Immigration in Georgia: The GIRN And “Welcoming Cities” Forum

By Anna Joo Kim, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
School of City & Regional Planning
Georgia Institute of Technology

Atlanta envisions itself a new Global City (Sassen, 2000), with the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport—the world’s busiest—a hub of economic development, spurred by the addition of about 250,000 new immigrants from India, South Korea, Mexico, Ethiopia, and other countries between 2000 and 2010. Data from the 1990, 2000, and 2010 census surveys indicate that the metropolitan area has become more African American, more Latino/Hispanic, and more Asian each year. Population growth in Georgia over the last 30 years has been largely driven by minority groups settlement patterns; and we saw the addition of Georgia’s first ever “majority-minority” county, with Gwinnett County joining 78 other counties in the United States that reflect a nation-wide “racial shift” – expanding the impact of immigrant residential preferences beyond traditional gateway cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

Distribution of Racial and Ethnic Groups in the Atlanta Metro Region. Source: ARC Snapshot of the Region (March 2013).

How do cities that have not been traditional immigrant destinations adjust and adapt to new immigrants, new cultures, and new languages? Welcoming America, a national initiative helping cities develop policies and programs for welcoming new immigrants to their new homes, explains how to “Build a Nation of Neighbors” by incorporating diverse peoples in a variety of ways. Welcoming America helps cities make the most of their diversity and create a sense of belonging.

“It’s about the seed and the soil. If you are a new person coming into a community, a lot of the attention has been paid on the newcomer, watering the seed, helping the newcomer adapt, but we should also pay attention to the soil. Our goal is to create a broader community that is fertile ground for the new person to be successful. So we help communities answer questions about improving the soil, making the community stronger. Fertile soil makes communities more successful for everyone – not just newcomers” –- Rachel Peric, Deputy Director, Welcoming America

Georgia is at a national nexus of new immigration (Hernandez-Leon & Zuniga, 2002), and Atlanta has emerged as one of the few cities in the South seeking to welcome immigrants and embrace this demographic change (Welcoming America Immigrant Integration Initiative, 2013).

“We are trying to build this movement in the South, and lead this movement in the South, and make it natural and “doable.” In 2014 Mayor Reed commissioned a group of stakeholders, a body of people of diverse backgrounds, diverse ethnicities – to answer the question: What would make Atlanta a more welcoming city: what can we do at a policy level, at the community level, on a social level, that would make Atlanta a more welcoming city for immigrants? — Maria Azuri, Director of Programs, Welcoming Atlanta and Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs

But where Georgia has added over 50,000 immigrants in recent years (2010-2014), the foreign-born population of the City of Atlanta itself increased only by about 1000 persons. The vast majority of immigrant groups (across origins: European, Latin American, Asian, and African) are immigrating directly to the suburbs and fringes (older, inner ring suburbs) of the Atlanta MSA, with greatest growth occurring in Gwinnett County, parts of North DeKalb County, and a rapidly growing immigrant concentration to Clayton County (particularly the Forrest Park area).

It is suburban places that experience the most immigrant-driven growth and population change (Brookings, 2014), and reflect the ongoing national preference for suburban areas in general. Singer’s work at the Brookings Institute (2015) has revealed the Atlanta MSA’s national relative classification as a “major-emerging” immigrant gateway. The fastest contemporary growth rates belong to the major-emerging gateways (Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Phoenix); together they comprise 8 percent of the total foreign-born population in 2014. But Atlanta’s immigrant communities are still markedly more oriented to the urban/urbanizing metropolitan statistical area compared to state residents overall; where the Atlanta MSA composes about half of Georgia’s total population, more than 75% of the state’s total foreign born population are drawn to suburbs within the MSA (which housed 689,361 of the 909,002 foreign-born persons within Georgia in 2010).

With the context of recent, rapid, and diverse immigrant population growth in the Atlanta region, a group of researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, and Kennesaw State University have launched a collaborative research network across the three universities. This group will study this new population and economic growth and the impact of immigration to Georgia and other emergent immigrant destinations. Dr. Cathy Yang Liu (Georgia State University) recently convened the first meeting of the three universities in the public forum “Welcoming Cities – A Dialogue Between Research & Policy” with presentations by partners Welcoming Atlanta (Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs) and Welcoming America. Topics at this event included the City of Norcross, Georgia’s recent efforts at immigrant inclusion, the recently-performedLatino Community Needs Assessment of Georgia, local-government-level initiatives and migration patterns, and the multiple scales encountered in the immigrant experience. For more on the scholarship presented at this event or the Georgia Immigration Research Network (GIRN)’s other recent activities, see, or contact the author at

The Predesigned Innovation District: Cornell Tech

By Sarah Carnes

In December 2010, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg –- who framed his candidacy around innovation, introducing “bold new solutions to tough problems” –- announced the creation of Applied Sciences NYC, an unprecedented attempt “to capitalize on the considerable growth presently occurring within the science, technology, and research fields” through the development and expansion of applied sciences campuses around the city, namely to elevate New York’s attractiveness as an innovation hub in the knowledge economy.

The Cornell Tech Roosevelt Island Campus Project –- a partnership between Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology –- has emerged as one of the most promising products of the Applied Sciences NYC Initiative and very much so as a “hopeful pillar of Silicon Alley.” Architectural renderings and design principles are sure to excite those tracking the innovation district model as an approach to economic development. The campus master plan aligns with the innovation district platform, purposefully integrating characteristics overwhelmingly identified in the literature. The Cornell Tech Campus will inevitably advance the larger innovation ecosystem conversation, helping to answer whether innovation can in fact be designed. The campus also begs the question if urban campuses inherently exhibit innovation district tendencies.

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Cornell Tech Master Plan



Temporarily situated in the bustling Chelsea neighborhood, Cornell Tech’s permanent home –- a redefined urban campus that will be “intimately integrated – in both mission and design – with the city” –- will eventually occupy 12 city-owned acres on Roosevelt Island and boast an equally impressive two-million square fopt real-estate portfolio, a healthy amalgamation of academic, residential, commercial, and public spaces upon completion in 2043. The first phase, slated to open next year, will feature 2.5 acres of public plazas and greenways and 800,000 square feet of building space.

Cornell Tech embodies several innovation district characteristics and even appears to favor one of the innovation district typologies identified by Katz and Wagner: the re-imagined urban area model, which places innovation districts along historic waterfronts in evolving industrial or warehouse corridors. This typology typically encompasses a comprehensive re-development project, as is the case with Cornell Tech, which is replacing the Coler-Goldwater Specialty Hospital and Nursing Facility. The universities will also act as anchor institutions.

