“Innovation” is a tricky word, one that implies searching for a new approach or idea, something truly inventive that captures our imagination and solves a long-standing problem. It is also a word most often applied to business and the private sector. We all would probably agree that to successfully face the future, to remain competitive and relevant, any business must innovate to be successful.
We rarely, however, expect—or perhaps even feel comfortable—with the idea that our communities should innovate. That hesitancy for many could be rooted in a reluctance to embrace change in the places that we love just the way they are, warts and all.
Yet we must embrace change if we want the places we love to remain strong and successful as we face our future.
Georgia has a lot to love. The richness of our state entices those of us already here to stay and compels others to see it for themselves. Our beautiful and diverse landscapes, the bounty of our natural resources, the high quality of life and dividends of past investments in key assets all contribute to the draw. Georgia currently hosts a population of over 10 million, with an additional 4 million projected to call Georgia home by 2040. This “business” of hosting people and the environment, with attendant needs of water, food, shelter and air, necessitates that we innovate to remain competitive, to stay current with trends, to be relevant as a state—and to have a habitable and healthy environment.
Thankfully, Georgia’s cities are innovating. Across our state, in places expected as well as unexpected, city leadership and everyday citizens are introducing a new approach or idea in big and subtle ways. This publication is highlighting such fresh thinking and courage through myriad examples.
It would be unfortunate and even short-sighted, however, to celebrate innovation by solely calling out entirely untested and never-before-considered ideas and projects. It is necessary to include in the definition of city innovation the introduction of an approach or idea long forgotten, dismissed or discarded. Reconsidering our past is, indeed, innovation for our sustainable future.
Numerous cities are demonstrating their innovation by turning fresh eyes and energy to their downtowns, the oldest areas of our cities. These activity centers attract us not only through their often-inexpressible charm, but precisely because they meet the needs of today and the demands of the future. Our downtowns are compact and walkable. They host a variety of uses in compatible contexts. They are highly efficient conglomerations of infrastructure and land, owing to their relative density. Most importantly for future innovation, they present enormous opportunity to reuse and redevelop buildings and spaces, an idea consistent with the necessity that we do not waste any land. Remember those additional 4 million people? They need homes, places of employment, services and transportation options. Our local governments cannot afford endless miles of pipe and pavement, nor can our environment serve ecological, recreation and agricultural functions that keep us and our economy healthy unless we innovate by reconsidering our approach to community building.
The good news is that we can accomplish a lot by reconsidering our past. Our downtowns provide blueprints for how to successfully meet a variety of needs in very land- and resource-efficient ways. But these blueprints won’t help unless we read them.
Next time you find yourself in a downtown of any size, note the mix of uses and their adjacencies: residential options next door, above and across the street from businesses. Note the variety of housing options and where they are located, paying attention to single-family next to multifamily, or duplexes next to stand-alone residences. Examine the mobility options and ask questions of existing infrastructure: Are streets and sidewalks connected in a grid? Are there bike lanes or transit stops?
Lastly, imagine what could have occupied the city’s buildings and storefronts in the past and who or what could occupy them in the future. What could the reuse of buildings and the redevelopment of space bring next? And how has good community design and easy access to infrastructure allowed the community to evolve over decades?
Every innovation owes its genesis to a series of decisions that build the framework in which the innovation is born. After you explore what made downtowns flourish and the promise that reinvestment in our downtowns holds for Georgia’s future—you can start by checking out some examples we love here—take those lessons to your own city. Consider how your current framework of regulations, ordinances and programs inhibit or encourage redevelopment that recaptures yesteryear’s innovations. It may not be true that everything old is new again, but learning from our past certainly goes a long way to building a sustainable future.
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2021 edition of Georgia’s Cities magazine.