Leave a comment

Land Use and School Locations

from Land Matters, a publications of the Atlanta Regional Commission

There was a time in our nation’s history when a majority of children were able to walk or ride bikes to school.  Similarly, the school building was a fundamental civic landmark in the community. And while there are some older communities that still enable younger residents to walk to school, this is no longer the norm, as schools have increasingly been built on the outer edges of communities where land is less expensive.

Consequently, the distance students travel to school has increased greatly. In 1969, 87 percent of students lived within one mile of their schools. By 2001, this number shrank to just 21 percent. In Georgia, it has been estimated that only six percent of elementary students, 11 percent of middle school students, and six percent of high school students could reasonably be expected to walk to school.

This shift has come at a price, according to research recently developed for The Civic League for Regional Atlanta by Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. In “School Locational Decisions and Land Use: Addressing a Growing Problem,” researchers cite increased traffic congestion (along with higher school bus costs and increased air pollution) and increased childhood obesity as two significant unintended consequences of “school sprawl.”

The Civic League recommends that school boards and local governments change course by working collaboratively toward school siting decisions that:

  • Better match development and new school capacity;
  • Better align local comprehensive and school facility plans;
  • Better connect schools and adjacent neighborhoods; and
  • Facilitate the use of schools for other community purposes.

The paper also addresses obstacles to collaboration between local governments and school boards and suggests specific action steps for the Atlanta region.

“School Locational Decisions and Land Use” is available for download at

February 9, 2011 at 4:57 pm Leave a comment

Creating the Perfect City Is About Illusions, Such as Shorter Blocks

A city planner in Gainesville, Florida and an urban designer from Perkins+Will talk about making American cities more vibrant and livable.

Crumbling infrastructure, two hour commutes, sprawl, economic stagnation, and obesity! These are just some of the problems facing the many increasingly unlivable American cities today.

Cities like Portland, Oregon, hog urban planning’s limelight with their schemes to fix American urban living, but meanwhile, many lesser-known cities and unexpected urban planners are working on quiet revolutions.

Anthony Lyons is not your typical urban planning type. He didn’t go to planning school. He didn’t get an MBA. He went from studying Greek art to starting one of the nation’s first pre-paid phone card companies before turning around Claremont, New Hampshire, a New England mill town. He then became director of Gainesville, Florida’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). Using his progressive outlook and eclectic background, Lyons is rethinking the role of local government in community life.

In four short years, following a theory of “simple innovation,” the CRA accomplished the unthinkable: 1,500 new housing units were built, property values increased more than 60%, fiber optic cables were laid in long-neglected neighborhoods, and a signature park on the site of an abandoned train depot began to be created.

Anthony Lyons and David Green, an urban designer from Perkins+Will, are teaming together to re-imagine how we address the challenges cities face in the coming decades. Here’s their recent conversation about what exactly the urban revolution might look like:

DG: We hear all the time that government is too cumbersome. ‘Simple innovation’ sounds like it might be an answer. But now what? What are you doing to actually change Gainesville?

Downtowns all over the country are struggling.

AL: First, we posed a simple question, “What kind of city do we want to be?” It sounds stupid, right? At some level it is actually more stupid than it sounds, but very few communities ask fundamental questions because their problems have already gotten so complex. For example, in a lot of cities you get planners asking questions like, “How can we shorten commutes?” But without knowing what you want to be, at the most basic level, it is impossible to know where to start.



When we asked that question in Gainesville, the answer was clear. We want Gainesville to be a walkable and flexible city. Beyond that, we just want Gainesville to be cool. The question then is how do we make that kind of city? In many ways, we’re dealing with a blank slate in our underutilized downtown. While this is an incredible opportunity, it isn’t something unique to Gainesville. Downtowns all over the country are struggling. Gainesville is a city with good bones and has land ripe for redevelopment.

David, you’re the planner, what’s the trick?

DG: One thing? For new development?

AL: Sure.

DG: Small blocks. If you can’t walk in a city, then a city isn’t walkable. And small blocks tend to be the most flexible in terms of their long-term reuse.

AL: Fair enough.

Walkability is more about perception than reality.

DG: Seriously, it’s simple. On the point about walkability, people like to walk through cities that have small blocks. It is almost coded into our DNA. It’s about making progress when walking but it’s about the perception of progress in space. Think about Manhattan, it’s a great city, an unbelievably walkable city. Manhattan has small blocks. But even so, you feel different walking down different streets in New York. Anyone who has ever been there knows that walking uptown is far more enjoyable than walking crosstown, regardless of the distance. Why? Because the blocks in New York are long and narrow. You walk across the short side, 225 feet, when walking uptown and the long side, generally 600 to 900 feet, walking crosstown.



Think about it this way, if you are standing on 32nd and Lexington and someone calls you to get a coffee at 42nd and Lexington, you happily walk the ten blocks uptown. If that same person calls and she is on 32nd and 6th, you do it, but you aren’t as happy about walking the same distance crosstown, although its only four blocks. Walking uptown is more diverse, you cross more streets that take you to different places. Walking crosstown, on the other hand, is a haul to the next street. This goes back to the point above: when it comes to walkability, it’s more about the perception than the reality. This is true of walkable cities all over the world. Going further, look at the front of a typical suburban shopping center, nobody wants to be there. Huge distances between stores. Why do we continue doing this?