Government-Sponsored Innovation District

Moreover, the proactive measures taken by the City of New York have enabled the realization of the Cornell Tech Roosevelt Island Campus. The City awarded the Cornell/Technion consortium access to the city-owned property on Roosevelt Island as well as $100 million in city-backed capital to be used to develop the site. The public investment will spur the creation of new firms and thousands of new jobs in addition to billions of dollars in economic impact. The New York City Economic Development Corporation estimates the Cornell Tech campus will “double the number of graduate engineering faculty and students in the city, and increase the number of engineering Ph.D. students by 70%.

The City of New York and Cornell Tech leadership clearly recognize the importance of cross-sector relationships. Harvard Professor Michael Porter suggests that there is inherent overlap between the public and private sectors’ success and the need for both to support productivity. The lines of appropriate investment are blurred due to a linked wealth-creation system between these two sectors. Applied in the innovation district context, this supposed linked system manifests as the “Triple-Helix thesis,” which connects university, industry, and government partners.

Innovation District Characteristics

At this stage in the planning process, three buildings support Cornell Tech’s status as an innovation district. Including:

1. The Bridge at Cornell-Tech

Touted as the “first-ever building in New York City designed and built to leverage resources from a cutting-edge research university with those from industry,” The Bridge will bring together well-established firms with burgeoning startups. Intentional design principles encourage serendipitous collaboration and collisions, which are common themes observed in innovation districts; students will have the opportunity to engage with business leaders and faculty-researchers. The Bridge will also house a business incubator, which Katz and Wagner also identify as an important economic asset within the innovation district.

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Artist’s rendering of the Bridge at Cornell-Tech

2. The Verizon Executive Ed Center

Similarly, the Ed Center “will provide another venue for synergy between the Cornell Tech academic community and industry.” The Ed Center will help facilitate purposeful networking opportunities across sectors.

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Artist’s rendering of the Verizon Executive Ed Center


3. The Bloomberg Center

Made possible through a $100 million endowment, The Bloomberg Center will primarily function as an interdisciplinary academic building but will also act “as a venue for chance collisions between academia and the world at large.

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Artist’s rendering of the Bloomberg Center

The long-term success of Cornell Tech will similarly be determined by how the market responds, including additional third-places to create a more interactive environment to attract more visitors in the surrounding community.


Cornell Tech is positioned to function as a successful urban campus and an innovation district because of the purposeful strategies, from physical design to intended industry mix, that have been prescribed in its plans. Immediate innovation district competitiveness is questionable, however. Given the 2043 completion date, we must closely monitor cross-sector interaction and collaboration over the next couple of years. Cornell Tech leadership must then integrate new and reformed strategies to better perfect the innovation district model as conditions on the ground change. Although in its infancy, the forthcoming Cornell Tech will likely demonstrate that innovation districts can in fact be inorganically conceived.   


Ivan Allen Jr. and the Roots of Modern Atlanta

By Todd M. Michney

Ivan Allen mayoral office
Mayor Ivan Allen shortly after taking office in 1961. Image courtesy of the Ivan Allen Jr. Digital Collection, Georgia Institute of Technology

As mayor of Atlanta from 1962 to 1970, Ivan Allen Jr.’s legacy looms large.  Long before Allen, of course, local business and political leaders engaged in boosterism and pushed economic development, carefully managing the city’s image amid sometimes tense race relations.  From the choice of a phoenix and “Resurgens” (Latin for “Rising Again”) as the symbol and slogan of rebuilding in the immediate post-Civil War period; to eager promotion of the New South paradigm as a way toward racial “peace,” best symbolized by the 1895 Cotton States Exposition (with Booker T. Washington seeming to agree); to worries about negative publicity as a result of international reporting on the horrific 1906 race riot; to the launch of “Forward Atlanta,” a 1925 advertising campaign that persuaded numerous companies to establish their headquarters in the city, Atlanta has long been about self-promotion.  While certainly a political innovator, Allen’s basic approach was to continue along the path laid out by his predecessor William B. Hartsfield – which as explained by historian Kevin Kruse, was to enlist middle-class whites in a coalition with African Americans to support gradual civil rights reforms as evidence of progress, moderation, and modernity.  After all, it was Hartsfield who in 1958 had coined the phrase of Atlanta as a “City Too Busy to Hate” amid a climate of rising tension that culminated in the bombing of a Reform Jewish Temple that same year.

Ivan Allen 1963 cartoon
1963 editorial cartoon by Charles Bardowski showing Allen as a cautious architect of Atlanta’s rising civil rights edifice, with African Americans in a supportive but clearly subordinate role. Image courtesy of the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia

Ivan Allen, who passed in 2003, garnered much acclaim over the years for his comparative racial liberalism in an era fraught with growing controversies over the South’s and the country’s legacy of white supremacy and racial inequality.  Considering the intransigence of most white Southern politicians in the face of a growing civil rights movement, many of Allen’s actions were commendable.  Despite having previously voiced segregationist sentiments in a 1957 gubernatorial campaign, he actively courted African American support in 1961 to defeat the blatantly racist Lester Maddox, and carried through on his campaign promises to hire Atlanta’s first black firemen and desegregate the city’s parks and pools; strikingly, he ordered the removal of race-specific signage from city offices on his first day as mayor.  Allen sponsored meetings at City Hall with the Atlanta Summit Leadership Conference, a coalition of local civil rights groups, soon after its formation in 1963, and managed to organize an interracial celebratory banquet after native son Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, over the skepticism of many prominent whites.

Ivan Allen Summerhill 1966
Mayor Allen at the scene of rioting in Atlanta’s Summerhill neighborhood in September 1966, waiting his turn to address the crowd after student activist Joseph Means. Image courtesy of the Ivan Allen Jr. Digital Collection, Georgia Institute of Technology

But some black Atlantans were already impatient with the slow pace of change by the time that Allen took office.  African American students had launched a widespread sit-in movement to desegregate establishments serving the public in 1960; in fact, as a result of this activism, Allen as head of the Chamber of Commerce had negotiated an agreement to initiate the desegregation of downtown businesses in tandem with the city’s public schools.  In 1962, Allen accommodated the wishes of white residents in southwest Atlanta by building a barricade across Peyton Road, which they hoped would slow the pace of African American home purchases in the area; ordered removed by court order, he later regretted the resulting damage done to Atlanta’s reputation.  In 1963, at President John F. Kennedy’s urging, Allen became the only mayor of a major Southern city to testify in favor of a federal law guaranteeing equal access to public accommodations like restaurants and hotels –- although it should be recalled that he favored allowing individual municipalities to voluntarily desegregate, even while admitting that progress in Atlanta had been slow, and recognizing that local businesses would have little incentive to integrate without any legal requirement.

