Opinion: Learning from other cities can help this region

Every year, the Atlanta Regional Commission takes more than 100 leaders from across metro Atlanta on a three-day fact-finding journey to learn how another region tackles some of the key challenges that we are facing here at home.

These LINK trips, as they’re called, offer a chance to dig deep into issues that affect metro Atlanta’s quality of life – things like affordable housing, transportation, aging in place, workforce development, arts and culture, education, parks and green space, and economic opportunity.

Over the past 23 years, LINK trips have taken us across North America, from Vancouver to Miami. We’ve brought some important ideas home with us that are making a difference, such as our annual Metro Atlanta Speaks public opinion survey, the Atlanta Regional Public Art Program, and the Metro Atlanta Mayors Association.

Earlier this month, the LINK delegation visited Pittsburgh. This proud region has a rich and dynamic history and a fascinating story of transformation that offered plenty for us to chew on.

Perhaps most importantly, we saw first-hand how Pittsburgh leaders are laser-focused on addressing equity as a priority. They talked about “two Pittsburghs” – one part thriving, another struggling to get ahead, and the urgent need for change.

We face the same challenge in metro Atlanta. It was striking to see how the equity issue permeates every regional discussion in Pittsburgh, and sobering to realize that we’re not quite there yet.

It’s also important to note that this year’s trip marked a critical evolution in the LINK program. We put in place some changes to help sharpen the program’s focus, and, we hope, create even more fertile ground for generating the kind of fresh ideas that move our region forward.

During this year’s trip, LINK leaders were broken into small groups on one afternoon for in-depth, hands-on excursions – consider them civic field trips – carefully selected to highlight innovative approaches taking place in the Pittsburgh region that have clear connections to challenges facing metro Atlanta.

The groups spent time the next day discussing what they learned – and what ideas they might bring back to Atlanta. These teams – we call them LINK discovery groups – will continue to meet over the coming weeks and months to work toward sparking specific, meaningful change efforts here in metro Atlanta.

The goal of this new approach is to move ideas from the “talking about” stage and toward action.

Here’s a look at what the five LINK discovery groups learned and the direction they are taking:

  • Driving Innovation: The City/University Partnership – The city of Pittsburgh has developed innovative partnerships with local universities and private companies to become an urban laboratory for innovation, from 5G technology to autonomous vehicles and machine learning. This LINK group will explore what it would take to further develop partnerships with our local universities, with metro Atlanta benefiting from shared resources.
  • Nurturing an Exceptional Cultural District – Downtown Pittsburgh's Cultural District is one of the nation's most remarkable in terms of size and composition, demonstrating the impact of long-term targeted investment in cultural resources. This LINK group will explore what role philanthropy, arts and cultural organizations, and local governments could play in developing dynamic communities in the Atlanta region.
  • Preserving Cultural Legacy and Fighting for the Soul of a Community – Pittsburgh's Hill District, a collection of African-American neighborhoods known for its cultural richness, has been challenged by urban renewal in the mid-20th century and more recently by the threat of gentrification and displacement. The LINK group will study the steps Pittsburgh is taking to ensure that development benefits local communities to determine what might be helpful to safeguard and strengthen communities here at home.
  • Building Welcoming Communities through Interfaith Relationships – Pittsburgh's diverse faith community has formed strong relationships that have helped build communities that are welcome to all. This LINK discovery group will explore ways of deepening the connections of metro Atlanta's already strong faith community through a regional approach.
  • Developing a Region That's Equitable for All – The city of Pittsburgh and Heinz Endowments have developed an innovative framework designed to shape the development of the city's last major remaining brownfield site in a way that considers the impact on the community and environment. This group will consider what it would take to develop a similar structure centered on equity and inclusion for the Atlanta region.

We’re excited to see the potential these groups may offer us. Some ideas may emerge that could help make our region an even better place to live.

This work comes at a critical time for metro Atlanta. On the one hand, our region is growing and thriving amid a prolonged economic boom. But not everyone is prospering. Many families are struggling to make ends meet, even when working multiple jobs. And the increasing scarcity of affordable housing only complicates the picture.

Our region can’t sit still. We must continue to innovate and not be afraid to confront our most pressing challenges. That’s the only way we will ensure our region’s future success.

Doug Hooker is executive director, Atlanta Regional Commission.