Neighbourhood planning units (NPUs) have been a fixture of the city of Atlanta since 1974. These citizen advisory boards, which connect more than 500,000 residents with city hall, are currently in the process of undergoing what many consider to be a long-overdue review. The recommendations generated from that reassessment could radically shift a main way Atlantans interact with their government.
NPUs find their genesis in the 1960s and 1970s, when urban renewal programmes took their toll on the city’s landscape. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium broke ground in 1964 in Summerhill as a venue for the Atlanta Braves baseball team. Summerhill, a thriving black neighbourhood, suffered population and business loss. Buttermilk Bottom, a low-income black neighbourhood on the edge of downtown, was razed to make way for the Atlanta Civic Center, built in 1967. Meanwhile, highways ripped through many of the city’s neighbourhoods, segmenting them in ways that persist today.
Projects like these led to a neighbourhood movement in Atlanta that called for more resident input, says Taylor Shelton, assistant professor of geography at Georgia State University. In 1974, the city formalised some of this energy when its first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, created the NPUs – and took a step forward in how residents are represented in the its political process.
But after nearly half a century, the system is showing wear and tear.
These volunteer councils were designed to be a link between residents, the mayor and the city council. Atlanta’s 242 neighbourhoods are divided into 25 NPUs that each have monthly meetings. Each NPU is represented by a letter of the alphabet. Similar citizen advisory boards exist in cities nationwide such as Los Angeles, Houston and Honolulu.
But Atlanta’s population, economy and politics have shifted since the 1970s. Back then, white flight had made Atlanta majority-black. But more recently, gentrification has taken hold, once again increasing the percentage of white residents. More Asian and Latino people have also moved into the city.
“So many things about the city look quite a bit different now than they did 45 or 50 years ago,” says Shelton. “But at the same time, the NPU system, the changes that it has undergone haven’t necessarily taken that into account.”
Atlanta’s changing landscape means NPUs are in need of re-evaluation. That’s why the Center for Civic Innovation (CCI), a non-profit organisation, is conducting an independent review of the system to see how well it functions now and what changes it requires to be effective in the future.
A necessary step towards building trust
CCI, which works on solutions to improve equality and build trust in the public sector, began advocating for the city to do an NPU review of its own in 2015, says Rohit Malhotra, founder and executive director of CCI. As the years have passed, people have questioned whether NPUs truly influence the trajectory of the city – something the review could help answer.
“When we met with all of these folks, we got this kind of cold-shoulder response,” Malhotra says. “A lot of the [city] council members said, ‘Someone from the outside is going to have to do this. It’s too risky for us to do.’”
In off-the-record comments to CCI, some council members found NPUs to be troublesome or irrelevant. Others said they were important, while some council members felt scared of the system. Malhotra says that some of the NPU leaders were doubtful about the programme, saying things like, “‘We don’t feel like we are heard. We do not feel like we are respected. We do not feel like we’re given the resources we need.’”
CCI began its multi-year review of the NPUs in 2019, with a goal of proposing short and long-term recommendations on how to improve the system. The estimated cost of the review is $100,000 to $150,000. It isn’t the only effort to evaluate NPUs. Separately, legislation that was under consideration by Atlanta’s city council sought to reform the NPU system by making the workings of each board uniform, requiring training and setting term limits.
Most NPUs… don’t even necessarily realise that they could be weighing in on any policy proposal or suggesting policies that aren’t even on the table. That’s a big deal. MatthewCharles Cardinale, NPU-K
CCI and its advisory board have thus far conducted dozens of interviews with elected officials, city planners, developers, grassroots organisations, residents and city hall employees. It has partnered with Georgia Tech to do data collection and analysis. CCI has also attended meetings of all 25 NPUs at least once, if not more, and issued a public survey. It meets weekly with Atlanta’s government about the review in the interest of transparency, but it does not take direction from the city, Malhotra says.
Determining how to make NPUs more effective
Matthew Charles Cardinale, assistant recorder for NPU-K in west Atlanta, hopes the review can help the system better empower residents, especially lower-income ones.
“The challenge for the city of Atlanta and the challenge that CCI is going to have to address is just the glaring inequalities in the NPU system, where the NPUs just basically exacerbate and magnify the existing inequality and barriers to political participation,” Cardinale says.
Taking time to attend a monthly meeting, for example, is a barrier for many people. Cardinale suggests offering a cash stipend, perhaps $5, for meeting attendance to lower-income residents to encourage participation and help account for transportation costs. But Cardinale also questions the influence of NPUs altogether. While they can comment on and even recommend any city plan, they rarely stray from land use and zoning proposals, he says. In recent years, much of their work has entailed voting on zoning changes. Businesses that want an alcohol license must appear before their NPU, which then votes on whether to support the application.
“Most NPUs are not reaching their full potential and don’t even necessarily realise that they could be weighing in on any policy proposal or suggesting policies that aren’t even on the table,” Cardinale says. “That’s a big deal.”
A review should also revisit the geography of the system, which hasn’t changed since its inception, Shelton says. As the city has morphed, the only modification has been the addition of a single NPU in the early 2000s. For an article on the geography of the NPUs that he co-wrote, Shelton analysed people’s everyday movements over a few years and redrew Atlanta neighbourhoods based on that factor. He found that the NPU boundaries established 47 years ago don’t match up with neighbourhoods today. He believes the system should consider how to acknowledge the changing way residents define their communities.
“There is no such thing as the one true definition of any given neighbourhood,” Shelton says. “When you try to aggregate those neighbourhoods into these larger NPUs that are used in a political process, it’s more kind of complicated and messy.”
After CCI finishes collecting data in the spring, it will collaborate with a group of organisations and NPU leaders to develop recommendations. CCI will release that report in the fall, before November city elections.
“These are solvable challenges,” says Malhotra. “The question is going to be: Do we want to solve them?”