View from the Brain Trust

Experts on public health, politics, demographics, land-use, and civil rights weigh in on some of the challenges ahead.

Our Panel of Experts

Ebenezer Aka, political science professor and director of the Urban Studies Program at Morehouse, is an expert in urban planning. (Read his extended responses here.)

Doug Bachtel, professor of housing and consumer economics at the University of Georgia, is a specialist in Georgia demographics analysis.

Sherry Farrugia, health IT strategic partners officer at Georgia Tech, studies consumer health behaviors. 

Ruth Kanfer, professor of psychology at Georgia Tech, specializes in the impact of aging on the workforce. 

Christopher Leinberger, professor at George Washington University, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a land-use expert. (Read his extended responses here.)

Michael Leo Owens, associate professor of political science at Emory University, is the author of God and Government in the Ghetto: The Politics of Church-State Collaboration in Black America. (Read his extended responses here.)

Doug Shipman, CEO of Atlanta-based National Center for Civil and Human Rights, has graduate degrees in both public policy and theological studies from Harvard. 

Kenneth Thorpe, chair of the health policy and management department of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory, is a national expert on the impact of obesity in healthcare. (Read his extended responses here.)

1. Metro Atlanta’s population is projected to top 8 million by 2040. How do we prevent growth from making traffic congestion even worse than it already is?

Bachtel: The key is mitigating the high amount of commuting. This can be achieved by employer mandates that financially reward carpooling, ride-sharing, and public transit. Building and expanding existing transportation corridors will only increase the problem’s severity.

Owens: Electrified fences? Seriously, on the one hand, the sagging economy may make it easier for us because reality will not match projections. Population growth will lag economic growth. On the other hand, Atlanta will need strong and vigorous institutions of regional governance. In other words, metro Atlanta should experiment with what it fears: a regional government empowered to supersede the parochialism of the area’s cities and suburbs.

Leinberger: Provide options and choice rather than the current situation where nearly everyone is forced to drive to every single destination. Like your personal finances, it is wisest to have a diversified portfolio. Atlanta has taken steps in this direction, such as Downtown’s tentative redevelopment, Decatur’s revitalization, Atlantic Station, and the impressive redevelopment of Buckhead and Midtown. The market wants much more. For example, walkable urban Grant Park, Virginia-Highland, and East Lake were the only neighborhoods in the region over the past decade to show real dollar increases in housing value, compared to an average metropolitan decline of 29 percent.

Shipman: The issue of traffic is often caused by folks needing an affordable home with decent schools, but that area is not near a job center. Land-use policy in the city should concentrate on job centers and affordable housing, while for the suburbs it should concentrate on density. Thoughtful policy can decrease the need to travel great distances to live daily life.

2. Atlanta has a high proportion of Gen X and Gen Y residents, and demographers predict an “age bubble.” How will these millennials influence growth, development, and culture? 

Kanfer: As more residents remain in the region, the proportion of older workers will grow, and these people are likely to work later in life. To make the most of this growing and more geographically stable older talent pool, policy makers need to rethink growth and development options that support older workforce employability—including, for example, ways to reduce the transportation “hassle” quotient associated with getting to work, and attracting companies that offer flexible work schedules, promote age-diversity, and provide age-appropriate skill-training programs.

Aka: Generation Y thinks Generation X is a bunch of whiners, while Gen X sees Gen Y as arrogant and entitled. Everyone thinks baby boomers are self-absorbed workaholics. All the generational differences prevail in Atlanta and affect workplaces—and all fabrics of life.

Shipman: Gen X and Y are more racially, ethnically, and geographically diverse—with many being first- or second-generation Americans. I expect them to want more cultural and cosmopolitan offerings; we see this reflected in the interest in food in Atlanta. They also have an affinity for more dense living developments.

Leinberger: Rising Gen Xers and Gen Yers do not see the world in the same way as boomers, yet in their narcissism, baby boomers do not tend to understand things have changed. The amount millennials drive is down dramatically; absolute miles driven by those aged sixteen to thirty-four peaked in 2001 and has dropped 23 percent since. Millennials would rather have a supercharged smartphone than a supercharged GTO.

3. Georgia has the second-highest rate of childhood obesity in the country. What is the single most effective thing we can do to reduce this epidemic? 

Thorpe: We need to reexamine physical activity and nutrition education in our schools. This will include not only working with children, but families as well. We also need to provide nutritious options for school lunches. The combination of nutrition education targeting families, enhanced and fun physical activity in school, and good meal options is a good place to start.

Farrugia: Childhood obesity can only be prevented by changing behavior—starting with the parents. It is a family matter, and as with any challenge is best overcome by setting reasonable goals, incenting and rewarding good behavior, and celebrating success as a family. An example is Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Strong4Life movement. [Editor’s Note: See related story on page 76.]

