In 2018, when Atlanta United broke the city’s 23-year sports title drought, the team played with a hunger that took nothing for granted. The attitude of star striker Josef Martinez was emblematic of this. In the semifinal, with the lead, he stuck his index finger between his teeth and bit down as if biting a blade.
He did so to implore his teammates to play with courage and to not let up. In Latin America, this is commonly known as “garra.” Literally, it means “claw” and defines the grit and fight that carried Atlanta United to a championship.
I think about that often when contemplating where we are as a city and region. We are an American cultural and economic success story. People move here from all across the country. Our diversity – Black and increasingly Latinx and Asian – is a strength. When our mayors speak, people listen. When our artists create, the world watches and dances. When companies grow, they do it here. Ambition, swagger, and progress is in our DNA. We are primed to be the next great American city.
Yet, beneath our success lies stark inequality, aging infrastructure, unsustainable energy use, mediocre basic services, and middling education outcomes. To be the metropolis we tell ourselves we are, we must exhibit more focus and fight. We are ahead as a region. We are winning the game. But without more “garra” we will lose. Put bluntly, we are running the risk that in 30 years, Dallas, Miami, or Nashville will be ranked ahead of us in the world’s eye.
What then do we need to do? First, work together. The city of Atlanta is home to only 500,000 of the region’s 6 million people. We are a mess of local, regional, and state efforts that rarely align on goals, funding, or action. This has to change. Our individual cities may approach governance in their own way, but we are all faced with regional challenges: transit, water, air, education, housing, public health and safety. At every step, we must find multilateral partners to tackle our regional issues. This requires leaders at all levels to strike alliances and take action.
Second, no city or region in America is expected to lead on issues of equity and inclusion like Atlanta. Yet, our outcomes are the same, and sometimes worse, than others. If we want to distinguish our metropolis as a success story, we must lead and take risks on issues of racial equity and multicultural inclusion in decision-making. Zoning codes, transportation networks, access to capital, and tackling economic insecurity must pervade our policymaking and politics. Otherwise, flip a coin. There are plenty of cities like ours to choose from.
Third, we have to perfect the basics. Imagine if we did all the small things well: picking up trash on time, getting ahead of potholes, not to mention safe streets for everyone. We don’t focus enough on these things because big, grand ideas better capture the public eye and win campaigns. Yet, everyone yearns for government to deliver the basics better. The most popular actions I’ve taken as an elected official have been adding four-way stops and new sidewalks.
In the City of Atlanta alone, our sidewalk backlog exceeds $750 million. And that’s before you get to roads and bridges. The region’s numbers will be mind-boggling. We cannot be a first-rate region if we are beset by old sewers and cracked sidewalks. To get there, parking taxes and regular, accountable infrastructure SPLOSTs are in order.
Fourth, we must pursue smarter zoning and planning. By 2050, the metro region is projected to have 3 million new residents. That won’t be sustainable if we manage growth as we have. Atlanta is built to accommodate cars and suburbia over intown living. Without water or mountains to stop us, we have sprawled. Yet, we hunger for walkability and town squares. Improving means zoning for density (critical for affordable housing and managing growth). It means placemaking around grand and useful public spaces. It means taking away traffic lanes and replacing them with bus and bike lanes. This is all within our reach.
Finally, we must pay greater attention to the local economy, particularly on growth and recovery for small businesses. We must figure out where access to capital is lacking, where our regulatory code is too burdensome, and where working with government is too difficult. Chasing Fortune 1000 companies is a state sport, but the real returns are in growing small- and medium-size companies.
Continued success requires elected officials like me to take on tough, multi-jurisdictional challenges. It requires that voters demand the same. It requires philanthropy and business to invest their resources and leadership toward solving regional challenges. It requires all of us to overcome self-absorption and embrace broader horizons.
Our success will depend on our mindset. We are a booming metropolitan region but, as any Atlanta sports fan can attest, the lead we have doesn’t equal a win. To win, we must resist complacency – no one will give us anything. To win, we must embrace our garra.
Amir Farokhi is a member of the Atlanta City Council.
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