The City of Decatur

For building a sustainable future
Illustration by Jamie Jones

When firefighters at Decatur’s Fire Station No. 1 aren’t saving lives or property, they engage in a more prosaic form of rescue—collecting rainwater to wash their fire trucks and “greywater” (runoff from showers) to flush the station’s toilets. They shower in water heated by solar panels and keep warm during winter shifts thanks to a geothermal heating system. A garden on the roof absorbs excess rain, while white panels deflect the sun’s rays.

The 1950s-era firehouse was renovated in 2012 to the highest possible standard of energy efficiency. It now serves as a symbol of Decatur’s commitment to sustainability, which the city of 20,000 defines in the broadest possible sense—to include tangibles like water conservation as well as the more complex issue of gentrification.

Decatur’s goal: Connect environmental, economic, community, and institutional elements. “For true sustainability, you can’t just have any one of those pieces,” says city project manager Lena Stevens. “You’ve really got to have all four functioning well.”

The City of Decatur has garnered plenty of awards for its environmental work. Last year it became the first local government to reach platinum status in the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Green Communities program, a designation that recognizes an all-encompassing effort. Decatur has a six-page list of green initiatives, including: LEED ratings for five municipal buildings (platinum for that fire station); underground cisterns that capture then slowly release stormwater; a “pay as you throw” sanitation policy; a Community Forest Master Plan; and a Street Tree Canopy Assessment, which included hiring a full-time arborist.

Starting in November, all new construction and commercial improvements over a certain monetary amount must have some form of environmental certification, such as LEED or EarthCraft. The city is poised to add a similar requirement to significant home renovations.

But sustainability goes beyond Decatur’s “greenest city” accolades. At a compact 4.4 square miles, Decatur prides itself on a small-town vibe and its efforts to include residents in discussions about the city’s future. To craft the 2010 Strategic Plan, Decatur hosted dozens of roundtables. Residents submitted hundreds of ideas for the Decatur Environmental Sustainability Plan.

The next hot topic: diversity. Thanks to its walkability and well-regarded school system, Decatur has become a desirable—and increasingly expensive—address, resulting in a dramatic shift in demographics, which city leaders documented with an analysis of census data. Now the town long known as a multicultural, liberal enclave is undergoing self-examination.

Starting in August, the Better Together initiative will gather residents’ ideas on how Decatur should maintain its diversity, with the goal of crafting a community action plan by year’s end.

“This is looking for diversity in a lot of ways—race and ethnicity, age, gender, income, and special needs,” says Linda Harris, chief of civic engagement, education, and communication.

A lifelong resident, Harris attended Decatur High School when it was integrated in the 1960s. In the ensuing years, she saw white families move further out to the suburbs and African American families move in. By the time her own children went to Decatur High in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the school was majority black.

Today the trend has reversed again. From 1990 to 2010, the white population in Decatur rose from 60 percent to 74 percent, while the black population declined to 20 percent. The change is most apparent in the Oakhurst neighborhood, where the black population dropped from 4,000 to just 1,400.

In 2010 half the homes in Decatur were worth more than $336,400—almost double the median value in DeKalb County. Some public officials would boast about rising property values, but Decatur’s leaders fret. “We have to be intentional and conscious,” says Mayor Pro Tem Kecia Cunningham. “We don’t want to wake up one day living in Stepford.”

To boost affordability, Decatur’s new zoning ordinance allows for “cottage court” development, in which five to nine single-family houses surround a courtyard, and for carriage houses to be built behind larger houses. Such smaller homes with less upkeep may appeal to older people. Decatur has an initiative for that population too, which includes a Lifelong Community Advisory Board and an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Service Project to repair homes of low-income elderly residents.

For this small city, there is an overriding question, says public information officer Casie Yoder: “How do we make sure Decatur is a place where you can spend your entire life?”

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This article originally appeared in our September 2015 issue.