Owens: Encourage more self­-prepared sit-down meals, especially as families and neighbors.

Bachtel: Childhood obesity is in part a reflection of poverty and racial characteristics. Programs that target this problem must be directed by minority decision makers who have credibility in the African American and Hispanic communities. Political, sports, and entertainment leaders must be called upon to address the issue—from not only a child’s, but also a parent’s perspective.

4. Projections show Atlanta will be a majority-minority region by 2020. Growing Hispanic and Asian populations are changing the historically black-white composition. How will this affect culture and politics? 

Owens: A majority-minority region will be politically meaningful only if the new majority comprises citizens and voters. We can have theoretical discussions of the “browning” of Atlanta, but the reality will be a politically white-Anglo space for decades given that paths to citizenship (and voting) are not getting easier. Therefore, whites will continue to enjoy a greater share of political power, dictating the progress (or regress) of the region. Don’t get me wrong: We will see new pockets of Latino and Asian political power; however, the political power of nonwhites will remain weaker. Furthermore, the broader demographic and political context of Georgia will undermine the combined political power of racial and ethnic groups. So I don’t think we should get too animated about a coming majority-minority region known as Atlanta. Additionally, the region may become more mixed by race and ethnicity while the City of Atlanta transitions back to what it originally was—majority white.

Shipman: In politics, the degree of influence will depend on two key factors. Participation rates among Hispanic and Asian residents are lower, and most Asians and Hispanics do not live in the city of Atlanta. That means voter power is lessened—as is attention paid by officials and the press. Compare this with the sizeable influence of Atlanta’s LGBTQ community. Politics will change but will lag compared to actual numbers. In culture there will be greater near-term impact. We’re already seeing influences in food, art, and business. Intermarriage will change culture on the family and neighborhood level; Atlanta will likely be a city with high rates of multiracial kids. This will redefine the way race and ethnicity are discussed publicly and privately—and influence popular culture.

5. What worries you most about Atlanta’s future?

Shipman: For decades Atlanta benefited from growth fueled by people moving here. Following the Great Recession, population growth slowed, and it’s unclear what sectors will drive our economy. We need to quickly support development of new industries—not just corporate HQ relocations. We need thoughtful policy, a focus on entrepreneurship and related funding, and good economic development work to make sure all talent that moved or wants to move to Atlanta has options.

Leinberger: If you do not pass the transportation ballot measure, I would suggest someone be polite enough to turn out the lights and take away the welcome mat.

Owens: All of us who live in metro Atlanta should worry about our collective unwillingness or inability to see, think, and act regionally. Generally Atlantans lack a “regional perspective”—a strong view that cross-community sharing of resources benefits the entire region. Our dearth of this perspective perpetuates hoarding of resources, rooted in myths of scarcity, individualism, and otherness. This contributes to our problems, especially traffic congestion, failing schools, fragmentation of government and duplication of services, and the secession of resources via the incorporation of new cities—maybe counties. In sum, our hoarding weakens our region.

Thorpe: Transportation and traffic. I’m also worried about the area being overbuilt. We have an excess housing supply, and foreclosures continue to place downward pressure on property values.

6. What are you most optimistic about? 

Leinberger: I have known Atlanta and Atlantans for over thirty years. You are just about the most optimistic, can-do, open-for-any-challenge metropolitan region I know. The only competition is the folks from Dallas and Houston. The city that is too busy to hate, the center of the civil rights movement, the world’s largest airport, and the Olympics show you can never keep a good Atlantan down . . . unless you do it yourself. This is why the transportation ballot measure is another Olympic moment for your region.

Owens: I’m most optimistic that newcomers will see metro Atlanta for the Oz it has been and then make decisions with their feet, dollars, and votes to improve metro Atlanta as a place to live. Ultimately two words will truly direct the future of metro Atlanta: water and wheels. Without adequate supplies and conservation of water, metro Atlanta will wither economically. Without alternatives to driving, especially during the week, Atlanta will never be as great as it could be.

Shipman: The talent of Atlantans under forty. The diversity of backgrounds and experiences, combined with a high degree of educational achievement, makes me optimistic about Atlanta’s future. I believe that creative talent, if supported, will develop new institutions, businesses, and opportunities to allow Atlanta to reinvent itself again. The changing demographics of Atlanta, combined with our civil rights legacy, provide a unique opportunity for the region to lead the country in thinking about living in a highly diverse world. Atlanta has always found ways to bring more people to the table; we have the opportunity to redefine how a community operates across all aspects of identity. Atlanta was known for the way it created the template for a post-segregation city; we can do it again for a majority-minority country that is inclusive of LGBTQ folks, honors all religious traditions, and has power shared equally by men and women.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.