Atlanta Is Fighting Urban Inequality–With An Idea From Martin Luther King, Jr.

Entertainment By Elena Boaghi |

Martin Luther King, Jr., the City Planner? In Atlanta, yes.

For decades, urban design has reinforced racial inequality–and it still does today. While equity is being broached in many new projects emerging from progressive cities these days, Atlanta is taking it a step further by indoctrinating civil rights as the foundation for all future city planning through Atlanta City Design, a new 400-page book from the city’s planning department that articulates a vision for the growing metropolis.

The book is based on a 1957 speech by Martin Luther King Jr. in which the activist championed the “The Beloved Community,” a place filled with human decency, love, and brotherhood and free of poverty, homelessness, discrimination, and racism. It was a cornerstone of King’s philosophy–as he put it, “the aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community”–and Atlanta believes that by upholding values King outlined, it can ensure that gains in quality of life and economic health are distributed more equitably.

“Atlanta is rising again—this time from the ashes of the 20th century. After generations of economic decline, disinvestment, and environmental degradation, our city is resurging with new life and prosperity,” the report states. “[B]y designing our future around core values—equity, progress, ambition, access, and nature—we can leverage our change to our advantage.”

In short, it’s a front-line defense against the negative effects of gentrification.

[Photo: Caleb Jones/Unsplash]

“We started with the idea that we needed to design the change that’s coming to the city,” Ryan Gravel, lead designer of Atlanta City Design alongside Atlanta City Planning Commissioner Tim Keanetells Co.Design. “Seeing the growth and changes coming is palpable. We wanted to make sure Atlanta grows into the kind of city that we want it to be, not some place we don’t recognize anymore.”

Previously, Gravel was best known for developing the Atlanta BeltLine, an ambitious (and controversial) redevelopment plan that turned an abandoned railway surrounding the city into bike paths and public parks. The idea–which Gravel developed as his master’s thesis in 1999–was to concentrate new urban development around this car-free transportation system. Yet over the years, the BeltLine contributed to gentrification and displacement and last year, Gravel departed the BeltLine Partnership–the nonprofit that oversees the BeltLine’s growth–citing equity concerns.

In some ways, the new book is a corrective to development like the BeltLine, providing benchmarks for future development and “checks” to help ensure that new development is in service of the city as a whole, not just to those with the deepest pockets.

When Gravel began writing the design plan, he compared Atlanta to other major metropolitan areas like New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. He noticed the culture of each city was represented through their urban form. “They have clear civic identities: You can see why that city looks like it does and what it will look like in the future,” he says. “Atlanta is different. It’s younger. It has less of a sense of its identity and this seemed like an opportunity to clarify and define the identity of the city and the physicality of it as a reflection of who we are.”

To Gravel, Atlanta has a clear, strong cultural identity in the civil rights movement, especially since the city is MLK’s birthplace. The ideas in Atlanta City Design promote equality in the urban environment, specifically through affordable housing, environmental justice, access to jobs, and spreading the wealth that ascendant cities generate. It’s a reflection of King’s Beloved Community, where equality guided the creation of community. As the King Center explains:

For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence . . .

He felt that justice could not be parceled out to individuals or groups, but was the birthright of every human being in the Beloved Community. I have fought too long hard against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concerns,” he said. “Justice is indivisible.”

To correct the environmental and economic imbalances that exist in Atlanta today, the book encourages civic participation in planning, promotes community land trusts, advocates for inclusionary zoning, suggests preserving historic neighborhoods and buildings. It stresses the need for experimental housing solutions, like ADUs. It argues for concentrating new growth in areas that are naturally expanding to promote density and preserve green space. It wants the city to welcome more startup accelerators to nurture entrepreneurship.

It’s an aspiration. It’s a goal. It’s a set of principles and beliefs that Gravel and the city planning department want future development and policy to reference. Implementation of these ideas will be on the future long-range plans, the zoning code updates, the sustainability plans, and the transportation plans that are periodically updated year after year depending on what makes sense for the time and place. “Plans will come and go,” Gravel says. “The ‘City Design’ doesn’t change and the aspiration doesn’t change; the methods change.”

So while there is no “law” mandating accessory dwelling units must be implemented, Atlanta City Design promotes alternative housing models to address affordability. While it doesn’t say that all buildings need solar power, it emphasizes energy efficiency. Gravel hopes that framing more specific implementation measures, like zoning code changes, under the service of fulfilling this directive will lead to better urban design and fewer objections, like NIMBYism.

“[These ideas aren’t] out of left field,” Gravel says about considering planning through a civil-rights lens. “We’ve been talking about them in different ways for a long time. It’s through putting it all together in a shared narrative . . . When people are asked to compromise on things and they know it’s for a reason, they’re likely to come around an idea when there’s a purpose and vision of how it comes together.”

Affirming civil rights and equity should be a priority of every city in the country, not just Atlanta, especially under the current administration, which has shown an antagonistic attitude toward people who aren’t rich and who aren’t white, by threatening to defund sanctuary cities and framing big cities as being on the brink of economic collapse and moral decline.

“In the national context, if we don’t protect our diversity–and urgently our economic diversity–then it’s going to create a lot of problems,” Gravel says. “It’s not hard to paint a dystopian picture if that happens.”

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