But it is perhaps Allen’s economic development priorities that had the greatest lasting impact, with the trajectory he charted stretching even into our present.  With his roots in the business community, Allen envisioned the transformation of Atlanta from a regional commercial hub to national and even international prominence.  Like Hartsfield before him, he utilized new federal programs like urban renewal to build highways and civic facilities intended to shore up downtown property values and boost tourism.  Projects like a new stadium that successfully attracted Atlanta’s first professional baseball team, along with a combined civic center and auditorium, represented the city’s new modern face; however, these projects specifically targeted for demolition older, higher-density neighborhoods that were disproportionately African American, thereby exacerbating a scarcity of affordable housing and an already tense racial climate.  In the summer of 1966, Mayor Allen had to personally plead for calm when rioting broke out in the Summerhill neighborhood, which was suffering on numerous counts in the wake of the new Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium’s construction.  Rather than admit the collateral effect of the city’s recent redevelopment projects, Allen blamed the disorder on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which was actively organizing residents in the area, although he subsequently shifted emphasis toward building public housing estates to rehouse residents displaced by urban renewal [1].

The economic development strategies set in motion under Ivan Allen’s administration were continued into the subsequent decades, notably in the building of the World Congress Center, Georgia Dome, and the numerous projects associated with the 1996 Olympic Games.  Despite heavy promotion by city officials and the local business leaders, all have provoked controversies due to their disastrous effects on nearby low-income, historically African American communities.  Concerns brewing around current projects include the new Falcons Stadium and whether livability can be restored in the neighborhoods just south of downtown following the Atlanta Braves’ upcoming decampment to Cobb County.  Even the BeltLine, a former railway corridor revamped as a bike- and pedestrian-friendly trail frequently promoted as a green fix to the city’s transportation woes, is widely expected to exacerbate Atlanta’s accelerating gentrification.

Historical interest in Allen is on the rise.  A documentary on Allen premiered in 2015, joining two other films in the works on his successors, notably Atlanta’s first African American mayor Maynard Jackson (who died within a week of Allen, coincidentally).  The Georgia Institute of Technology named its Ivan Allen Jr. College of Liberal Arts in his honor in 1990, as a way of appreciating his leadership and complex legacy during a turbulent era.  In 2013, the College debuted an Ivan Allen Jr. Digital Collection containing photographs, editorial cartoons, film clips, select memorabilia, and interviews collected by Professor Ronald Bayor with individuals who worked alongside Mayor Allen.  The Atlanta History Center (AHC) recently made available to researchers the records of Allen’s mayoral administration; Professor Bayor along with Visiting Assistant Professor Todd Michney, also in the School of History and Sociology, recently won grant funding through the Digital Integrative Liberal Arts Center (DILAC), established with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to collaborate with AHC in digitizing some of these records to make them more accessible.  It is our sincere hope that by revisiting the legacy of Ivan Allen Jr., that we may gain deeper insights into Atlanta’s recent past and in the process, empower more engaged civic participation on issues impacting the city’s most economically vulnerable residents.
[1] For an extended analysis, see Irene V. Holliman, “From Crackertown to Model City?  Urban Renewal and Community Building in Atlanta, 1963-1966,” Journal of Urban History 35, no. 3 (March 2009): 369-386.

Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning In Atlanta: The Legal Environment

By Chris Thayer

From Burke Law’s Public Law Update

In the increasingly complex legal environment featuring conflicts between state- and city-level policies — many of which are enacted specifically to circumvent the intended operation of one another — it is more important than ever to understand the circumstances in which any advocate of affordable housing interventions must operate. Affordable housing, also known as ‘workforce housing,’ is intended to cost no more than 30% of the net income of those making roughly 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI), and may be pursued through a number of policy mechanisms, each with their own legal implications. One of these approaches is mandatory inclusionary zoning.

Within the broad category of mandatory inclusionary zoning (IZ) approaches, there are three main types of instruments: unit set-asides, monetary-or-other compensation, and rent control. This post regards rent control as a mandatory inclusionary zoning policy instrument, although there is an ongoing debate on its inclusion in that category, most recently addressed in Palmer v City of Los Angeles in 2009, which held that mandatory inclusionary zoning was indeed a form of rent control. While rent control is often criticized as an affordable house method for its tendency to drive down housing quantity and quality over the long term, temporary rent control measures can be an extremely effective way to slightly cool the overheated markets of rapidly-gentrifying areas and give residents a chance to adjust while other affordable housing measures attempt to catch up. However, Georgia law OCGA § 44-7-19 makes rent control illegal statewide, making it ineligible for consideration in Atlanta.

There are three broad types of legal challenges to mainline mandatory inclusionary zoning measures: equal protection, due process, and takings. Of these, equal protection claims are the easiest to defeat. They assert that by forcing developers to undertake certain actions (paying money, building units, etc), they are not being treated equitably under the law. However, real estate developers are not a protected class, and therefore are subject to the highly deferential ‘reasonableness’ review, wherein courts accept that as long as the government’s need is reasonable, the unequal treatment is justified. Also relatively easy to refute are due process claims, which assert that a given law’s affordable housing requirements constitute unreasonable interference with a developer’s business activities. In the broadest sense, this argument was struck down by the original zoning case Euclid in 1926, wherein land-use regulation was decided to be an appropriate use of the police power. In the face of subsequent due process claims, cases such as 1988’s Pennell, in which “the United States Supreme Court held that protecting consumer welfare is a legitimate goal of price regulations, and that preventing unreasonable increases in housing prices is a legitimate governmental interest” have further supported the legitimacy of such regulations from a due process perspective. This is possible due to the deferential stance the courts take to legislatively-enacted requirements and the correspondingly low level of scrutiny employed, which accepts affordable housing as a public good the government is authorized to pursue. Indeed, it has been successfully argued that exclusionary zoning — zoning to discourage or prevent residence in an area by lower-income persons — is itself a violation of those citizens’ due process protections, as seen most famously in the Mt. Laurel cases.

By contrast, the most extensive — and contentious — strain of zoning challenges (and therefore inclusionary zoning challenges) is takings jurisprudence. Takings concerns are fundamentally different from those of due process or equal protection because they do not assert that the government has engaged in an inherently inappropriate action, but rather that it has failed to provide the Fifth-Amendment-mandated just compensation for an otherwise entirely legal action. For several decades, the test for takings claims in cases of government regulation of property was 1980’s Agins v. City of Tiburon “substantially advances” test — namely, that a regulation was not a taking if it substantially advances a legitimate government interest (similar to the two relatively-light standards used for equal-protection and due-process claims). This strain of thought was employed, or at least referenced, in a number of subsequent landmark takings cases — including Nollan (the “essential nexus” standard), Dolan ( “rough proportionality”), Penn Central (the “balancing” test), Lucas (the “total takings” test), and Loretto (the “permanent physical invasion” test) — to determine elements of a takings test in various circumstances. The “substantially advances” test was explicitly rejected for being suitable for due process concerns — not takings concerns — in 2005’s Lingle v Chevron, in which an entirely new schema is laid out. In it, the Court divides takings into per se takings (such as Lucas and Loretto), regulatory takings (handled using the Penn Central method), and the “special context” of land-use exactions (a condition placed on development to attempt to mitigate subsequent impacts of that development).

