Arriving at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest airport with 101 million passengers, my expectation of one of America’s fastest growing cities, with a metropolitan area population of almost 6 million, was pretty low. It was not a city I would ever have visited were it not for my eldest daughter going to study there at Emory University. I’d heard about it through it hosting the Olympic Games and through its music – mainly OutKast – when André 3000 informed the world in 1995 that “the south got something to say”, but ATL, A-Town, or Hotlanta was not somewhere that I ever thought might provide me with positive inspiration for the future of urbanism.
Topographically, Atlanta was a surprise. I’d expected a desert city, like Phoenix, but it is actually ‘a city in a forest’, green and lush, with tree coverage of 48 per cent. Within this verdant settlement there has been a rapid economic growth. The Atlanta metropolitan area added 1.2 million people between 2000 and 2008, more than any city in the US except Dallas. The most recent population estimate, in October 2019, was 498,044 for the city proper, with an overall population for the wider Atlanta metropolitan area of 5.9 million, making it the ninth largest in the United States.
But what is really most interesting to me about Atlanta is its urbanism and, to borrow Edward Glaeser’s phrase, the Triumph of the City.”
For the seasoned architectural tourist, there are some great individual gems. The John Portman-designed Marriot Marquis and Hyatt Regency hotels, with their soaring atria and wall-climbing lifts; the High Museum by Richard Meier, extended by Renzo Piano; the exquisite in-situ concrete Cannon Chapel by Paul Rudolph at Emory University; the Carlos Museum, a fine example of Michael Graves’s work, also at Emory; and the beautifully geometric children’s playground by Isamu Noguchi in Piedmont Park.
But what is really most interesting to me about Atlanta is its urbanism and, to borrow Edward Glaeser’s phrase, the Triumph of the City: the urban environment seen not as a gas-guzzling environmental disaster, but as a positive human endeavour. This is made manifest in many ways but is clearest in the visible workings of Atlanta’s urban planning and infrastructure. Two polar but complementary examples of this are the Peachtree Centre, a complex of John Portman buildings in the downtown area, and the more recent BeltLine, the vision of urban thinker and planner Ryan Gravel.
As federal support for urban renewal faded in the 1970s, Portman masterplanned a privately financed development vision for the heart of the downtown area. The Peachtree Centre spans 14 blocks connected by skybridges, to create a city within a city. The development has been criticised for alienating pedestrians and making parts of downtown uninviting, but it is still evolving, and as a piece of blight-stopping regeneration, it has proved successful.
Atlanta oozes optimism for the future of the city and is moving forward because its government is friendlier towards new development than older communities.”
The BeltLine is an ambitious urban redevelopment transforming a loop of old railway line around the outer edge of the city into a 22-mile piece of catalyst infrastructure which is stimulating growth in 45 different Atlanta neighbourhoods. It connects large mixed-use adaptive re-use developments such as Ponce City Market and Krog Street Market, and will create 1,300 acres of new parkland, 5,600 affordable housing units and 1,000 acres of remediated industrial land.
Neither Peachtree nor BeltLine offer universal solutions to the complexities of city design, but they engage positively with the connections between ‘big idea’ infrastructure and our way of life. They show the importance of engaging with the various agencies at work in urban design, to arrive at something innovative at the intersection of architecture and real estate. They deal directly with large-scale issues of investment, the city, and with the people who make it work from a business and political perspective.
Atlanta oozes optimism for the future of the city and is moving forward because its government is friendlier towards new development than older communities in, say, California or the north-east, and represents an interesting counterpoint to the general European condition. If we advocates of older cities actually want to help them, we need to understand the dynamics of younger cities like Atlanta.