As I am writing, the City of Atlanta is in a “civil emergency” as the city and the state of Georgia work to clear abandoned cars from icy roadways, and as temperatures finally climb above freezing to do the de-icing that the region lacks the tools to accomplish. For the rest of the country, this has been hilarious.
The Day We Lost Atlanta: How 2 lousy inches of snow paralyzed a metro area of 6 million. “What happened in Atlanta this week is not a matter of Southerners blindsided by unpredictable weather,” she writes.
More than any event I've witnessed in two decades of living in and writing about this city, this snowstorm underscores the horrible history of suburban sprawl in the United States and the bad political decisions that drive it. It tells us something not just about what's wrong with one city in America today but what can happen when disaster strikes many places across the country.Burns makes an argument that you will remember from the post-Katrina commentary: this was not a natural disaster, but “this fiasco is manmade from start to finish.” The essay also reminds us of Randolph Bourne’s argument that it is in war that citizens see the state, and at other times “the State reduced to a shadowy emblem.” For New Orleans after Katrina and in Atlanta today, weather stands in for Bourne’s focus on World War I, as weather provides the occasion for residents to confront in a direct and sometimes dire way the consequences of their government’s aid or its neglect.
How could Atlanta’s weather crisis be manmade? Burns makes four points.
First, “Atlanta” is not a city but a region, and governance is diffused by the division of the metro area into many different counties. Georgia has more counties than any state except Texas. In the 1960s and 70s a combination of flight to the suburbs and new Atlanta migrants setting outside the formal city boundaries left the city as “the commercial district to which people commute.” This is why, when snow began to fall and schools and offices closed, one million vehicles headed for the freeways at the same time.
Burns’s remaining points are about transportation: the focus on making room for automobiles, including the bulldozing of urban neighborhoods; the way balkanized government impeded development of a regional public transit system; and voters’ rejection of a public transit referendum in 2012.
Her most important generalizable insight is that forms of governance affect outcomes. We tend to think that smaller units allow for deeper citizen participation, but Burns shows that it can lead to peril. “There was no coordination around school closings, because there are more than two-dozen city and county school systems in ‘Atlanta,’” she explains.
There was little coordination between highway clearance and service to city streets because "Atlanta" is comprised of dozens of municipalities connected by state and federal highway systems.... If Atlanta, the region, wants to get serious about public safety, its mayors, county officials, and state officials will need to start practicing regionalism instead of paying lip service to it. And whether threatened by a dangerous pandemic, a major catastrophe, or just two inches of snow, we need to have ways to get around-and out of-the city other than by car.Read the full essay here. Cross-posted from Balkinization.