OAH Reading: Carlton Basmajian on the Atlanta Regional Commission

I’m here at the OAH meeting in Atlanta, getting ready to give a talk on the complexities of black political positions on metropolitan consolidation and annexation in the 1970s. The typical discussion on the matter frames it as a conflict between the need to take in more territory and tax base and the black political imperative to avoid diluting the black vote as it became a majority in the city electorate. This framing is too binary and simplified, because it ignores the way that taking positions and advancing policies on annexation was a strategic maneuver that could demonstrate the bona fides of black politicians to compromise “black” interests and support policies the business elite favored. It also conceals the fact that many black politicians believed that a properly tailored annexation plan could both expand the city’s fiscal base and preserve black power even if it took in tens of thousands of affluent whites. And, even more subtly, black politicians had to avoid playing up that belief in order to make it look like they were actually making a political sacrifice.

My talk sort of tails off at the point where black city and state politicians drift apart on the annexation question. After the 1970s, a window closes, and the region and the state government become less interested in annexation and political boundaries (until relatively recently, with the push to split Fulton County).

A new book, Carlton Wade Basmajian’s  Atlanta Unbound: Enabling Sprawl Through Policy and Planning (Temple, 2013) helps to explain why in a clever and provocative way. The reason that the metropolitan area has fragmented more and momentum for consolidation has failed, Basmajian contends, is successful regional planning.

Wait, you might say. Successful regional planning in Atlanta, the land of sprawl? Yes. In fact, that landscape of sprawl is the purposeful creation of the Atlanta Regional Commission, chartered by the state in 1971 to coordinate the planning required to secure state and federal funding for the key infrastructural supports of growth: water and transportation. In both areas, the ARC managed information, planning, and political lobbying to create infrastructure that supported sprawl beyond Atlanta and Fulton County. This cemented a growth coalition that was not dependent on either the downtown business and financial leadership or the black political regimes that followed Maynard Jackson’s election. It also ensured that the demographics of Georgia shifted decisively. Instead of Atlanta becoming a dominant bloc in the legislature, its suburbs grew to hold significant power.

ARC was particularly effective in steering growth, Basmajian argues, by representing itself as an objective analyst of growth (presumably a natural process), and not as an advocate for any particular pattern. Technology was a key tool not only for planning, but more importantly for politics. In a section that should be eerily familiar to anyone concerned with the vogue for “big data” and “analytics” today, he demonstrates that the ARC constructed its 1976 Regional Development Plan with computer modeling, and stressed this fact as a source of credibility. This technology, at the cutting edge at the time,

reduced the complexity of a metropolitan region to a comparatively small set of variables, perhaps a necessary step in modeling complex social systems, [but] their popularity lay in their ability to provide seemingly precise, objective projections of the distribution of the population, employment, and land use at defined intervals of years with apparent objectivity (91).

The consequence, however, was a set of growth models that embedded faulty assumptions and prevailing conventional wisdom to “project” a demographic donut with a hollowed-out Atlanta at its center. This projection justified the formation of water and transportation planning to serve the edges of the donut,

privileging policies that matched projections of sprawling growth while hiding meaningful alternatives (86).

Ultimately,

ARC and its 1976 RDP illustrate how federal policy merged with state and local politics to create a regional planning agenda marked by a self-fulfilling prophecy of sprawl (87).

This, as Basmajian ably shows, resulted in drastic changes not only in the region’s landscape, but in its political economy too. The book is well worth a read.

 

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One comment on “OAH Reading: Carlton Basmajian on the Atlanta Regional Commission

  1. […] institutionalized racism in metropolitan America are way off base. In fact, suburban sprawl is the natural and ideal state of affairs, and springs directly from the clearly expressed rational will of every […]

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