Like individual quilt pieces become part of the whole, each community of the City of Atlanta is included in a system of participatory democracy known as the Neighborhood Planning Unit, or NPU. Created by the new city charter adopted in 1974 and implemented by the city’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson. NPUs have been a key element in the development of Atlanta’s neighborhoods and have spurred citizen engagement and leadership across the city. As NPUs near their 50th anniversary, various Atlanta leaders are considering reforms. And with a new mayor and a number of new city council members, it seems a good time to take stock.
“Maynard Jackson had deep support among Atlanta’s neighborhoods, and he wanted to make sure neighborhoods had a vehicle for equitable input, but also allowed for coalition building and collaboration among neighborhoods,” said long-time Inman Park resident Midge Sweet. “And over the years they became a distinct process for listening to neighborhoods, for airing grievances, for balancing power.”
Mayor Jackson was no doubt aware of the political headwinds that had been silencing citizen voices and in some cases destroying neighborhoods as he came into office. Clarence Stone, a Research Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at George Washington University wrote a 1989 book titled Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta and has followed Atlanta politics since. When asked about NPUs, he said, “Well, in Atlanta, neighborhood representation has had some really rough times. The city has a long, long history of looking to the corporate elite as the people who can get things done, and who are overall, seen as a benign force.” Sometimes referred to derisively as the 'Atlanta Way' this remains a notable characteristic of Atlanta.
All of Atlanta is subdivided into 25 planning units that serve in an advisory capacity to Atlanta’s mayor and city council on a wide range of development, zoning, and other issues that affect neighborhoods and the city. Atlanta’s city planning department has the responsibility for providing staff and technical support for the NPUs. The department has a wealth of information about NPUs. It’s worth scrolling through this list of NPU meetings, agendas, and related details. On any given week night, one or more NPUs are meeting and anyone can attend.
Across the city, the NPUs have their cheerleaders and their critics, but most agree that, over the past fifty years, NPUs have played a vital role in the development of Atlanta. “Resident participation in decision-making is an important factor in creating unique, healthy neighborhoods,” said Natallie Keiser, Senior Associate, with the Annie E. Casey Foundation who has worked with a number of Atlanta NPUs. “People care the most about what is happening close to them. People come to the NPU to help build the community that they want to live in. But they also come for information – to learn how city services work, to interact with elected officials, to find out what amenities are in the community. And, they also come for camaraderie – to meet other neighbors.”
Another benefit of the NPUs is the role they have played not only in citizen engagement, but in leadership development. The city planning department has created the NPU University. It provides a range of training and education from Robert’s Rules of Order to the city permitting process to individual leadership skill building. A number of elected officials in Atlanta have grown up through the NPU structure.
A unique quality of NPUs is that each unit may be structured differently. Long-time city activist Paul Bolster has said, ”If you’ve seen one NPU, you’re seen one NPU.” There is little consistency among NPUs in by-laws, voting requirements, or how other organizations within their boundaries are involved. Problems and conflicts occur around what role and voice business owners and developers have in making recommendations to the city. “Some of the NPUs on the north side of town,” said Kim Scott, executive director of Georgia WAND, who has been closely involved with NPU-T, “like NPU-A, B, and C, have business owners and developers as part of their executive committees. Whereas those on the south side have more neighborhood residents and community members in their leadership. I kind of pride myself on the fact that T is more neighborhood focused and neighborhood engaged when it comes to our officers and our input and our community engagement. But we try to also bridge the gap with, you know, our business stakeholders and develop a community.” She added that NPU-T has a conflict of interest policy in its by-laws. "If someone has a financial interest in a decision they are required to recuse themselves from voting on it."
Another aspect of the NPUs is the disparities of resources among the NPUs. Northside NPUs not only tend to have more developers or business types in their leadership, but they also often have more active professionals with a variety of useful skills; they seem to have more residents with time and resources to devote to NPU work.
Atlanta’s Center for Civic Innovation (CCI), a non-profit, in 2019 started a city-wide survey and analysis of the NPUs and developed a set of recommendations based on 600 completed surveys, and interviews with 60 stakeholders. In the fall of 2020, it presented a list of 10 recommendations including:
- Clarify the purpose, responsibilities, and goals of the NPUs.
- Develop small area neighborhood plans to be more proactive rather than reactive to development.
- Promote awareness of the NPU system and eliminate barriers for participation.
Reporter John Ruch with the Saporta Report provided more details of the CCI report and recommendations, including a link to the CCI presentation in an article from last October.
Now, with a new mayor and some new city council members, there is some movement towards strengthening and updating the NPU system. According to Kyle Kessler, policy and research director at CCI, the city administration and council are taking steps to move forward with some recommendations, including those from the CCI report. “The Mayor’s transition team report described the importance of civic involvement and the role of the NPUs. Legislation was just approved by Council, with support from the administration, to come up with a series of best practices and a bill of rights for residents,” Kessler said. A spokesperson for the City Planning Department confirmed that the department is preparing a draft document that will be presented to the NPUs in August.
“But as each of those things is moving forward,” Kessler said. “I think there's still broad interest in further discussion, but we somewhat intentionally left recommendations sort of open. We did not say, here's the specific thing that needs to be accomplished. Because we knew it would require a lot more conversation, a lot more involvement from leadership, from neighborhood residents, from nonprofit partners, and from a whole slew of stakeholders.”
Kessler points out that a number of cities have some type of citizen or neighborhood input structure. “What makes Atlanta’s NPU structure unique is that we have an NPU system that is not specific neighborhoods. It’s a collection of neighborhoods that ensures that every square inch of the city is represented and has some access. In many other cities that have a neighborhood planning program, it doesn't cover the whole city, it's just where neighborhoods have self organized, have reached out to the city and said that they want to be engaged with the city. But there are very few programs that are like Atlanta, where you can't not be in an NPU."
The relationship between residents and developers in some NPUs has been rocky and no clear guardrails exist to define their interaction. It's a challenging question, because by design, NPUs are not restricted to residents; property owners, renters and business owners are part of the system. But over time, folks have come to feel the NPUs are their chance to elevate the resident voice. And oftentimes that's seen in opposition to developers, particularly outside business interests.
Kessler adds that there have been communities that have been directly harmed by development or the lack of development leading to disinvestment or other challenges. Neighborhoods need to have a vision of what they want their neighborhood to be and a plan to work with various stakeholders to achieve that vision.
As political science professor Stone points out, neighborhoods in Atlanta were severely damaged during the boom years of the 1950s and 1960, displacing thousands but particularly lower income Atlantans with highways, the federal Urban Renewal program, and other development. Stone said, “So in the building of a new Atlanta, redevelopment was not a friend of people of modest or lower income.”
The headwinds of continued development and the deference to the corporate elite have indeed created tough sailing for the survival of neighborhoods; some have not or will not survive. But the original idea that the late Maynard Jackson had and for which he so strongly advocated, gives neighborhoods a chance to be heard.
Keona Jones, who was the former vice chair and chair of NPU-J, was involved in developing the CCI recommendations said “The CCI was very transparent. They were all involved; we were engaged, over it might have been a year and a half. So that was really, really detailed work, very well thought out, and programmatic as to how the plan was put together.”
She added, “My opinion is that the strength of the NPU system is that it provides that your vote is really your voice, not necessarily your financial status.”