This final “special context” of exactions functionally covers all mandatory inclusionary zoning, thanks to the 2013 expansion of what constitutes an exaction by Koontz v. St. John’s River Water Management. Previously, exactions were either real property or the rights thereto (such as to refuse access), which mandatory set-asides — but not fees-in-lieu or other monetary mandatory inclusionary zoning methods — would fall under. The Koontz decision expanded the definition of exactions to include money as well as real property, and in doing so put fees-in-lieu, housing linkage fees, and similar mechanisms under sharply increased Constitutional scrutiny. The exact implications of the Koontz decision are still a matter of active debate — there are some readings that indicate it could be used to threaten the very legitimacy of property taxes — but it clearly raises the importance of administrative versus legislative takings.

This ambiguity — if legislative exactions (including mandatory IZ) are takings and are subject to the same strict scrutiny as administrative exactions are — is shaping up to be the next sea change in exactions law. At present, the matter is still under active consideration with the U.S. Supreme Court, most lately in the form of California Building Industry Association v. City of San Jose, which was rescheduled three times before finally receiving a denial of certiorari by Justice Thomas in late February 2016. In it, he expressed concern that “property owners and local governments are left uncertain about what legal standard governs legislative ordinances and whether cities can legislatively impose exactions that would not pass muster if done administratively.” There is a strong Constitutional argument that legislative exactions are inherently more defensible for being equally applied and put into place by the duly elected agents of the citizens’ collective will, in contrast to ‘ad-hoc’ administrative exactions which deserve greater scrutiny for their potential to single individual property owners out for abuse. This point was recently argued in San Remo Hotel v San Francisco, in which the Supreme Court of California asserted that any “city council that charged extortionate fees for all property development, unjustifiable by mitigation needs, would likely face widespread and well-financed opposition in the next election. Ad hoc individual monetary exactions deserve special judicial scrutiny mainly because, affecting fewer citizens and evading systematic assessment, they are more likely to escape such political controls.”

Currently, state-level case law is split. Until a Supreme Court decision is made, it seems that mandatory IZ policies, even if legislatively enacted, would not be practical to pursue in the Atlanta context. The San Jose case affirms for California that mandatory inclusionary zoning is a) not a taking, b) not rent control, and even adds that c) legislatively-enacted exactions are explicitly not subject to the Nollan/Dolan test. However, traditional mandatory zoning policies in Atlanta or Georgia will likely be challenged in the same way as the San Jose case, with a much less sympathetic State Supreme Court and a US Supreme Court that appears to be extremely open to a sufficiently ripe case on this issue. Even housing linkage fees, which have been both effective and politically palatable elsewhere, and which could potentially be supported as a legitimate use of the police power to offset the negative effects of development (discussed in Parking Assn. of Georgia v City of Atlanta), are likely to be successfully challenged as an illegal expression of impact fees. Given the presence of Georgia’s Development Impact Fees Act, which requires that all such fees be used for capital improvements to a specified range of public facilities and moreover must be used to maintain the current level of service, not increase it (OCGA. § 36-71), impact-fee mechanisms would likely be overturned as unconstitutional for attempting to improve on the current state of affordable housing provision, as both an unacceptable type of and level of service improvement. Furthermore, as Georgia’s State Constitution requires a “literal balancing test” for all land-use regulations to weigh the public benefit against private loss, any mandatory IZ effort would have to offer “substantial cost offsets” (making it functionally a voluntary ordinance) and would essentially rule out the possibility of mandatory set-asides. Therefore, given the current state of the law, it seems prudent to pursue other paths to affordability for Atlantans than any of these mandatory inclusionary zoning approaches.

Cities and Regions: Managing Growth and Change — Regional Studies Association North America Conference, Atlanta, USA


By Jennifer Clark


At Georgia Tech’s Center for Urban Innovation, we are thrilled to host the Regional Studies Association’s North American conference on June 15-17, 2016 on the theme Cities and Regions:  Managing Growth and Change.  The deadline for submitting abstracts to the conference is April 21, 2016. Click here to submit an abstract and register. Click here for additional information.

This conference is a great opportunity to bring together the international membership of the Regional Studies Association in the City of Atlanta at the Georgia Institute of Technology to discuss how, in the wake of the global financial crisis, cities all over the world are searching for new policies and practices capable of addressing major shifts in socio-economic relations at the urban and regional scale.  

Regional policies, particularly in the North American context, have responded to economic challenges by adopting new technologies and new institutional and organizational forms to manage growth and change at the city scale.  The result is a complex and uneven landscape of public and private actors delivering financial services, scaling-up supply chains, coordinating firm networks, diffusing process and material innovations, and organizing new forms of civic representation and participation.  

The inter-related processes of industrialization, urbanization, and regional and local development are complex.  These processes pose a major challenge for regional policy, firstly, for our conceptualizations of regional and urban development and, secondly, for specifying appropriate policy fixes to provide the conditions for sustainable, smart, and equitable economic growth.  

This conference provides a platform for researchers to address the effects of these policy, organizational, and institutional innovations and their impact on work, identity, governance, production networks, infrastructure investments, technology diffusion, and ultimately place. The conference will focus on the policy implications of emerging forms of governance and policy delivery relative to uneven development and inequality in a post-crisis era of ongoing market liberalization, financialization, and global competition.

The conference program highlights important leaders in the field of regional studies to discuss sustainability, equity, energy, innovation, manufacturing,







The 2016 RSA North America Conference, in the 51st Year of the Regional Studies Association, is an opportunity to discuss these issues, to chart future research imperatives, and to address concerns and challenges confronting policymakers and practitioners.  The conference organizers are keen to attract papers and sessions addressing a broad research and policy agenda, including contributions from disciplines that offer relevant insights associated with recasting our cities and regions. 

Conference Tracks and Themes:
A. Smart Cities, Smart Regions: connecting and connected regions, intersections of ICT and urban infrastructure, diffusion networks, partnership approaches, internet of things, financing city and regional development

B. Regional Innovation: Theory, Methods, Practice: urban and regional theories, methodology, value change (including big & open data), visualization, spatial economic analysis, metrics

C. Territory, Politics, Governance: metropolitan politics, institutions, regionalism, data-driven governance, policy evaluation, urban policy mobilities, intermediaries

D. Sustainable Cities and Regions: urban and regional sustainability at the city scale, risk, resilience, energy systems and sources, transportation networks

E. Emerging Community, Urban, and Regional Identities: culture, identity, citizenship, lived differences, racial and income inequalities, social capital, aging and succession planning, social entrepreneurship, open government, civic hacking

F. Labor Markets in Cities and Regions: geographies of jobs, changing skills and patterns of work, re-skilling regions and cities, local labor markets, immigration and skill, talent,  contract workers and precarious labor

G: Regional Economies: SMEs, Scale-Up, and the Future of Production Networks: smart specialization, evolutionary economic geography, competitiveness, reshoring and manufacturing, firm networks, sectoral policies and clusters, working regions, financialization and geographies of venture capital and private equity

Abstract Submission Guidance
The following guidelines set out the acceptable format for abstract submission. Please note that the abstract submission closing date — 21st April 2016.

