As several participants noted, a vision for a sustainable metropolitan Atlanta should look out over several decades, but residents should also be able to envision the steps that might be taken during this transition so that actions taken today help shift the region’s trajectory. This final chapter summarizes participants’ discussion of the opportunities and challenges implicit in such a shift. Specific issues participants raised included the need to change perceptions of (and in) the region, the power of example from highly connected, neighborhood-scale redevelopment, and the opportunity to employ adaptive management principles in pursuit of sustainability.
ENVISIONING A SUSTAINABLE ATLANTA REGION
Jeremy Hess, assistant professor, Department of Environmental Health, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, remarked that sustainability as a goal sounds like a utopian ideal, and so it is helpful to focus on asking what a sustainable Atlanta region would look like. Numerous participants emphasized that there did not seem to be a collective vision for the region, but that such a vision might help individuals and institutions coalesce around this idea of sustainability. One participant suggested that area residents resist changing the paradigm if they feel it is threatening their way of life or requiring them to give something up. To counteract this resistance, other participants suggested that the discussion needed to be framed in a positive light and, rather than antagonize specific acts, the discussion needs to highlight the gains from more sustainable approaches and to focus energy on developing incentives for these approaches.
Renee Glover, president and CEO, Atlanta Housing Authority, pointed out that Atlanta has been on the uptick for years, but this has
gone unnoticed. She reminded participants that, prior to Atlanta hosting the 1996 Olympic Games, it was considered one of the most violent cities in the United States, and one of the poorest; it was losing population; and it had a poor education system. Ms. Glover remarked that Atlanta had made great strides, and the sacrifices that residents assumed they would have to make as part of this transition have not been so noticeable. Other participants suggested that the image of Atlanta has been slower to change than the reality on the ground.
Ms. Glover stated that residents in the region, after decades of moving farther from the urban core, are realizing that this pattern is neither sustainable nor desirable. Long commutes, isolation, and expenses associated with sprawling development may provide the impetus for more residents to get involved in developing a shared vision for metropolitan Atlanta. She referred to this visioning as communities of choice that provide the amenities people desire, all at a reasonable distance.
Some groups have already been working on developing visions for a more sustainable Atlanta. The Atlanta Regional Commission developed the Atlanta Fifty Forward initiative; this visioning effort was designed to delve into critical sustainability issues that will shape the Atlanta metropolitan area for 50 years into the future. The initiative will include a series of public forums held quarterly to discuss a variety of key topics associated with sustainability in Atlanta.
In addition, John Crittenden, director of the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems with the Georgia Institute of Technology, mentioned a recent Georgia Tech project to model scenarios where sprawling development was “reversed” and metropolitan Atlanta’s natural systems (primarily forest cover) were restored within 100 years. Dr. Crittenden mentioned an exercise referred to as the Red Fields to Green Fields project, the red fields referring to underperforming commercial assets, which present a challenge in the region. The project proposes to set up a $200 billion land bank to buy up failed commercial properties, get them off of banks’ books, and convert them to parks for 10 years. This would give the remaining commercial properties a better chance of survival. Afterward, they would redevelop 70 percent of the purchased land, while 30 percent becomes dedicated public park space.
EDUCATING THE PUBLIC
Though education was not a formal topic on the agenda, it was frequently a subject of discussions and presentations, and many participants emphasized that education would be a critical part of metropolitan Atlanta’s transition to sustainability. As one participant noted, the overall quality of education systems in the region will affect metropolitan Atlanta’s ability to attract and retain businesses. Other participants remarked that failing schools in the city of Atlanta had been a primary driver in the expansion of the suburbs.
More specifically, however, participants discussed how and why education on sustainability issues could have an impact on the region. To begin, several participants remarked that, although sustainability was a complex and sometimes abstract topic, it may not be helpful to always reduce it down to sound bites. Instead, the important message is that the built environment and the natural environment are inextricably linked, that choices made in one facet inevitably affect other facets, and that a more sustainable approach could reinforce a number of goals.
Additionally, an informed citizenry has the potential to influence the political climate and to elect leaders and public officials that are receptive to creating sustainability goals and implementing programs that achieve those goals. A number of participants suggested that, without a bottom-up demand for sustainability, it is unlikely that champions would emerge in the region’s elected leadership.
CHALLENGES FOR RESEARCH
Participants discussed a number of areas where targeted research could help close knowledge gaps, enhance the effectiveness of education, and provide information that influences decisions in the region. One recurring theme was full costing (and calculable benefits) for a business-as-usual scenario vis-à-vis a sustainable growth scenario. Participants noted that local and state governments are constantly struggling to evaluate full costs and benefits of their decisions and that conventional accounting approaches are insufficient.
A number of workshop participants noted that research into visualization and simulation tools would be welcome and it would be useful to take advantage of computational power and access to computers
so that Infrastructure Ecology principles could inform simulations by any citizen to model changes at the national, regional, local, and single-family-home levels (e.g., SimCity). Finally, many workshop participants indicated that research should help scientists and other stakeholders distinguish between audiences and the learning styles (communications tools) of those audiences.
One participant questioned whose responsibility it is to shepherd research findings into operations and suggested that research that relies on public funding, but does not then reach the public (via influencing decision makers), is not actually benefiting the public good. As several speakers and participants noted, this appears to be a role for multistakeholder partnerships, where research agencies have their priorities informed by decision makers’ informational needs, and research outputs can be handed off to organizations who can disseminate (or translate, as needed) relevant findings.
TOWARD ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT IN THE REGION
Finally, a number of participants suggested, given that metropolitan Atlanta is a complex system, that it might be useful to explore adaptive management principles from ecology. Adaptive management is defined by the U.S. Geological Survey as a “structured approach to resource management” (USGS, 2011). It is an iterative process, consisting of 5 steps, including “1) [c]onsidering various actions to meet management objectives; 2) [p]redicting the outcomes of these management actions based on what is currently known; 3) [i]mplementing management actions; 4) [m]onitoring to observe the results of those actions; and 5) [u]sing the results to update knowledge and adjust future management actions accordingly” (USGS, 2011). When managing a socioecological system with so much complexity, it is not possible to always understand and anticipate how the system will react. Rather, adaptive management recognizes that these systems are dynamic, and so managing them requires continual accumulation of evidence, learning from it, and accepting some uncertainty. Wayne Zipperer, research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station, noted that decision makers do not like uncertainty, but he also emphasized that learning is an important part of adaptation and that metropolitan Atlanta would continue to improve as decision makers continue to adapt to changes and new information.
Graeme Lockaby, director, Center for Forest Sustainability, Auburn University, stated that it is important to recognize societal benefits and the value of preserving ecosystems that exist on the urban–rural boundary. Ecologists want to be part of the sustainability solution and their knowledge of local ecosystems and adaptive management principles could be employed to enhance public understanding of the issues.