Atlanta finds new ways to create a greener, more equitable future

Atlanta finds new ways to create a greener, more equitable future


Fall 2019 | Written by Jeff Harder

Sustainable Destinations

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Atlanta is a city of complexity and contradiction. Home to the nation’s tenth largest economy, it’s a magnet for 21st-century businesses and home to more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies. During and after the civil rights movement, Atlanta—sometimes touted as “the city too busy to hate”—was a province of opportunity, where African American residents translated political power into economic advancement, giving rise to burgeoning black middle and upper classes. Today, Atlanta is poised for even more profound growth: The metro area is expected to reach 8 million residents by 2040, a net population growth of 2 million from 2018 levels.

But there are cracks beneath the surface. Last year, Bloomberg ranked Atlanta as the worst city in the nation for income inequality: 18 percent of households earn at least $150,000 a year, while 9.3 percent earn less than $10,000 a year. The city’s notorious sprawl—an average resident spends two hours idling in traffic each week—stifles geographic and economic mobility, particularly in communities of color that rely on public transit.

Gentrification is uprooting citizens from the neighborhoods where they’ve lived for generations. Also, at a time when climate change is announcing its presence like never before, the city’s most vulnerable citizens are at the front lines. By 2050, Atlanta’s average summer temperature is expected to climb 4.1 degrees Fahrenheit, to 92.6.

As the city searches for a more sustainable and resilient path forward, though, Atlantans in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors are finding novel ways to build an equitable future that counters their past.

Atlanta Beltline

Above: As one of the largest, most wide-ranging urban redevelopment programs in the United States, the Atlanta BeltLine is the catalyst for making Atlanta a leader in equitable, inclusive, and sustainable city life.

Nathaniel Smith

Nathaniel Smith is the founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity, an Atlanta-based nonprofit focused on racial equity in the city and the broader South.

Shelby Buso

Shelby Busó is chief sustainability officer for the city of Atlanta and the former director of USGBC Georgia.

“The good news is that today we have leaders [who] understand the historic challenges [Atlanta faces] around equity,” says Nathaniel Smith, founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity, an Atlanta-based nonprofit focused on racial equity in the city and the broader South. “Even more importantly, they understand how conversations around sustainability, resilience, and environmental stewardship cannot happen without also understanding the history of structural racism and how it has played a role in creating the preconditions for the extractive world we live in.”

In the midst of a modern-day boom in population and development, there’s ample evidence that Atlanta—which plays host to Greenbuild 2019 this November—is striving to ensure that all its residents benefit from its good fortune.

City Hall, which recently combined its sustainability and equity offices, has incorporated equity into ambitious plans to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2035 and a resilience strategy that mandates Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

Organizations like the Atlanta Land Trust and TransFormation Alliance are tackling inequity from all angles, including creating affordable housing that’s permanently immune to market pressure. Plus, the Atlanta BeltLine, a multibillion-dollar redevelopment project that envisions repurposing 22 miles of mostly unused rail lines into light rail and walkable, bike-able mixed trails, stands to link the city’s segregated core neighborhoods.

“I am inspired every day by the resilience of this city and its people,” says Shelby Busó, chief sustainability officer for the city of Atlanta and the former director of USGBC Georgia, who’s lived in Atlanta for more than 30 years. “Atlanta has a deep soul that is reflected in our impressive assets, from higher education to urban agriculture and the arts. I am hopeful that we can all work together to build a community that accurately reflects our values in the built environment. It may not be perfect, but it is beloved.”

To meet the demands of tomorrow, Atlantans are reckoning with the road that led to today.

In 2018, MARTA approved around $1.2 billion in funding for 15 miles of light rail along the BeltLine route. Right: Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Interstate 20 bisects Georgia east to west, cutting through Atlanta’s tangle of highways that crosses 29 counties. I-20 is “our line of opportunity,” says Smith. To the north, communities like Buckhead and Sandy Springs are home to job centers, palatial homes, and affluence. To the south, where the bulk of the city’s affordable housing and historically black neighborhoods exist, the only job center is the airport.

