Urbanists in Atlanta and around the country are tearing their hair out after discovering the Northside Drive pedestrian bridge at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium came with a $33 million price tag – a figure the City has since disputed. Coinciding with budget shortfalls in the Renew Atlanta bond program, this prioritization illustrates the disparity between public funding for flashy projects and basic city infrastructure like sidewalks and multimodal streets. The shiny new bridge, a twisting collection of concrete and metal meant to funnel walkers over a six-lane car sewer, appears to some as a beacon of progress. For us, it is a glaring reminder that the Atlanta is often not built to foster equity.
All this talk of bridges reminded us of another space about a mile away that took a decidedly different approach: the Fifth Street Bridge in Midtown, built in 2004. In contrast to the infamous pedestrian bridge, this project took what could have been another mediocre swath of concrete spanning the City’s vast connector and instead created a people-focused bridge equipped with green space, shade, public seating, generous sidewalks, bike lanes, dignified transit stops, and appropriately sized vehicle lanes – all for around $10.12 million ($13.7 million in 2019 dollars). That’s right; the money spent on the Northside Drive pedestrian bridge would have paid for nearly two and a half Fifth street bridges.
While the disparity between the projects is troubling purely from an economic perspective, we should also be deeply concerned when we ask of these projects: Who are they for?
In his book, Happy City, Charles Montgomery provides excellent perspective on this question. Montgomery cites numerous disturbing trends directly related to the design of our public spaces: poorer and minority neighborhoods are less likely to have access to parks, green space, recreations centers, and fewer trees along streets. Fully a third of Americans are too young, too old, too poor, too infirm, or not interested in driving. Minority neighborhoods are less likely to have sidewalks than white neighborhoods; and poor children are more likely to be killed on roads than wealthy children.
The function of these projects – and their use of limited public funding – matters more than their status as a symbol of progress and prosperity for the City. Their physical presence determines whether our city is equitable – and where equity lies among the priorities of our city leadership. One offers space where diverse users feel dignified and valued as citizens of their city; the other does not.
Montgomery also writes:
“These inequities need to be confronted: in part for the sake of the poor, who have every bit as much right to the public benefits of the city as the wealthy; in part for the soul of the city, which, as the Greeks knew, was above all a shared project; and in part for purely pragmatic reasons – in a fairer city, life can be better for everyone.” (Happy City, 244)
As we collectively work to build the beloved community through our everyday lives, we must continually ask of ourselves and our elected officials: Who is our city for? What does Atlanta look like when it allows all residents to feel like valued citizens? How is Atlanta designed when it respects human dignity – cyclist or scooterist, wheel-chair user or pedestrian, bus rider or car driver? And, how do we prioritize our public dollars to build it?
We’ve all heard the age-old adage that “You get what you pay for”. For decades, Atlanta has paid for projects that prioritize and subsidize convenient and efficient car access – giving over public dollars and public space to those that can afford to own, maintain, and operate a car day in and day out. In a city where resources are limited and needs are great, we should be asking of every project this fundamental question: Who do we want Atlanta to be for? Until we are intentional about asking how public dollars spent on public projects serve the everyday lives of all Atlantans, we are funding (and fueling) a system that is making us more unequal, unhealthy, and unhappy.