Growing Smartly is a City’s Biggest Challenge, Says InterFace Keynote Speaker
ATLANTA — Tim Keane, City of Atlanta’s planning commissioner, is tasked with a monumental challenge facing many planners: how to practically design the future for a city on the cusp of a population boom.
Citing the Atlanta Regional Commission, Keane said that the Atlanta metro area is on track to add 2.5 million people over the next 25 years, the equivalent of adding the entire metro Charlotte population.
The city’s in-town population is also expected to grow from less than 500,000 today to 1.2 million in that same time frame. Adding to the challenge are city departments and communities that are unwilling to change because of a mindset that is resistant to growth.
“Everyone thinks that more people is bad,” said Keane, who previously worked in the city planning departments in Davidson, N.C., and Charleston. “They don’t work on the assumption that a clear future for themselves is better with more people. We have to break out of that mentality because the change is happening.”
Keane was the keynote speaker at the eighth annual InterFace Multifamily Southeast conference, held on Tuesday, Nov. 28 at the Westin Buckhead in Atlanta. Hosted by InterFace Conference Group and Southeast Real Estate Business, the event drew just over 400 professionals in the multifamily real estate sector.
Keane said his team drew from an unlikely source to design the future of Atlanta: Chicago — in 1909.
“The business community in Chicago commissioned the plan for Chicago in the early 20th century when Chicago was not a sophisticated place. It was a backwater, slaughterhouse, prairie town,” said Keane. “The business community wanted to show the world that Chicago was a city of the future.”
The business community of Chicago commissioned Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett to produce a new design for the city, which called for the Lake Michigan waterfront to be public, an innovative approach at the time that helped shape the city’s identity, which has endured.
“If we shift our thinking to that the city is something that needs to be designed, not just planned, perhaps we can be successful,” said Keane.
Seeing the Forest Through the Trees
For Atlanta, the lack of a clear plan for growth has hampered its potential, according to Keane. One of the biggest challenges for city planners is for their growth strategy to not just be a series of projects but a common design where each venture complements a central concept.
“The concept has been missing for Atlanta, and a lot of cities in America are lacking a clear identity as to how they can grow physically into better places,” said Keane.
While not built along a waterfront or in a grid or square formation like many of its peers, Atlanta has central thoroughfares that originate in the city center and then extend out in every direction. The best-known example is Peachtree Street, which connects several dense districts like Buckhead and Midtown, but are flanked on both sides with single-family neighborhoods and parks with dense tree canopies.
Keane believes the tree canopy and natural green spaces are the identity for Atlanta, often referred to as “a city in a forest.”
“Atlanta has the largest percentage tree canopy of any city in America; that’s like our Lake Michigan waterfront,” said Keane. “If we continue to develop these green spaces and make the connection between urban and nature really special, Atlanta will be an incredible place to live. We have a lot of forest, but not much access. But that’s changing.”
Projects like Proctor Creek Greenway and the ongoing completion of the Atlanta BeltLine are restoring natural features but are also making public spaces. Similar to how the BeltLine will eventually connect more than 40 in-town neighborhoods, the greenway is designed to connect downtown Atlanta to the Chattahoochee River.
“This relationship between urban and nature is where Atlanta has an opportunity to really distinguish itself,” said Keane, who reeled off a number of other growing cities in the Southeast region. “Charlotte has the strongest urban growth of any city in the region. Dense metros are getting denser in Charlotte. Job growth and desire for urban living are fueling Nashville’s apartment boom. Raleigh’s growth downtown is just beginning.”
— John Nelson
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