“We must understand the correlation between immense growth and structural racism in metro Atlanta,” Smith says. “It’s not just by happenstance that we were the poster child for sprawl, that we don’t have efficient transportation, that we have these challenges around concentrated poverty, that we have bad air. All of that was predicated, in my opinion, on perceptions about race that were translated into policy.”

Some of those forces affected other American cities throughout the 20th century. They included thoroughfares that plowed through historically black neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal, redlining practices that discouraged wide-scale investment in African American communities, and white flight from cities to suburbs after desegregation.

Others are unique to Atlanta: For instance, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) was created with the same federal funding that established strong public transportation networks in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., but unfounded fears of inner-city residents journeying out to the suburbs stifled MARTA’s local funding, its reach, and ultimately the mobility of citizens who relied on mass transit.

“If it takes you three or four hours to get to a job on the northern side of town, you pretty much have to stay where you are,” Smith says. The grim irony is that, as white professionals flock to the city’s core, Atlantans of color are increasingly forced to the suburbs because they’ve been priced out of their old neighborhoods. (A 2015 analysis ranked Atlanta fifth highest among U.S. cities experiencing gentrification.)

However, since desegregation, Atlanta has also offered space for African American citizens to engage in civic and economic life that didn’t exist elsewhere in the American South. Metro Atlanta is home to the world’s largest concentration of historically black colleges and universities, a robust black middle class, and, in the years since electing its first African American mayor in 1973, leadership in City Hall that reflects the broader racial dynamics. More than ever, Atlanta’s leaders are attuned to how communities of color bear the earliest impacts of climate change—and often, some of the worst.

In July 2018, in an address before a U.S. Senate committee, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms mentioned that the city’s energy burden—the proportion of household income required to pay utility bills—is fourth highest in the nation. According to research from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, paying a utility bill is the top reason for taking out a payday loan. (Some 50,000 Atlantans spend more than a tenth of their take-home pay solely on electric bills.)

There are also massive health disparities: African Americans are three times as likely as white citizens to be hospitalized and die of asthma, and climate change will likely magnify air pollution problems that already exist in historically black neighborhoods.

The central question is how to meet the challenges of climate change and sustainability in ways that lift up the city’s most marginalized. “What would development look like—in the context of making it more sustainable, resilient, all the other buzzwords we like to use—if we put the most vulnerable at the center of our decision making?” Smith says. “What if we started with them and what they needed?” All around Atlanta, a chorus of voices is articulating answers.

Atlanta’s Airport

With more than 2,700 arrivals and departures every day and more than 63,000 employees, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the busiest airport in the world, as well as the state’s largest employer. Encompassing a LEED Gold International Terminal, LED airfield lighting, more than 100 electric vehicle charging stations, a Blockchain-based food recovery program, LEED-minimum green building standards, and sustainable purchasing and procurement policies, the city-owned airport is a sustainability leader in the South.

Now, Hartsfield-Jackson is the first airport to seek LEED for Communities certification, an endeavor that will help gauge and improve sustainability performance across its uniquely complex range of operations.

“It puts an interesting lens on things,” says Jeff Denno, sustainability project manager at Hartsfield-Jackson, who’s shepherded the airport along its LEED for Communities journey. “We’re not just considering the financial bottom line. We’re looking at the human experience piece, in conjunction with financial and environmental impact, all at once.”

After the launch of LEED for Cities and LEED for Communities in 2016, representatives from the airport announced their interest to USGBC. Although carbon accounting and other approaches did a good job measuring emissions and narrower facets of sustainability, benchmarking through the Arc platform promised a holistic snapshot.

Since being awarded precertification in spring 2018, the airport has set baselines around energy, water, waste, transportation, and human experience. Denno also points to Aerotropolis, a massive mixed-use development just beyond the airport itself. “When you look at the human experience metrics, at first they might not seem like they fit into the context of an airport. But when you look at the airport as a community that goes beyond the airport campus, it makes sense for gauging economic and quality of life improvements.” Perhaps the greatest benefit so far, says Denno, has simply been gathering full, accurate data sets accessible across departments.

At Greenbuild Atlanta, guests who’ve signed up for the airport tour will travel across the campus to see highlights like the ParkSmart-certified parking deck; learn about the airport’s geographic information systems-enabled dashboard, which maps and tracks performance of sustainability performance all across campus; and take a deep dive into its LEED for Communities work.

