This article originally appeared in Design Equilibrium 2021, released March 2021.
Cities are inherently complex organisms, personifying traits that mimic the citizens who inhabit them. After all, cities are living, breathing entities that constantly grow, evolve, adapt, and, amid these evolutions, attempt to learn from their mistakes. The built environment mirrors sociology in many ways, creating this paradoxical question of whether its people drive the city or vice versa. The innate complexities of cities — both the built and the unseen — create challenges in providing ideal opportunities for people of all backgrounds to explore them. The great cities of the modern era, as well as those historically, have several utopian things in common: a well-connected urban fabric; charming, walkable neighborhoods; beautiful tree-lined boulevards; several square miles of green space; accessible transit; mixed-use environments; and of course, beautiful architecture that harmoniously frames all of these elements in a picturesque way.
However, the story that remains untold when admiring a city’s postcard image is that of the socioeconomic disparities that figuratively and literally shape and divide urban communities. Atlanta is far from immune to this. “The A,” as we affectionately know it, is a beautiful city, rich in history and drenched in culture. Still, as it continues to grow, evolve, and adapt, Atlanta must examine whether it promotes equitable access to the city’s great resources or whether it is passively — or, more nefariously, actively — restricts access to its great urban spaces.
Atlanta, along with a host of other Sunbelt cities, has a sordid history of adopting municipal and zoning policy that is racially-based, economically-based, and generationally-based, and the persisting residue of those policies continues to plague the way our cities develop. These decisions were partially based on some elitist misguided belief that certain sects of the population, based on socioeconomics, were more deserving of a higher-quality built environment than others. However, the incontrovertible reality is that no single person possesses more of a right to enjoy any public space than any other. It would be naïve not to recognize that we live in a profoundly capitalistic society and that access to wealth is a factor. But a lack of wealth should not be prohibitive regarding reasonable access to a city’s great urban spaces.