AL: That’s a tough one. But one reason is that old ideas get frozen in the complexity of land development regulations. All across the country, the documents that describe how cities are supposed to grow are growing amazingly dense and outdated. Take the block size issue, we are reworking our regulations to take out everything that makes blocks big, like huge parking requirements, large setbacks and unnecessary buffers that make development cumbersome anyway. So we’re supporting the goals of walkability and flexibility and, in so doing, incentivizing innovation by creating an environment conducive to creative solutions from the development community.



We’re actually doing this right now with our plans for a new science and research district, Innovation Square, near the University of Florida. The plan will be boiled down to only the few essential things we believe this district needs. We can’t possibly anticipate exactly what buildings will be needed in the future or predict where the market will be. We can, however, predict what conditions will support a more flexible Gainesville, meaning infrastructure that can easily accommodate many development scenarios. And we, the government and our regulations, have to be nimble while still fulfilling our obligations to the public.

What we’re doing now feels like a revolution.

DG: I can’t resist going back to New York. You can see exactly this principle at work in the original plan for Manhattan, a very simple document. It was a single map, really, it was just streets and blocks, everything else was blank, and it generated astounding complexity and variety over the last 200 years. Without ever changing the location of streets, blocks in New York have accommodated everything from farm houses to the Empire State Building. Granted, cities today confront a whole array of challenges that couldn’t have been dreamed of in the past. It puts planners and local governments in a difficult position. And too often we respond to complex problems with even more muddled action. I think the point here is that we need to parse issues for concise solutions.



AL: A couple of years ago we adopted a redevelopment plan for an industrial area adjacent to downtown. We started asking ourselves what kind of development might go there, housing or mixed-use? We figured out quickly that we were asking the wrong questions. We had no idea what the market could bear at that time or any time in the future, but we knew we wanted to create an extension of our downtown. So, we did exactly what New York did when they made their plan so many years ago—we kept it simple. The City Commission adopted a plan that laid out streets and blocks, small ones. And that’s it. You’d be hard pressed to find a City that has made a more elemental plan in the last 50 years.

DG: Why aren’t more of your peers thinking this way?

AL: I think it is often hard to ask why because it might mean that a lot of things need to change, that we might have even made some mistakes in the past. Sometimes it’s just easier to keep what you have. But that’s not me and that’s not what the CRA needs to be doing.

DG: So, what does the future look like?

AL: Now we are looking at issues of sustainability and asking why. We‘re preparing a framework to redevelop areas of the city without preconceived notions of what is right. We know a few things, like we want people to be able to walk, but beyond that we are going to question every decision we make. The goal is to only create important things. We’re moving forward like a city at the beginning of its history, we are starting from square one. It feels oddly like a revolution.



Established in 1935, Perkins+Will ( is an integrated design firm serving clients from offices in Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Dubai, Hartfo… Read more


February 8, 2011 at 12:55 am Leave a comment

Atlanta to unveil its plans for the future

Strategy to shape look and feel of city for next 20 years

By Ernie Suggs
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By 2030, Atlanta will have at least 100,000 more people — along with greater traffic problems, a need for additional green space and the desire for more economic development.

Where and how those people will shop, live, play, get around and work is now on Atlanta’s table.

The city’s planning office is set to unveil its 2011 Comprehensive Development Plan, a long-term strategy to shape the look and feel of the city over the next 20 years.

In it are detailed assessments, projections and predictions of how the city will change over the next two decades, including areas such as transportation, economic development, housing and urban design.

Several years ago, a similar plan identified the need to redevelop the old Atlantic Steel location. That site is now Atlantic Station.

It’s not known whether something like that is on the horizon, but Charletta Wilson Jacks, director of the office of planning, said the potential is there.

“This is a planning tool,” Jacks said. “It gives us the guiding principals. We need a road map to address growth and development in the city.”

In creating the development plan, Jacks said Atlanta is complying with state regulations that require local jurisdictions to periodically update their plans to remain eligible for state and federal grants. Atlanta specifically mandates the preparation of a CDP every three to five years.

Jacks said that instead of merely updating the last plan, they have created a whole “new document.”

Jessica Lavandier, an urban planner for the city and project manager for the CDP, said Atlanta’s population growth will play a key role in future planning.

After 20 years of population decline, Atlanta’s population grew from 416,474 in 2000 to 540,921 by 2009, a 29 percent increase.

By 2030, the population is expected to grow by another 104,660 new residents, Lavandier said.

She added that while Atlanta’s population has grown over the past 10 years, the number of jobs has decreased by more than 90,000 and the percentage of residents living in poverty remains among the highest in the nation.

One idea in the plan is creating zones in select areas of the city that would provide state job tax credits and incentives for job growth.

Another idea would be to attract bioscience opportunities around research institutions, medical facilities and Fort McPherson.

According to the plan, green space is another area that has to be addressed. Several studies have shown Atlanta has less green space than other cities of comparable size and density.

To address that, one suggestion would be to adopt a master plan for each city park to guide the pursuit of funding and create capital improvement plans.

Starting today, there will be a series of seven meetings to introduce the plan to various sections of the community and get feedback.

The city will hold two additional series of community meetings before the plan has to be finalized Oct. 31.

“From a planning perspective, this step is very important because the issues and opportunities identified by the residents will set the stage for establishing policy directives,” Jacks said. “How do we move forward? How do we evolve into the city that the citizens envision?”

February 1, 2011 at 6:07 pm Leave a comment


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