As Hartsfield-Jackson approaches certification, Denno looks to a future where the airport can start tracking and improving formerly elusive aspects of the air travel experience. Minimizing the time between gate departure and takeoff, for example, would reduce idling emissions, save energy, and offer passengers a more pleasant journey.

“Our goal, after we get an initial certification, is to start working with other airports,” he says. “We’ll put together an even larger stakeholder group, and since airports are such unique communities, we can truly define the additional sustainability metrics we want to capture.”

Left: TransFormation Alliance (TFA) supports public murals at selected MARTA stations. Center: Odetta MacLeish-White is TransFormation Alliance’s managing director. Right: Former mayor of Atlanta Kasim Reed. Photos: Stan Kaady

If there’s an upside to the ever-growing urgency around climate change and sustainability, it’s that the changes have opened up additional opportunities for Atlanta to address a discriminatory past.

Building on the efforts of predecessor Mayor Kasim Reed, the Bottoms administration has gone all in on an equity-focused resilience strategy. The plan, Resilient Atlanta: Actions to Build An Equitable Future, takes a broad approach with mandates like improving affordable housing and transportation access and quality, creating 500 new acres of green space by 2022, creating at least 10,000 jobs that offer a living wage by 2020, improving access to fresh food, requiring LEED Silver or LEED for Existing Buildings certification for city-owned properties, and adding water and energy efficiency improvements to public spaces and some 500 homes and businesses each year.

“By investing in energy efficiency programs that reduce low-income residents’ energy bills,” Mayor Bottoms told the Senate, “we can lower their cost of living and advance housing affordability overall.” The city passed a first-in-the-region ordinance for building energy benchmarking and transparency, and last spring, the city council adopted a clean energy plan calling for a transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2035 for city operations, as well as the broader community. USGBC provided support and guidance along the way.

Those efforts drew interest from Bloomberg Associates, the consulting firm founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In 2018, Atlanta was one of the first two cities selected for Bloomberg’s American Cities Climate Challenge, an effort to support 25 municipalities in their efforts to combat climate change and promote resilience. Atlanta, which receives up to $2.5 million in support through the program, was selected for its sustainability leadership and momentum, says Jake Elder, a sustainability advisor for Bloomberg Associates who is among the representatives helping city leaders with efforts related to transportation, building, and energy.

“We’re taking the [100 percent clean energy plan] down a step to think about specific tactics, and making sure there’s buy-in so we’re doing this in partnership with all aspects of the community,” Elder says. “In parallel, we’re also thinking about financing for that transition so the entire community—whether large commercial property owners, landlords in small multi-family buildings, or individual homeowners—have the financial resources to reduce their own building energy consumption.” As city officials continue a search for a new head for its resilience office, Elder is among the folks stepping in to fill the gap.

There are also a litany of homegrown organizations making a difference, like the TransFormation Alliance (TFA), a collaborative encompassing more than 30 individual entities, including USGBC. Conceived in 2014, the TFA was created to foster access to equitable, transit-oriented developments and has worked toward that goal through a range of initiatives, including offering mini-grants to local urban farms, hosting citizen leadership academies, supporting public murals at selected MARTA stations, and promoting equity evaluation tools.

“Our mission is to offer all residents of Metro Atlanta opportunities for a high quality of life, linked by our region’s critically important transit system,” says Odetta MacLeish-White, the organization’s managing director.

Smith’s Partnership for Southern Equity, meanwhile, has made significant contributions of its own, working with elected officials and community members in Clayton County to help pass a MARTA expansion referendum, training residents in vulnerable communities on specific ways to mitigate the ill effects of gentrification, and working with the Atlanta Housing Authority to find ways to expand the city’s solar footprint and foster workforce development related to weather efficiency and solar installations.

“Atlanta is one of the leaders in the Southeast, and it’s important to show what’s possible to cities across different typologies, different regions, different political stripes,” says Christina Angelides, director of the American Cities Climate Challenge. “They’re in the heart of Georgia, and they’re really at the vanguard of trying to show people what’s possible in the region.”

The BeltLine is slated to be completed in 2030.