Abstract guidelines:

Up to 400 words in length;
Text only; no diagrams, graphs, pictures, citations or maps
All contributing authors must be named, with their country and institution
Indicate which conference theme the paper is being submitted under

A Reaction to “Technology and the Future of Cities”: Uneven Development and Expertise in the ‘Smart City’

By Taylor Shelton and Jennifer Clark

Smart City parking in Montreal, from the author’s files


On February 23rd, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released the report “Technology and the Future of Cities.” The report outlines a federal strategy to guide investment and engagement in ‘Smart Cities’ initiatives. Although the definition of a ‘Smart City’ remains nebulous in “Technology and the Future of Cities,” what matters more than any formal definition of the term are the ways that PCAST’s analysis and recommendations influence the production of the Smart City as it is. That is, the PCAST report is likely to have significant ramifications for many Smart Cities initiatives currently planned and deployed across the country.

Although the topic covered in “Technology and the Future of Cities” is understood as critical to US economic competitiveness, the future of cities report itself has been met with mixed reviews. One prominent player in the Smart Cities space has called the report “a rambling, sloppy embarrassment that fails to capture even the basics of a smart city.” On the other hand, Richard Florida’s assessment at CityLab is much more positive about the potential for this exercise to place cities at the center of federal technology and innovation policy.  This later view is consistent with the recent efforts of advocates of federal investment in technology to link cities to innovation policy more explicitly.

Rather than focus on the definitional or public management issues in the report, we highlight here two key elements worthy of closer attention.

The first issue of interest in “Technology and the Future of Cities” is also the most explicitly geographic: a focus on the creation of ‘urban development districts’ as test-beds for the implementation of smart city ideas and technologies. It is important to highlight the report recommends that the development of Smart Cities happens not at the scale of the city, but rather in ‘discrete regions within cities,’ where “[a] district does not necessarily have a predefined scale, nor must it fall within the political boundaries of a single city” (p. 2).

The report focuses on these ‘urban development districts,’ arguing that “[d]istricts offer larger cities the chance to take on these challenges in bite-sized stages” (p. 8).  It is true that smaller scale, test-bed or ‘living lab’-style implementations are useful for assessing the utility and interoperability of certain technologies or approaches. However, it is important to recognize what an urban development strategy built entirely around these spaces means for cities as a whole: continued uneven development.

In short, these test-beds aren’t problematic only because of issues related to combining and interlinking incommensurable systems that are, and will continue to be, developed in isolation from one another. The focus on specific intra-urban territories risks reinforcing and deepening the social and spatial inequalities within cities. Even though American cities have long since given up on what Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin called the ‘modern infrastructural ideal’ of pervasive and integrating infrastructural connections, the targeting of smaller districts within cities is likely only to create new forms of ‘secessionary network spaces.’ These kinds of ‘smart enclaves’ will be highly connected both within their boundaries and to quite distant places through networks of fiber optic cables, but will likely be functionally distinct from the surrounding neighborhoods and urban area that lack such advanced infrastructure and technology.

Although the report recommends some of these targeted districts should be located within low-income communities, a vision of the Smart City promoted by a district-centric implementation remains one of significant socio-spatial fragmentation and differentiation. Some places are inevitably privileged over others in the provision of new technology services, and it is unclear whether places neglected in the first rounds of these programs will ever see similar levels of investment.

It is also worth noting the broader context of these district-level implementation strategies in the history of urban economic development. Recall the evolution of various ‘zones’ -– ‘free trade zones,’ ‘enterprise zones,’ ‘empowerment zones,’ ‘promise zones’ -– designated for special services or tax advantages intended to drive development into such territories (and, necessarily, away from or out of others). Literature on this matter records mixed results and significant debate (indeed, this was one of the “great debates” in urban policy between Peter Hall and Bill Goldsmith, among others). In any case, provision of special technology services in some neighborhoods, but not others, raises serious concerns about fairness and justice in our cities. Unfortunately, the PCAST report places minimal emphasis on such matters, meaning that the significant planned investments into new infrastructures and technologies are more likely to deepen these longstanding inequalities.

The second issue of interest relates to the type of expertise that is (or isn’t) present in its construction and the formation of its conclusions. This involves recognizing and understanding the history of inequality and cities. A small number of the 100+ listed contributors to the PCAST report represent the perspective or expertise of the social sciences focused on cities and the urban scale. The technoscientific orientation of the report instead privileges experts in the sciences and engineering from both academia and from industry. Indeed, the burgeoning field of ‘urban science’ — founded on the principle that the conventional urban social sciences have been insufficiently scientific — occupies a prominent place in the content, as well as construction, of the report. This prominence of ‘urban science’ contrasts with a conspicuous absence of established disciplines such as urban geography, urban sociology, urban history, urban economics, urban anthropology, and urban planning.

This report is yet another signifier that the production of urban knowledge, especially that which is deemed useful for governance and administration, is increasingly disconnected from the last century of in-depth urban scholarship. Today, instead, urban knowledge is increasingly focused on the ability to gather, process and analyze massive datasets about any number of urban (or not-so-urban) phenomena. The role of the urban social sciences in the development of the federal government’s smart cities initiatives is given scant mention in the report, except to mention that “[g]iven earlier discussions regarding the interplay between technology and norms of behavior, it will also be essential to integrate social, behavioral, and economic sciences with these more traditional infrastructure sciences” (p. 41).  

Ultimately, the likely substantial financial investments in smart cities that will be made by the federal government represent an exciting opportunity for anyone interested in US cities. It remains to be seen, However whether the preoccupation with new technologies obfuscates the critical issue of whether provisioning fundamental services is dictated by efficiency or equality. Given the general absence of perspectives from the urban social sciences in the current conversation, it is difficult to see how investments will be equitably targeted. Instead, failures to attend to the ways urban spatial inequalities are produced means contemporary smart cities initiatives, like those advocated for in “Technology and the Future of Cities,” will simply fall into the trap of exacerbating uneven development.  Or, as has often been the case, the report and its recommendations — like US cities themselves — will be ignored.


