The U.S. population is more than 80 percent urban, and while these urban environments have been the locus of modern economic development, they have also contributed to environmental and social inequities. In many cases, these issues involve complex interactions (e.g., between humans and their environment, between energy and water use) that are not fully understood or adequately acknowledged. Moreover, the institutions that have developed over time to manage the urban environment are not typically accustomed to cooperating on cross-cutting issues, though there are encouraging signs that cities are recognizing this and identifying more integrated approaches to the challenges they face. The federal government has also recently enhanced efforts to support metropolitan regions in becoming more sustainable. This has required an unprecedented degree of collaboration among agencies and stakeholders working across their respective sectors to address these complex interrelated issues.
In 1993, the President’s Council on Sustainable Development (Clinton, 1993) provided a working definition for sustainable communities as “healthy communities where natural and historic resources are preserved, jobs are available, sprawl is contained, neighborhoods are secure, education is life-long, transportation and health care are accessible, and all citizens have opportunities to improve the quality of their lives.” Thus a key challenge for U.S. cities and their metropolitan environs is to “develop sustainable urban systems that provide healthy, safe, and affordable environments” (NRC, 2010). The systems aspect was emphasized throughout the workshop because, as the workshop organizers and participants noted, decisions made in one sector have (often unintended) consequences for other sectors. Climate change has served as a useful lens for urbanized areas to begin thinking about sustainability issues and developing responses, although a holistic approach to sustainability will require responses that go beyond energy
and climate change adaptation. Unpacking the complexities of a sustainable urban system will often require context-specific and place-based approaches, given the diverse regional economies, ecosystems, and communities in the United States. The intent of this workshop (and the proposed series of regional workshops) was to examine a metropolitan region as case study so that researchers and practitioners could improve their understanding of some of the spatial and temporal aspects of urban sustainability.
The metropolitan Atlanta region provided a compelling example for exploring urban sustainability issues because the region faces rapid growth and has experienced well-documented challenges related to water, land use, and transportation. As of 2009, approximately 515,000 people resided in the city of Atlanta; about 43 percent of the population were white and 50 percent were African American. The median household income (in inflation-adjusted dollars) was about $50,000, and about 46 percent of the population had a bachelor’s degree or higher. About 18 percent of families lived below the poverty level during this period (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011a). The Atlanta metropolitan area includes 28 counties in northern Georgia. In 2009, the total estimated population for this area was 5,475,213 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011b).
ORGANIZATION OF THE WORKSHOP
An expert planning committee was appointed by the National Research Council to organize a workshop in Atlanta, Georgia, that would explore the region’s approach to urban sustainability, with an emphasis on building the evidence base upon which policies and programs might be developed. On September 30 and October 1, 2010, an ad hoc committee on behalf of the National Academies’ Science and Technology for Sustainability Program hosted the workshop, and participants examined how the interaction of various systems (natural and human systems; energy, water, and transportation systems) affected the region’s social, economic, and environmental conditions (see Appendix A).
The four objectives of the workshop were as follows:
Discuss the ways that regional actors are approaching sustainability—specifically, how they are attempting to merge environmental, social, and economic objectives.
Share information about ongoing activities and strategic planning efforts, including lessons learned.
Examine the role that science, technology, and research can play in supporting efforts to make the region more sustainable.
Explore how federal agency efforts, particularly interagency partnerships, can complement or leverage the efforts of other key stakeholders.
The workshop was designed to allow discussion of challenges faced by the Atlanta metropolitan region regarding sustainability efforts and to explore innovative approaches to addressing these complex challenges, performance measures to gauge success, and opportunities to link knowledge with on-the-ground action. It should be noted that many of the sustainability efforts described in the report focus on the city of Atlanta, which represents about 20 percent of the population of the Atlanta metropolitan region. Although the specific efforts discussed will not all be directly applicable to the entire metropolitan area, several (e.g., transportation and energy challenges) will be relevant to the larger Atlanta metropolitan region.
The planning committee developed an agenda to address topical concerns that cut across the concerns of individual institutions. These topics were intended to be timely and reflect the interests of a variety of stakeholders. Panelists were encouraged to share their perspectives on a given topic. However, each panel was designed to raise critical issues and to provoke discussion that took advantage of the broad experience of the participants.
Information on the workshop, including archived presentations, can be found at the following website: http://sites.nationalacademies.org/PGA/sustainability/atlantaurban/index.htm. The event was carried out in cooperation with local partners and was hosted at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but it also engaged local, state, and federal agencies in order to explore how their resources could best support sustainable improvements in the Atlanta metropolitan region. This document offers a broad contextual summary of workshop presentations and discussions related to urban sustainability issues in the metropolitan Atlanta region.
ORGANIZATION OF THE WORKSHOP SUMMARY
Dr. Denise Stephenson Hawk, consultant and former associate director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, opened the discussion by introducing the scope and objectives of the workshop. She emphasized the importance of urban sustainability as an immediate and critical issue. The objectives of the workshop, as described by Dr. Hawk, included exploring how the interaction of various systems (natural and human systems; energy, water, and transportation systems) affects the region’s social, economic, and environmental conditions. The workshop discussion would also examine the challenges faced by the Atlanta region and would engage local, state, and federal agencies in exploring how their resources could best support sustainable improvements in the Atlanta metropolitan region.
Chapters 2–6 of the report summarize the individual presentations and panel and breakout group discussions. Each panel and breakout group was designed to discuss a specific subject (see Appendix A), but throughout the workshop there were also several overarching themes that emerged in more than one discussion. These themes were not discussed in any depth, but they are nonetheless significant because they reflect some commonalities among different aspects of sustainability issues in the Atlanta metropolitan region. There were also important terms, such as infrastructure ecology, or health impact assessments, which were discussed in several presentations and sessions. These terms are defined in the chapters where they first appear, but they are also referred to in subsequent chapters. Sustainability, arguably the most important term discussed, was initially framed by workshop participants as a “goal of meeting human needs while conserving natural life support systems” (WCED, 1987). Several participants reframed the term, to place it in either a location-specific context or to reflect complementary goals (e.g., resilience or livability). In addition, several participants expressed differing views of sustainability; some viewed the concept from an economic perspective, while others related it more to environmental and social issues.
Chapter 2, Reframing the Problem, captures how many of the participants framed sustainability and identifies ways in which regional actors are currently addressing some of the linkages among environmental, economic, and equity concerns. In Chapter 3 (Knowledge Gaps, New Markets, and Political Will), the discussion focuses on some
of the perceived knowledge gaps in the region. The chapter also describes the critical role that individual behavior plays in sustainability challenges and the importance of framing some of these specific challenges in terms of furthering the economic development of the region. Chapter 4 summarizes panelists’ and participants’ comments on sustainability indicators for the region and how competitiveness among metropolitan areas may influence this field. Institutionalizing Sustainability, the title of Chapter 5, refers to the efforts occurring in the region and at a federal level to use sustainability as an organizing principle and to move from ad hoc approaches to a more coordinated response. Finally, Pathways Forward (Chapter 6) summarizes some of the ideas participants discussed that could help put metropolitan Atlanta on a trajectory toward sustainability, and some of the early successes on which they can build.