Ryan Gravel was an early advocate for the BeltLine development.

After studying abroad in the mid-1990s, Ryan Gravel came home to Atlanta with an epiphany. In Paris, he’d lost 15 pounds simply by walking, eating fresh food, and taking advantage of that city’s mass-transit-enabled mobility—a lifestyle that scarcely resembled the cars and malls of his upbringing in Chamblee in the Atlanta suburbs.

Yet Gravel, who took part in the BeltLine’s early planning, couldn’t shake a vision of repurposed railroad tracks encircling Atlanta, a walkable, bike-able, street-car-equipped route that would connect the city as never before—an idea that became his thesis while earning his master’s in architecture and city planning at Georgia Tech. “I didn’t want to live in Atlanta if it was only about sprawl and traffic, you know?” he says. “I was interested in a different kind of city.”

Today, after fits and starts and clearing kudzu, the Atlanta BeltLine has edged into reality. Slated for completion in 2030, the BeltLine is perhaps the most ambitious urban design project underway in the United States. The plan calls for 33 miles of multi-use trails and 22 miles of light rail, linking 45 different neighborhoods within the city. On any given day, the active sections are humming with a broad swath of the city, all walking, running, cycling, dining, chatting, and building face-to-face connections instead of sitting in a mile-long traffic backup.

The project is the result of a grassroots movement of public actors, the private sector, and ordinary Atlantans. “We had this amazing coalition of community activists who’d fought against every onslaught of the 21st century and found something they could fight for instead,” Gravel says. “We had developers who were excited about it and saw the opportunity for making a buck. We had all these nonprofit organizations that were doing work in the city—whether they were advocates for trees, housing, parks or transit—who saw their mission fulfilled in the BeltLine as part of a larger vision.”

Since opening the 2.5-mile Eastside Trail in the old railroad corridor, the BeltLine has become an undeniable draw, sprouting restaurants, retail, offices, and new housing along the perimeter. Ponce City Market, the LEED Gold home of 2.1 million square feet of restaurants, shops, apartments, and offices, was the largest adaptive reuse project in the city’s history. (It’s also where Gravel runs his consulting practice, Sixpitch.) Enota Park, on the west side, is an emblem of the BeltLine’s commitment to sustainable landscaping as a learning tool along the trail. The park, which Greenbuild attendees can tour during the conference, is targeting SITES certification.

Soon after it opened, though, signs began to emerge that the BeltLine had begun amplifying gentrification in ways that Gravel specifically sought to avoid. In some neighborhoods within a half mile of the loop, housing prices spiked 80 percent. The Old Fourth Ward, MacLeish-White says, became “the poster neighborhood for displacement around the BeltLine.”

To date, the BeltLine and partners have created or preserved 1,640 affordable units, and nearly 1,000 affordable units are in the pipeline. The BeltLine has 11 years remaining to fulfill the goal of 5,600 units. And Gravel hopes it won’t take 11 more years to accomplish those goals.

“The communities on the front lines of Atlanta’s growth are not abstract populations of people for me,” Gravel says. “They’re my friends and my neighbors—they’re people that I love.”

Things have trended in a better direction. The Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.—the project’s implementing agency—replaced the CEO, hired a chief equity officer, and allocated more funding for affordable housing. In 2018, MARTA approved some $1.2 billion in funding for 15 miles of light rail along the route. While Gravel advocates for urgency, considering the pace of growth and the lag in addressing regional transportation, he’s optimistic that the project will be completed on time. “I’m not naive about how hard it’s going to be, but you can see the wheels in motion.”

“The Atlanta BeltLine has and always will be a project that is built with and for the people of Atlanta,” says Clyde A. Higgs, president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. “By prioritizing equity, affordable housing, and job creation, we strive to ensure our BeltLine communities and longtime residents thrive as we build out the transit, trails, and parks.”

These days, Gravel is engaged in a range of BeltLine-related endeavors: the redevelopment of the old West End Mall, starting a new restaurant called Aftercar, and contributing to Atlanta City Design, a guide to equitable growth in the city.