Smart Cities as an Enabling Industry: Bringing Firm Strategies Back to the City

By Jennifer Clark

A Sample Smart City from IDC Government Insights (2013), courtesy Smart Cities Council

Economic geographers have long studied industries as part of the broader disciplinary project of mapping and analyzing the spatial distribution of economic activities within and across cities, regions, and nation states. In recent years, technology and innovation gained positions of prominence in these industry analyses. Researchers are particularly focused on processes of technology diffusion and how regional ecosystems absorb these new technologies and incorporate them into existing complexes of firms, industries, and industrial specializations.

One such example is the evolution of the medical devices industry into biotechnology. Another is the evolution of photographic and optical equipment into photonics. These patterns of technology diffusion and industry change are often responses to emerging new markets as well as the introduction of new materials, processes, or products that enable better, faster, or greener alternatives. In other words, new technologies enable optimization — efficiency, sustainability, or increased quality.

The shift here is considering Smart Cities as an industry and not simply a discourse or movement. It is therefore important to break down its constituent elements. Industries generally have products. Those products emerging in the smart cities scene are largely service-embedded goods with infrastructure and public service applications. These require: 1) connectivity, 2) back end analytical services, 3) storage and management services (including security and privacy), and 4) user/citizen interfaces (potentially open source).

To walk through some examples: the “smart city object” — the trash can, the trolley, the streetcar, the light pole, the traffic light — requires embedded sensors (leaving aside the question of what is being sensed for now). Those sensors require connectivity (fiber, wireless, etc…). A service contract is required to maintain and manage that connectivity. Data analytics are required to mange the resulting data and perform analysis. Interfaces and visualization tools are required to make the data accessible to the public or citizen users.

It other words, Smart Cities are a market-making enterprise — developed: 1) for people and companies to gather information about the (market) conditions around the individual and aggregated lived urban experience, and 2) for cities to collect data that could lead to the optimization of public services and the provisioning of infrastructure.

Returning to economic geography for methodological guidance, the observed process here is a form of technology diffusion familiar in the private sector context. This is technology diffusion into the public sector focused on “upgrading,” efficiency, and broadening access and opportunity.

In sum, the Smart Cities industry is focused on the design, development, and deployment of an emerging class of cross-platform, service-integrated, technology products to enhance service performance — particularly for citizens, workers, cities, or, for those with the ability to pay for that increased service performance. And here lies the particular challenge: who pays? The next step for Smart Cities may not be enhanced quality and coverage of public services but instead further public service privatization.

In observing who is promoting Smart Cities, it becomes clear that the stakeholders involved underscore the complexity of the private market vs. public sector challenge. As these private, public, and third sector networks evolve, sets of privileged places have also emerged. These places are the recipients of the demonstration project grants and resources coming through philanthropic investments, private sector partnership, and federal government competitions and challenges.

Third Sector Networks (including philanthropies and non-profits)

As we see in other industries focused on technology diffusion, the firms are in the business of carving out new markets and new market spaces. This is especially the case in fields where civic participation or social entrepreneurship is part of the user model. With Smart Cities, there is a turn towards third sector intermediaries to design, develop, and deploy smart cities technologies and infrastructure using an incremental, scale-up approach.

These third sector intermediaries set priorities in terms of use cases (such as bicycle crowdsourcing or urban agriculture).  There is an observed rise of “partnerships,” “networks,” and “convenings” arranged and organized for diffusion of best practices and the brokering of project partnerships. And there is a necessary unevenness that emerges in the deployment. Public services and Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure investments are landing on an uneven landscape.

Public Sector Networks

The MetroLab Network is an initiative of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. MetroLab coordinates city-university partnerships in the hopes that these partnerships design, develop and deploy “Smart Cities” solutions focusing on “urban infrastructure systems, city services, democratic governance, and public policy & management.” The agencies (NIST, DOT, NSF) providing resources for these efforts emphasize open innovation and open data and the development of interoperable standards.

Private Sector Networks

An example of private sector networks is the AT&T Smart Cities Initiative that is being piloted in three locations: Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas. AT&T Smart Cities Initiative is a consortium including Cisco Systems, Qualcomm, IBM, Intel, and General Electric. The Initiative offers cities the capacity to address infrastructure including “remote monitoring of roads, bridges, and buildings; citizen needs, such as real-time notifications of street lights and parking meters; transportation needs, such as real-time updates of train and bus arrival times; and public safety needs, such as gunfire detection technology for police officers.”

A Use Case Study: Autonomous Vehicles

A key example of a use case is the “upgrade’ to fleets of autonomous vehicles highlighted in the recent USDOT Smart Cities Challenge.  As is typical with this sort of transition — an underlying manufactured good gets an upgrade using new technologies. In this case, the individual auto remains the fundamental platform but it becomes extensively interconnected through the addition of information and communication technologies (ICT) that take driving out of the hands of individual drivers.

This use case has gained prominence not because it can demonstrably save commuting time or improve safety (although it may). It does, however, create an important new market: a customer base captured in a location with embedded connectivity — people riding in their cars on a commute or errand and now with reliable connectivity and without the distraction of driving.  This is a whole new, undistracted audience to view adds, use software, and consume media content during a part of the day largely lost to the ICT industry (precursor products include the radio, XM radio, and even way-finding applications, but all limit the interactivity of the user with the technology).

Autonomous cars may also have an effect on urban form — there may be less need for convenient parking places and more places for cars to wait on curbs rather than parking garages.  But it is likely this new array of captive consumers that presents a strategic opportunity for ICT firms.

The creation of a core and periphery of places through the pattern of uneven investments in urban innovation has deep implications for the future spatial distribution of economic activities. The core and periphery investment strategy adopted by the testbed and competition framework creates uneven capacities across cities to design and absorb new technologies relevant to both performance management and optimization.  It means that not only (some) citizens will select places based on Smart City endowments; so too will firms.

Also, the uneven distribution of technologically embedded infrastructure affects the economic competitiveness of cities both inside and outside the core. And finally, peripheral cities are obligated to adopt the designs and models developed and tailored for core cities — causing a convergence towards core cities’ needs, priorities, and circumstances as reflected in the design of “Smart City solutions.”

In is worth noting that there are some observable absences in the discussion about manufacturing and deploying Smart City technologies. First, there is almost no talk of regionalism or regional governance — the city is the actor of interest in this discourse. This is atypical in the US and leaves open a longstanding question about equity and inter-jurisdictional competition. Second, there is no explicit discussion of economic development although clearly the differential investment in these technologies changes the calculus for locational choices.

Firms often use privacy debates to justify proprietary platforms. This leads us to a discussion about the covert construction of barriers to entry to limit the participants in the Smart Cities market space.  Open innovation platforms ensure interoperability and continuous innovation and competition. Proprietary platforms create barriers to entry into this new market that has potentially broad social and economic benefits. This is why there is a rhetorical emphasis on open data, open innovation, and open access among the public sector actors in the Smart Cities debate (cities and national governments) but the model itself remains under development.


