INtown at 20: How Atlanta embraced the sustainability movement

Students recycle on the Georgia Tech campus. (Courtesy of Georgia Tech)
Students recycle on the Georgia Tech campus. (Courtesy of Georgia Tech)

When Atlanta INtown began covering the sustainability movement more than a decade ago, most of our coverage was centered around April’s celebration of Earth Day. But there was also a growing sense of urgency about the city’s air pollution, traffic and the amount of waste going to local landfills.

Atlanta and the metro region was already under the gun from as far back as 1998, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) brought sanctions against the city for its smog level, meaning the loss of millions of federal dollars for highway projects. In 2004, the EPA still classified Atlanta as a “severe non-attainment” zone for failure to meet ozone standards. It wouldn’t be until 2013 that the EPA declared the city was in compliance, but by then the tide toward sustainability was already in full swing.

Six years ago, INtown created a regular monthly section called “Go Green” and earlier this year published our annual “Green Issue” in April. We embraced the eco-friendly movement to chronicle what local leaders, organizations and residents were doing to make the city more sustainable.

We reported on homebuyers who had decided to spend the extra money for green roofs, rain barrels, low-flow fixtures and recycled building materials.

Keep Atlanta Beautiful and other organizations stepped up recycling efforts to recycle electronics, and the City of Atlanta implemented new recycling guidelines.

The local food movement exploded with urban farmers raising their own vegetables and restaurants shifting away from frozen and processed to food grown just hours away. The number of local farmers markets grew from a couple to dozens.

Atlanta Recycles, an advocacy group made up governmental, corporate, nonprofit and environmental entities, helped shape the city’s move toward larger recycling bins for residents and expanded collection of recyclables at city buildings, recreation centers, police and fire stations.

One of Atlanta's larger recycling containers. (Courtesy City of Atlanta)
One of Atlanta’s larger recycling containers. (Courtesy City of Atlanta)

Atlanta Recycles was also instrumental in the development of the Downtown Zero Waste Zone. Focused on the foodservice industry, members pledge to recycle paper, plastic, metal and glass, compost food scraps and reuse old grease from their kitchens.

In 2010, Mayor Kasim Reed announced his goal of making Atlanta one of the top 10 sustainable cities in the country. Four years later, there have been significant strides in making the city green and there are more, exciting changes to come.

The city’s Office of Sustainability, led by Denise Quarles, said the greening of Atlanta has been possible through the unprecedented collaboration between stakeholders citywide. The most notable collaboration has been with the commercial real estate community, which has voluntarily signed up for the Better Buildings Challenge to reduce water and energy use in commercial buildings by 20 percent by the year 2020.

“We have 200 buildings now participating in the challenge,” Quarles said, “and 76 of those are municipal buildings.”

Midtown created its own EcoDistrict and has made substantial moves in recycling, energy and promoting sustainability among its residents and businesses.

Last month, the Midtown Alliance announced its inaugural EcoDistrict Luminaries, 19 businesses and buildings that have made a significant commitment to sustainability practices. Buildings and busineses included1180 Peachtree, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Fifth Group’s Ecco and Lure restaurants, One Atlantic Station, Perkins + Will, Working Buildings, Heery International, Invesco, Jamestown, Lord Aeck & Sargent, Triage Consulting Group, 1075 Peachtree, Bank of America Plaza, Promenade, Centergy One, Lowes Atlanta Hotel, Viewpoint and South City Kitchen.

Dan Hourigan, Director of Transportation and Sustainability for Midtown Alliance, said Atlanta’s air quality issues were a wake up call to the city to make better decisions and face environmental issues head on.

“We’ve made great strides in the last decade or more,” Hourigan said. “Climate change is now in the news and people are learning how they can make differences in their own communities. There’s a much broader desire for a health place to live and work.”

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