August 30 , 1999
Volume 52, No. 2
Cleland, Barnes, Chace tackle tough issues at smart growth forum
Difficult decisions lie ahead, but what city planners advocating smart growth are proposing "isn't rocket science." That was the message more than 200 people carried away from the Emory Conference Center Aug. 25, when the University hosted a field tour of the U.S. Senate Smart Growth Task Force.
"I love the term 'smart growth' because nobody could be against it--who could be for 'dumb growth?'" asked Gov. Roy Barnes, who created the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) this year to deal with regional traffic congestion and air quality issues. "I want to make something clear: I am not here to stop growth. But what sells houses, what brings growth, is quality of life, and if we destroy quality of life and do not seek to preserve it, we kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs."
That goose is Atlanta, and the golden eggs are the remarkable prosperity the city has enjoyed in the last 30 years. However that same growth has made the average Atlanta work commute the longest in the country at 36.5 miles, and the resulting traffic has contaminated the city's airspace to the point where 53 days this summer exceeded federal ozone levels, making it unsafe for children to play outside or elderly Atlantans to even breathe.
U.S. Senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a 1968 Emory graduate and a native of Lithonia, is on the task force and said the problem is one facing all of Georgia, not just metro Atlanta. "We have to tackle this problem as one state; we can't afford two Georgias," Cleland said. "Since this is my home, [whenever] I begin thinking about retirement I would like to look back and say we did some smart things."
Emory has already begun doing smart things, which is why it received the honor of hosting the event. The University's Campus Master Plan and push toward alternative transportation are the kinds of comprehensive efforts toward which smart growth strives.
"We don't think our particular planning has the answers for all of Atlanta, but uncontrolled, thoughtless growth will poison our communities and the communities we leave for our descendants," said President Bill Chace. Intelligent planning must be done collaboratively, he said, with government, business and communities working together "because there are no real boundaries between organizations and communities."
Emory master planner Adam Gross, of the architectural firm Ayers/Saint/Gross, sat on the panel and said the issue is not just about transportation and air quality, but about land use itself. "It's very moving to hear a United States senator and a governor sit up here and talk about the new urbanization," Gross said. Communities should resemble Atlanta's own Virginia-Highland neighborhood, he said, where people can walk from home to work to grocery store and so on. "What we are talking about is not rocket science."
Also speaking were Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce; Joel Cowan, chair of GRTA; John Wilson, president of the Southern Coalition for Advanced Transportation; and Erick Gaither, Emory senior associate vice president for business management and president of the Clifton Corridor Transportation Management Association.
"Growth for the sake of growth is no longer an admirable goal," admitted Williams. "If we don't find a solution, the solution will find us in the form of choking traffic that will stop our growth. We have to think in terms of a new model of urban growth; current zoning ordinances don't encourage walking neighborhoods."
Barnes addressed that concept in the Q&A session that followed the panel's opening remarks. "All city planning is about land use," he said. "We have been subsidizing the land use policies that created the problems; why can't we subsidize policies that solve them?"
Cleland spoke of federal policy "getting smarter" as it relates to transportation, specifically referring to 1991's Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA, commonly called "ice tea"). "We're in a position in Georgia to require 'SWEET' ISTEA: Southern Wisdom Enhancing Everybody's Transportation," he joked.
All the panelists commended the leadership role businesses took in helping form GRTA and conceded that any move toward smart growth and planning is doomed without the support of the business community. Even with that support, the task will not be easy.
"All of us are aware of the truth," Chace said. "Everyone will be asked to surrender a fraction of what they have so communities to come will not be deprived of what should be theirs."Pushing hard for the changes may even cost these men their jobs. "We're all, especially Max and I, at the whim of the public," Barnes admitted. "If they don't like what we're doing, they can change it come the next election. And that is their right."