Even though he has no formal role with the project, he remains a steadfast ambassador for the BeltLine. It’s where he lives and works. It’s how his kids get to school. He still believes in the vision he first conjured more than 20 years ago, both for what it’s achieved so far and for the possibilities ahead. “I grew up stuck in traffic going to the mall,” he says. “My kids have grown up thinking that Atlanta is the kind of place where you can ride your bike to the grocery store.”

The BeltLine Mural Project celebrates the experiences and values of Atlanta’s citizens and touches 20 intown communities along the way.

The site of 1091 Tucker Avenue represents 1.8 undeveloped acres in the Lee Street Corridor, near two MARTA stations, as well as the BeltLine’s Westside Trail. Ordinarily, such a place might have been gobbled up by developers. The empty lot was in danger of becoming 23 townhomes and condominiums by spring 2020. However, after engaging neighbors in the surrounding community of Oakland City, the advocates for 1091 Tucker Avenue will offer something more auspicious than another market-rate development: permanently affordable housing.

“We have the worst economic mobility and income inequality of any large city in the country,” says Amanda Rhein, executive director of the Atlanta Land Trust (ALT), “and by giving people access to home ownership when they otherwise would not be able to buy a home, it has the ability to change people’s trajectory and help them move up the economic ladder.”

ALT is a nonprofit organization devoted to acquiring land and creating affordable housing in perpetuity along the BeltLine. Rhein has spent the entirety of her career in the public sector, partnering with project developers to bring investment, jobs, amenities, and new vibrance to historically disenfranchised communities.

That approach brought unintended consequences, she says, usually in the form of higher property taxes and cost of living increases that displaced residents. ALT is one tool to counter that trend. “That’s our focus: to go into neighborhoods where there is significant new investment—specifically public investment—and make sure that we’re implementing tools to ensure longtime residents are able to stay in place as the community changes and gentrifies,” Rhein says.

First, ALT acquires land through a variety of mechanisms. (The Tucker Avenue property was donated by Enterprise Community Partners in 2015.) ALT retains control of the land while seeking partners in the public, nonprofit, and for-profit sectors to develop affordable housing: single-family homes, townhomes, condos, or renovations of existing properties.

ALT then sells those homes to families—whose income is typically below 80 percent of the region’s median income—and enters into a long-term ground lease that enables ALT to retain control of the land while outlining homeowners’ roles and responsibilities. When residents are ready to move out, the trust uses different resale formulas. Tucker Avenue residents realize 25 percent of the appreciated value of the unit over the time frame in which they reside there. They can then sell to a new homeowner fitting the same income profile, the trust retains ownership of the land, and the cycle begins anew.

The mission of TFA is to offer all residents of Metro Atlanta opportunities for a high quality of life, linked by the region’s transit system. Top right: Amanda Rhein is the executive director of the Atlanta Land Trust.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Atlanta’s development, it’s that site control is key to equity. “If you don’t own the dirt, you are begging [for a] concession from whoever does,” says MacLeish-White of the TransFormation Alliance, whose efforts helped bring the Tucker Avenue project to fruition.

“Once you have the site under control, you can talk about proper community engagement and have an authentic, ongoing conversation with residents about what’s been there, what is there, what’s coming, and what they want to see happen,” she says.

The Tucker Avenue project lent more weight to citizen input than is typical. Selecting from a series of options, residents ultimately settled on a modular design fitting the architectural heritage of the neighborhood, as well as a site plan that preserved the trees—several species of oak, loblolly pine, and others. The project is slated to break ground in winter 2019.

Recently, the Bottoms administration issued a housing affordability action plan, offering a number of strategies to garner $1 billion in new investment to support affordable housing in the city. The plan highlights the Atlanta Land Trust as a tool to expand affordable housing and minimize displacement. “We feel really fortunate to be part of this ecosystem of affordable housing activity within the city,” Rhein says, “and it helps us frame the work we’re doing more broadly: we’re part of something larger.”

Ponce City
Furrowed Earth
Flower Cart

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recognizes Ponce City Market as part of a plan to move Atlanta forward while maintaining and emphasizing the city’s unique history and culture. The market keeps bees on its rooftop. TFA offers mini-grants to urban farms. Ponce City Market opened in April of 2019 and accepts cash, credit, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)/EBT dollars at participating vendors.

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