Centering People and Communities: Piloting Just and Inclusive Planning in Southwest Atlanta

A slide from a Powerpoint presentation.

Above: A slide from emergent labs' presentation of their findings showing people's preferences for transportation if they could choose a mode and why they don't feel able to make that choice.

How can we transform the top-down model of urban and transportation planning into one that centers the needs of historically underserved communities? What does a community-centered planning process look like?  And, through this type of planning, can we reverse the impacts of generations of racist infrastructure planning and create more equitable cities?

emergent labs, a design studio and strategy consultancy working at the intersection of urban planning, culture, and mobility, is on a mission to answer these questions. So Spin joined forces with them.

With Atlanta currently experiencing a renaissance in transportation, Spin funded emergent labs to create a more holistic and community-centered planning process that could be replicated by activists and planners alike, especially with activists who work in public health, affordable housing, and other spaces besides transportation.

“Atlanta is experiencing this emergence of transportation projects that promote sustainable transportation,” said Brytanee Brown, principal and founder of emergent labs. “The goal is to make sure that it doesn’t replicate the exclusionary processes and infrastructure that have left so many people behind.”

Underpinning emergent labs’ approach is “mobility over modality,” a concept developed by the editors of “At the Intersections.” This is the idea that transportation planning should prioritize the goals of mobility instead of focusing on the modes. Freedom of movement, belonging, and access to critical services as well as orienting transportation-related programs, policies, and initiatives must start with the needs of the most historically marginalized neighborhoods and groups. 

Over the course of 10 months–working with the Atlanta Department of Transportation (ATLDOT), Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, and Spin’s Community Partnerships team in Atlanta–emergent labs created a comprehensive community outreach tool that they then took to grassroots organizations that are not traditionally included in initial mobility planning outreach, like the Center for Black Women’s Wellness and Housing Justice League.

“Black communities in Southwest Atlanta have historically been the sight of disruption,” Brown said. “If we’re talking about righting the wrongs of the past, you have to look at the communities who were most impacted. We have to be really intentional about knowing the people and the needs in their communities.”

The survey they initially developed became more about “telling people’s mobility stories” once outreach began in earnest, Brown said in a presentation of her findings via Zoom to Spin and other partners earlier this month.

Slides from Brown's presentation showing the work's framework and responses to one of the stakeholder survey questions
Betty Smoot-Madison of ATLDOT, who worked closely with emergent labs throughout the process, was on the Zoom call. She noted that this work is especially helpful because it can help deepen the outreach that transportation agencies may not be able to do, often due to timelines and processes that come with accepting Federal and State funding for projects.

“With ATLDOT being such a new organization, we started out with a team of three. Over the year, we’ve been adding staff to our team and we're adding more over the coming year. But it has been very difficult to continue efforts to step outside of the projects that we have to keep moving because we’re using state or federal funding. I really want to see how we can continue to partner with the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and ensure that we’re doing our part uplifting communities and uplifting Southwest Atlanta,” Smoot-Madison said.

“Hopefully this will continue to evolve over time,” Smoot-Madison said of the survey tool emergent labs developed.

Also on the call was Watrina Watson from Center for Black Women’s Wellness. She noted that often, projects aren’t brought to their organization until they are already “said and done.” Watson said she appreciated being included in the development of this idea.

And Alison Johnson from Housing Justice League was glad to see that housing was being considered as integral to transportation questions in the framing of this project.

“When we create policies in a vacuum, that can be harmful,” Brown noted to agreement from the audience.

Developing the survey tool was the beginning of what emergent labs and their partners hope will be an ongoing process that will deepen the understanding of what residents of Southwest Atlanta need from their transportation systems, an understanding that will hopefully help inform more equitable investment in their communities.

“Residents have some of the best ideas for how to create change,” said Sagirah Jones, Engagement Programs Manager for Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition spearheads the Community Advocates Network, a network of neighborhood leaders, community members, and business owners from across Atlanta who advocate for increased access and mobility in the city.

“We’ll be continuing our work with emergent labs  in the spring with our advocacy training,” she said. “In addition to providing resources and tools for becoming more effective mobility advocates, we want to give people an opportunity to fine tune their transportation and mobility storytelling in order to get the services they need.”

Spin is committed to exploring ways to work with Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, ATLDOT, and emergent labs to further this work.

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