Metropolitan America in a Globalizing Age: Inequalities and Opportunities

By Daniel Amsterdam and Todd Michney


Metropolitan America emerged from the final decades of the twentieth century transformed: embedded in the global economy as never before, sprawling further into the hinterland, populated by immigrants from around the globe, and riddled with often new forms of inequality, including between city and suburb, between suburbs themselves, between different metropolitan areas, and between those who can and cannot access quality jobs, education, health care, transportation, and even water and air.  On April 22, Georgia Tech’s School of History and Sociology (HSOC) will host a one-day symposium that seeks to investigate various dimensions of inequality, metropolitan growth, and the impact of America’s heightened globalization since roughly 1970.  It especially seeks to foster a discussion between sociologists and historians to help forge a path for future inquiry.  From the get-go, sociologists have been on the front lines studying many of the changes that metropolitan America has experienced in recent decades.  But too often they have had to proceed without the insights gained from historians’ close scrutiny of context and change over time.  Indeed, urban and metropolitan historians have only recently begun to examine the post-1970 period in the United States.  Through a series of plenary and smaller sessions featuring preeminent scholars, Metropolitan America in a Globalizing Age aims to move toward a compelling, usable account of metropolitan America’s recent past.[1]

Phoenix sprawl
Phoenix, AZ. Uncredited.

The upcoming symposium will feature four distinguished scholars.  Elizabeth Higginbotham, a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware, is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Georgia Tech’s School of History and Sociology for this 2015-16 academic year.  She is the co-author of Race and Ethnicity in Society: The Changing Landscape (2012) and author of Too Much to Ask: Black Women in the Era of Integration (2001), among many other books, book chapters, and over thirty articles exploring identity and inequality, and in particular the employment issues facing professional Black women.  Andrew Needham is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at New York University and author of the award-winning Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest (2014).  Needham explores the environmental costs of that metropolis’s explosive growth after World War II, and particularly how the process fostered inequality, including in the Navajo Nation which supplies much of the Southwest’s electrical power.  Becky Nicolaides is a Research Associate at UCLA’s Center for Study of Women, the author of My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles (2002) and co-editor of The Suburb Reader (2006).  Her work has been among the most influential in broadening our understanding of suburbia’s historical development by focusing attention on factors including class and ethnicity.  Finally, Thomas Shapiro is a Professor of Law and Social Policy at Brandeis University as well as Director of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy there.  His co-written Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality (1995) became an instant classic by drawing attention to severe race-based discrepancies in asset accumulation, traceable to past policies restricting black access to jobs and housing; more recently, Shapiro continued this line of inquiry in The Hidden Cost of Being African American (2004).

Professors Higginbotham, Needham, Nicolaides, and Shapiro will conduct a Roundtable, followed by Breakout sessions in which each will lead a discussion about a pertinent topic or article-length reading of their choosing.  Interested participants must register for these sessions at by April 1.  A informative session, “The 1996 Atlanta Olympics: Assessing Multiple Legacies,” will precede the Roundtable (details below).  The symposium will conclude with a reception.  The proceedings will take place at Georgia Tech’s Wardlaw Center from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The 1996 Atlanta Olympics: Assessing Multiple Legacies

Moderator: Mary G. McDonald, Georgia Institute of Technology

“The Atlanta Olympics: How the Event Turned Atlanta Around”
– Mike Dobbins, Georgia Institute of Technology
– Leon Eplan, Partner, Urban Mobility Consult, LLC
– Randy Roark, Georgia Institute of Technology

“Lords of the Olympic Rings: Power and Politics as seen through Atlanta’s Centennial Olympics”
– Maurice Hobson, Georgia State University

“Shadow of the Domes: Community Response to the 1992 Georgia Dome and the 2017 Mercedez-Benz Stadium”
– Kate Diedrick, Historic Westside Cultural Arts Council
– Christopher Le Dantec, Georgia Institute of Technology

[1] Historians studying American urban and suburban history have in recent years settled on the descriptor “metropolitan history” as a concept which better encompasses the extensive and fluid connections between cities, suburbs, and in an era of urban sprawl, exurbs.  For some sense of the discussions along these lines, see Matthew D. Lassiter and Christopher Niedt, “Suburban Diversity in Postwar America,” Journal of Urban History 39:1 (January 2013): 3-14.



Revisiting the Geographies of Smart City Technical Assistance Programs

By Taylor Shelton

On March 10th, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the latest participants in its much-heralded WhatWorksCities program. Launched in April 2015 as a companion to Bloomberg’s existing activities in the world of government innovation, WhatWorksCities is a $42 million program meant to help bring data-driven governance to 100 mid-sized US cities in the next few years. This announcement (not to mention some clerical errors in our initial mapping!) make for an excellent occasion to revisit our map from last December about where these kinds of technical assistance investments are being made around the country, and update it based on the latest data. While there are just six new cities participating in the program, they’re interesting in that they represent a diversity of trajectories in terms of how cities are leveraging their participation in such programs as an attempt to appear – and ultimately become – ‘smarter’.


Perhaps most notable among the six additions to WhatWorksCities is Boston. A city long known for being at the cutting edge of applying technology to city government due to the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Boston now officially represents the leader among cities participating in these technical assistance programs. With its addition to the WWC roster, Boston becomes the first and (as of yet) only city to participate in all seven programs we’re tracking [1]. So even though Boston, much like other larger cities around the country known for the tech industry, doesn’t have to participate in these programs in order to be seen as innovative, there is clearly some value in their continued participation in these programs, even if it’s just for appearances. Moreover, Boston’s ascent to the top of the proverbial league table also tells the bigger story of how the many of the recent investments made by these programs represent a doubling-down of resources in a small number of highly active cities. While Boston got the benefit of the latest round of WWC investments, the 2016 Code for America fellowship cities (also announced since our initial post) are particularly telling of this trend. Of the six cities hosting Code for America fellows this year, five had previously participated in the program (Salt Lake County, Utah being the lone exception here), with four of these five having a total of at least four programs participated in. So rather than focusing largely on spreading these ideas to the places that have yet to come into substantive contact with them, there seems to be a trend of deepening the engagements in the places that have already signaled their interest and desire in becoming ‘smart’ and ‘data-driven.’

Also among the new WhatWorksCities participants are Charlotte, NC and Milwaukee, WI, cities that were among the very first to participate in the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge in 2010 and 2011. Despite being early movers in this space, neither city has actively sought to expand its involvement in these technical assistance programs. Up until now, Milwaukee had seen no further participation, while Charlotte’s hosting of Code for America fellows in 2014 represents its only other engagement since that first round of the Smarter Cities Challenge in 2010. Nonetheless, after a relatively prolonged absence, we can see some of these quick-starting, but also quickly fading, cities attempting to reinsert themselves into these conversations.

