Opinion: Reading the horizon

The AJC’s lastest Atlanta Forward stories show the risk faced by metro Atlanta as other cities step up their game. Doing well in the 21st century demands a new playbook that we must begin writing.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

The philosopher Socrates famously pronounced the unexamined life as not worth living. This saying has endured because many through the ages have intuitively gotten his profound point.

Contemplative questions arising around the unexamined life can be applied to the great agglomeration that is metro Atlanta. For cities and other geographic clusters are living organisms in their own way.

And some are far healthier than others. The most robust regions work hard to seize and defend their prosperity. That’s an easier task when key players are pulling together – and not pulling apart. Or prone to a dulling indifference to what’s going on across town – especially when changes, actions or inaction threaten ripple effects that will roll far outside a given entity’s borders.

There is indeed danger in a myopic focus on the individual pieces of an organism. Obsessing over parts can lead to ignoring or mistreating the whole.

We believe metro Atlanta needs to forcefully confront the most important questions that hector us today. And act quickly to address them. Doing otherwise will threaten the strengths of this place we call home.

Foremost among these is the matter of just where metro Atlanta now stands among its national and global economic peers? What endangers our economic interests?

Knowing the answers and being brave enough to act on that knowledge can help summon another golden age for this metro. Conversely, if we stubbornly stick our heads into Georgia clay we will trigger the beginning of the end of what so many worked so tirelessly to achieve here.

Kickstarting this analysis and conversation is why The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published another round of “Atlanta Forward” news stories last week. We’re a part of this community and want to see it prosper.

That’s why we dispatched reporters to the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex and Charlotte. Those Southern metros have proven to be scrappy competitors that bear watching.

Much of what we found is unsettling. On multiple key metrics, other cities are now setting a brisk pace while we’re showing signs of becoming winded, dispirited and dropping back in the pack.

That shouldn’t continue. And it won’t if we surround our weaknesses and smother them beneath bold, far-reaching action. We know quite well where our largest problems lurk. Metro Atlanta and the state now need to coalesce around needed fixes.

A sizable part of reconditioning this metro will come through working together in finding more effective ways to get the big things done. Too many local leaders are afraid to utter the word “region”. And our standing among the globe’s great cities is skewed because of that fear.

The result is predictable. We too often play intramural games of “Us” vs. “Them.” In so doing, we forego larger wins that could result from running well-coordinated plays of a regional “Us” against the world.

Successful companies recognize that a sharp, broad strategy begets individual tactics needed to win. It doesn’t work nearly as well the other way around.

Which raises the question of what is metro/regional Atlanta’s big strategy to win? Besides cheap taxes. Who besides the Metro Atlanta Chamber can name our united selling points to newcomers? Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed can rattle off in his sleep the game plan he says has fueled the city’s recent successes. Other elected leaders from Acworth to Senoia can likely do the same when it comes to their turf.

What’s our strategy, though, for governing and tuning a 28-county behemoth that’s in a high-stakes economic tussle against the world? What sort of changes in both mindest and cooperative governance will let us conceive, build and implement what’s needed to win, especially when it comes to basic infrastructure?

As the AJC reported this week, other cities are rapidly remaking their communities to reflect 21st century needs. They’re gaining productive people and job-rich companies as a result.

Meanwhile, the disparate collection of Monopoly pieces that comprises metro Atlanta continues on with business as usual.

Money-sucking perpetual traffic jams? No biggie, everybody has ‘em. So sad. We may, eventually, scrounge up enough money for a partial fix — and call that grand success. Or maybe not.

As Texan J.D. Granger told the AJC’s Dan Chapman last week, “If you’re not moving forward as a city, you’ll fall back. The status quo is a slow death.” Repeat that for emphasis until it sinks in.

It’s a lesson other, once-A-list cities learned too late. Their decline inexorably followed.

That should never come to pass in greater Atlanta. The mere thought would set our leaders of old to turning in their graves. The ones who knew how to shove bold and audacious from word to deed. Author Frederick Allen summed up this attitude in his 1996 book “Atlanta Rising,” where he wrote that “Atlanta emerged as the capital of the New South for a reason, and that reason was a willingness to embrace change.”

In assessing Charlotte’s rise, the AJC’s Michael Kanell referenced a city plan there heartily embraced by doers. Former banking CEO Hugh McColl Jr. noted that a handful of executives there boldly drove plans to reality. Kanell then wrote that “Atlanta once had a similar, small group of men shaping events, but no comparable plan. And as metro Atlanta mushroomed, the elites’ ability to steer things waned.”

That’s pretty much where things stand around here today. The status quo is pretty comfortable, we’ll concede. But only if you’re content to studiously avoid looking toward the horizon and what it portends.

That risk should worry us into doing something about it. Before the future does something bad to us first.