Extended Interview: Michael Leo Owens

August 2012 “View From the Brain Trust” feature

1. Metro Atlanta’s population is projected to top 7 million by 2030. What do you think is the single most important thing that should be done to prevent that growth in population from making our traffic congestion even worse that it already is?

Electrified fences? Seriously, on the one hand, the sagging economy may make it easier for us because the projections will not match reality. Population growth in metro Atlanta will lag behind economic growth. On the other hand, Atlanta will need strong and vigorous institutions of regional governance to use transit, residential density, and economic investment in ways that get people quicker and (maybe sadly for some) closer to their jobs and favorite cultural and recreational amenities. 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. It could include a mix of representatives elected at-large and by districts. But the city would need to promote, convene, and facilitate profound citizen engagement and deliberation with some direct connections to policymaking. Plus, it would need the support of the state legislature. Consequently, what metro Atlanta really may need is a more rational and professional state legislature to create a climate that engages citizens in solutions for major problems like traffic congestion, and not just by half-baked transportation referendums held at odd times about projects lacking regional coherence.

2. Demographers predict that Atlanta—which has a high proportion of Gen X and Gen Y residents—will experience an “age bubble” in the coming decades. How will this cohort influence the future of Atlanta? Do Gen X and Y look for different things than their Baby Boomer predecessors, and if so, how will this affect growth, development, and/or culture in Atlanta?

I recently traveled to Chicago with some members of Gen X and Y. That city amazed them, mainly for its preservation and promotion of green space along the lakeshore, its preservation and repurposing of buildings, its investment and mass-use of public transit, and its pedestrian traffic. They wondered why Atlanta, especially the central city, couldn’t be as great and as cool as Chicago. They also believed that it had the potential to be as great and as cool as any place on the planet. With their optimism, however, they expressed a yearning for a more sustainable and futuristic life. They also expressed a desire for broader and deeper civic and communal spaces without the baggage of race, partisanship, and ideology that limits possibilities and fosters zero-sum thought and action. This seems generational and admirable. Their observations and conversations made me hopeful that their coming leadership of our political, commercial, and civic institutions will permit more experimentation with alternative designs for sharing the public space.

3. Georgia has the second highest rate of childhood obesity in the country. What do you think is the single most effective thing we can do to reduce this epidemic (and thus the associated health concerns and costs)?

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

4. Projections show that metro Atlanta will soon be a majority-minority region, and in the coming decades our demographics will shift even more, with a growing proportion of Hispanic and Asian residents changing the region’s historically black-white biracial composition. How do you think this new multiracial and multiethnic mix will affect culture and politics in the region?

A majority-minority region will be politically meaningful only if the new majority is comprised of citizens and voters. Projects, however, suggest otherwise. We can have interesting theoretical discussions of the coming browning of metro Atlanta, especially by Latinos, but the reality will be that metro Atlanta will remain a politically White/Anglo space for many decades to come, given that immigration begins with non-citizenship and paths to citizenship (and voting) are not getting easier. Therefore, whites will continue to enjoy a greater share of political power than other groups, dictating the progress (or regress) of the region. Plus, a majority-minority region, one with a greater multiracial and multiethnic mix, may yield greater residential integration among groups in the region, while social inequities between the groups continue in perpetuity (even if some individual racial and ethnic minorities continue to advance beyond the status of their groups).

Don’t get me wrong: We will see new pockets of Latino and Asian political power, and some of it will align with black political power and/or white political power. The pockets of political power by non-whites, however, will remain politically weaker compared to the white purses of power. Furthermore, the broader demographic and political context of Georgia will undermine the combined political power of racial and ethnic groups when it chooses. So, I don’t think we should get too animated about a coming majority-minority region known as Atlanta.

Additionally, the projections suggest that the region may become more mixed by race and ethnicity while the city of Atlanta transitions back to what it originally was, a majority white city. When it happens, it’ll be interesting to see if a majority-white city called Atlanta allows for what has long been fought – the annexation of the northern majority-white suburbs (and now its majority-white cities like Sandy Springs) to create a true big city with a strong revenue base for better governance.

All I really know, however, is that we should expect some interesting political times down the road.

5. When you think about Atlanta’s future, what worries you most?

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

6. When you think about Atlanta’s future, what are you most optimistic about?

I’m most optimistic that newcomers to the region 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.

7. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

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 adequate alternatives to driving, especially during the week, metro Atlanta will never be as great as it could be.