But even though the doubling-down of resources in already-successful cities seems to be the new trend, these latest rounds of funding haven’t entirely neglected to reach out to some of the places that have been overlooked by these programs in the past. Before this latest WWC announcement, the Riverside-San Bernardino, CA and Raleigh-Cary, NC MSAs were two of just eleven MSAs across the country with populations greater than 1 million that had yet to see any participation in our seven programs of interest, with the Riverside-San Bernardino MSA having been the largest among these eleven. Even though the Inland Empire has finally gotten on the board, it’s worth noting that it’s thanks to Victorville, which is just the 8th largest city in the metropolitan area! Also of note among the other large metro areas without any participation in our seven technical assistance programs is Columbus, Ohio, the 32nd largest metro area in the country and now the third-largest MSA without any participation. This omission from our own data is despite the city having been named the 2015 Intelligent Community of the Year, as well as being one of seven finalists for the US Department of Transportation’s much-coveted $50 million Smart Cities Challenge competition.



It will be illuminating to observe the distribution of technical assistance programs in the coming years in light of the nation-wide attention the USDoT challenge has brought to the issue of making cities smarter. It is possible that, with greater citizen awareness, grassroots demand may make smarter city projects bloom in the currently underserved great national divide.

Big Data, Local Data, Counter Data: A Contested Outlook for Housing


by Yanni Loukissas and Firaz Peer,
Program in Digital Media; School of Literature, Media and Communication


Every day,, an online housing marketplace, reassesses the value of your home. In fact, the company is continuously updating its ‘zestimate’ — the name for Zillow’s proprietary approach to generating a market-based estimate — for about one hundred million houses and apartments nationwide, whether or not they are for sale. Their business relies on data from public records as well as privately held multiple listing services. Because of the widespread availability of these data, Zillow doesn’t need complex financial models of the housing market to assess your home’s worth. They can use simple algorithms to fit the details of your property to comparable listings in the same area. Zillow doesn’t create these listings or sell access to them. Like most successful web companies, Zillow survives off of advertising revenue—a kind of surplus value created when it aggregates existing data into a new form of context for understanding the housing market.

The value of property has long been assessed in relation to its context; however, the scale and visibility that Zillow provides is unprecedented. Their zestimate is what Nick Seaver calls an “algorithmic system.” It combines computational modeling with human steering from both experts and the crowd (you can also update the details of your home’s listing). It is one of many examples of how data might take a more direct role in shaping perceptions of property value, and thus development. From Zillow’s perspective, the future of housing — and of cities — will be shaped by Big Data.

In Atlanta, this version of the future is not going uncontested. Trent, an Intown real estate agent, confronts an uncertain outlook for his job. How can he continue to justify the cost of his services (commission in Metro Atlanta is typically 6%) at a time when almost anyone can access listings for sale and rent online? “I can’t hold data hostage,” he jokes. But Trent’s situation is serious, and one he equates with the circumstance of the travel agent a few decades ago. Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia, among others, have all but put an end to that vocation. “In the past, someone needed my services,” Trent recalls of his early days in the business just ten years ago. “Buyers and sellers wouldn’t know what houses were on the market without agents.” Today, Trent must find leverage elsewhere. It is no longer access to data that realtors provide, he argues. Rather, it is context: “the context necessary to understand what it might be like to actually live in a neighborhood or an apartment complex.” From Trent’s point of view, access to data isn’t going away — but local agents will play an important role in interpreting it.

Both the developers of Zillow and the agents that resist its encroachment into real estate believe that making sense of housing data requires an understanding of context. But they disagree on what context means. In terms outlined by Paul Dourish, Zillow’s definition of context is “representational,” relying on statistics and algorithms to assess the housing market. In contrast, Trent’s definition is “interactional.” His sense of what a house could go for on any given day is contingent on the dialog he is able to establish between buyers and sellers. In an interactional model, writes Dourish, “context isn’t something that describes a setting; it is something that people do.” As such, the interactional context of the housing market can vary enormously depending on who you talk to and when.

Oscar, an organizer based in Atlanta, talks mostly to people of color, renters who have been driven out of communities they grew up in. These residents are being priced out in the immediate sense and, ultimately, pushed out by financial speculation and gentrification. In Atlanta, there are almost no regulatory policies that protect low-income residents from the inevitable outcomes of a market on the rise. “A crisis is hitting renters. We need data to declare a renters’ state of emergency,” asserts Oscar urgently. He sees a broader context for the data available on what is for sale or rent; they are only part of the picture. “Whenever any information or data is created, it is created in the interest of a group,” he explains. “Zillow serves the wealthy.” But a critical reading of existing data isn’t enough to change the tide. Oscar needs “counter data” to fight gentrification. “How can we produce data to serve the oppressed?” he challenges. Oscar contends that collecting data on “the truth of the system” can give rise to a new sensibility for Atlanta’s development. “We need data on how many people are being displaced. We need data on their mental, emotional, and physical health. Who’s being displaced and what is the consequence of that? We need data to show that there is mass displacement that is causing great suffering.” Part of Oscar’s work is filling in that missing context, which shows that the 2007 housing crisis is not over.

While technologists and realtors are working to define the context in which their clients might make the best possible choices in a local market, Oscar seeks to reveal another condition: one which calls the logic of the market into question. These three ways of approaching the question of context — aggregating Big Data, interpreting that data using local knowledge, and generating counter data — are competing strategies for imagining the future of Atlanta. All of these strategies implicitly accept that data are now a necessary medium for understanding urbanism, which has reached a scale that would be difficult to contemplate otherwise. Nevertheless, data have become a site of contestation, which will determine how cities evolve and for whose benefit.

With support from the Georgia Tech Center for Urban Innovation, the Local Data Design Lab is intervening in this contest by prototyping new tools for thinking critically about data and their role in urban change. Our tools are meant to serve education, journalism, activism, and even art — practices that have the power to reshape the social image of the city. In a course hosted by the lab in the fall of 2015, students worked with our new code library to reflect on what gentrification in Atlanta looks like through data. They developed projects to test a variety of approaches: analyzing implicit discourses on gentrification embedded in Zillow listings, visualizing patterns in home values affected by the new BeltLine, and gaming out the implications of luxury development for the sustainability of low-cost housing. As our underlying toolset is refined, the lab will work with communities in Atlanta to question housing data and the context for their interpretation. It is not enough for data “to be free” — a platitude opined by Stewart Brand in the late 1960s and appropriated by enterprising technologists ever since. The Local Data Design Lab is building new capacities for data literacy, so that not only housing experts but the broader public can confront the social and political implications of this medium for shaping perspectives on the future of the city.