Atlanta, Public Health, and New Urbanism?

This introductory essay ––followed by articles highlighting innovative new urbanist projects in the Atlanta area–– can be found in the book on the region produced especially for CNU 18: Building Metropolitan Atlanta: Past, Present & Future.



by Ellen Dunham-Jones, Chair of CNU 18
Georgia Institute of Technology, College of Architecture

Why is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) interested in New Urbanism? Why is the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) interested in Atlanta? I was asked these questions numerous times during the preparations for CNU 18, "New Urbanism: Rx for Healthy Places." Held in Atlanta May 2010, the 18th annual meeting of CNU was organized with assistance from the CDC and hosted by a city more known for its sprawl than its walkable neighborhoods. Why?

This book provides rich answers to these questions as it reveals the remarkable transformations occurring both in public-health discourse and in placemaking practices throughout the Atlanta region. The surprising conclusion is that the conjunction of national and local energies in both of these areas has made Atlanta a leader in the advancement of healthy neighborhoods.

Building Metropolitan Atlanta: Past, Present & Future demonstrates this conclusion. The compelling essays of the Perspectives section present a range of the inventive thinking, policies, and practices that are shaping Atlanta and the Southeast in healthier ways. These are followed by documentation of Atlanta’s evolution, and its diverse and increasingly healthy places. They include both again-thriving historic neighborhoods and new projects that demonstrate the full rural-to-urban transect, from hamlets to HOPE VI housing redevelopments, greenfields to brownfields, and everything in between. As these pages amply attest, there is much that public health officials, New Urbanists, Atlantans – and anyone concerned with healthy placemaking anywhere – can learn from this region’s successes in revitalizing urban neighborhoods and developing beautiful, functional, livable places.

Readers will find their own favorites, whether those are the CNU Charter Award winners Glenwood Park and Woodstock Downtown, the much-noted new rural hamlet of Serenbe, the brownfield redevelopment of Atlantic Station or one of the area’s many successful but less well known projects. But allow me to call your attention to additional areas where Atlanta’s changed practices have earned particular distinction.

I have been particularly impressed with the region’s recent strengths in retrofitting suburban property types and urbanizing “underperforming asphalt” – developer-speak for underused parking lots. Facilitated by the award-winning Livable Centers Initiative of the Atlanta Regional Commission, places like Downtown Decatur, Downtown Smyrna, Lindbergh City Center, and some 35 others have reduced auto-dependency while becoming more walkable, compact, complete, and connected. These changes have provided a habitat so appealing to today’s young professionals that Atlanta has recently led the nation in net gains of 25-35-year olds. This effect is especially evident in the Midtown neighborhood, and it demonstrates the effective efforts of the region’s many Community Improvement Districts at making fundamental improvements to the zoning, street network, streetscaping, and identity of communities.

Simultaneously, the Atlanta Housing Authority pioneered the development of the HOPE VI program to replace dysfunctional public housing projects with mixed-income, new urbanist, communities. Atlantic Station and the BeltLine rails-and-trails project are even larger-scale projects now refocusing growth back to the urban core. Meanwhile interest in green design continues to grow here at all scales. Over 4,000 houses and 1,500 multifamily units in metro Atlanta conform to the EarthCraft House and EarthCraft Community standards, developed here by the Southface Energy Institute and the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. And thanks in particular to the commitments of Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta has topped the list of the most LEED-certified buildings anywhere in the country. Here are two statistics that demonstrate the degree to which Atlanta has begun to grow up instead of out: metro Atlanta chopped down an average of 54 acres of trees every day between 1992 and 2001; but by 2006, the City of Atlanta issued more building permits than any of the surrounding 20 counties.

To urbanists accustomed to associating Atlanta only with the worst aspects of sprawl, let this book be a revelation. Yes, much of Atlanta is overrun with traffic congestion and the kind of auto-dependent development patterns that correlate with unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles and consequent increases in obesity, diabetes, social isolation and many other ills. But, this may paradoxically explain why the region has incubated so many innovative alternatives to sprawl.

Is it a coincidence that Dr. Richard Jackson, then-Director of the CDC division covering environmental health, had an “Aha!” moment recognizing the impact of poor urban design on public health while driving to work on one of Atlanta’s more notorious commercial-strip highways? He and his co-authors of the seminal 2004 book, Urban Sprawl and Public Health, Dr. Lawrence Frank and CNU 18 honorary chair Dr. Howard Frumkin, described the ever-mounting research into the unintended public health consequences of suburban lifestyles. Suddenly, the picture of suburbia as the most healthy choice for raising families and the most healthy pattern for our country’s growth was called into question.

This is a question that CNU answers by urging greater reinvestment in existing neighborhoods, greater conservation of unbuilt areas and the promotion of more compact, connected, mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhoods. I am confident that CNU and CDC will continue to collaborate in the future. Is it too much to hope that we will see messages like “Warning: the Surgeon General has determined that this zoning code is dangerous to your community’s health?” It took twenty years to get a similar warning on cigarette packs. Who knows how long it will take to truly retool attitudes toward public health, safety, and welfare as they are affected by the design of our built environment? But as this book abundantly demonstrates, Atlanta has plenty of skin in the game.

I would like to sincerely thank the CNU Atlanta Chapter, especially Rebekah Calvert, Jonathan Lerner and the book-committee team, for putting this volume together. It allows us all to assess the transformations metropolitan Atlanta has undergone – and to anticipate the changes and challenges yet to come. We don’t have to wait twenty years to start building healthier places – just turn these pages to see that we’ve already begun.