Elwyn Gonzalez 9 April 2013 The Buford Highway Project, Atlanta, Georgia urp5122 Introduction

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Elwyn Gonzalez

9 April 2013

The Buford Highway Project, Atlanta, Georgia



The City of Atlanta, Georgia, much like other major cities within the United States, is synonymous with automobile congestion and endless webs of freeways. Victims of the “American suburban Dream,” Atlantans deal with motor vehicle congestion on a daily basis and the urban fabric as a result, is low-density and sprawling in nature. Corridors are dominated by the automobile and travel can be perilous for pedestrians and cyclists in many locations. One such roadway, Buford Highway, follows such a characteristic and exists to transport users from the Midtown District of the City towards suburban neighborhoods to the northeast. Initially designed to connect motorists from the urban core of Atlanta to the surrounding townships of Chamblee, Doraville, and Norcross outside of the “Perimeter”, Buford Highway today is a seven lane major arterial, unconducive to active transportation options thanks largely to the lack of sidewalks, crosswalks, bicycle lanes, etc.

This case study will analyze ways in which local and state planners came together in order to craft the improved safety and health of pedestrians crossing the roadway and how they were able to handle the unique problems associated with involving the general public from the local community.

History and Background

The Buford Highway corridor originally served traditional blue collar, lower income communities in the northeast portions of the metropolitan area. Over time, the roadway was expanded multiple times in response to the rapid growth of the area following the end of the Second World War. Residents at first were connected to the central city by a former rail line. Gradually, as the City of Atlanta began to sprawl, more strip malls and apartments began to appear in the area. The 1970s saw an influx of immigrants flocking towards the Buford Highway corridor which was attractive from a design standpoint due to the cheap, available land. Diverse groups from various ethnic groups moved to the area in search of work, affordable housing, and access to public transportation services provided from the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. Indeed, the roadway grew with the City and each new wave of construction within Atlanta brought in more workers choosing to live near their families and ethnic groups. The 1990s for instance brought in an influx of new Mexican construction workers relocating to the City for new projects that appeared as a result of the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Today, Buford Highway is known for its variety of ethnic groups and many residents are of Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican, and Korean descent. Hundreds of restaurants and businesses are found in the area, clustered together due to the sense of community long established. In the Atlanta metropolitan area, residents often flock to the roadway to visit the community centers and to the world markets that feature goods from around the globe. It is also well known for its dangerous pedestrian environment as locals attempting to cross the roadway do so without the aid of traffic calming devices, crosswalks, or central medians. Between the years of 2000 and 2009, twenty-two pedestrians were hit and killed from speeding motor vehicles according to a study from Transportation for America, a public advocacy group formed to lobby for cleaner and more equitable transportation options in United States projects at the municipal, state, and federal level.

Nature of the Dispute

After orchestrating a Health Impact Assessment in 2004, the United States Center for Disease Control deemed it necessary to improve the safety of the area. Along with the evidence of the poor conditions of the roadway, DeKalb County, Georgia wished to improve the landscaping and sidewalk coverage of the corridor from the County line all the way to the Shallowford Terrace neighborhood; a length of approximately 4.8 miles. Preliminary engineering on sidewalk and streetscape improvements was in turn, planned by the DeKalb County Department of Public Works. When reporters from the Atlanta Journal Constitution were made aware of the engineering work, they began to publish numerous articles questioning the use of taxpayer funds to improve the aesthetics of the corridor rather than construct safety facilities. Although DeKalb County officials intended to improve the safety features of the roadway, the County lacked the proper finances to redevelop the entirety of the corridor. At this stage, the Georgia Department of Transportation stepped in to assist with the funding for safety improvements. Planners with the state agency proposed the installation of a continuous raised median that would act as a refuge for individuals attempting to cross the seven-laned roadway from one side of the road to the other. For the project, the Georgia Department of Transportation would act as a partner for the pedestrian enhancements.

Once again, local media agencies received information that the medians were being pursued by state and county planners and released the “leaked” information to the general public. When merchants along Buford Highway heard about the nature of the project, they organized themselves and confronted DeKalb County politicians who immediately balked at the design of the new roadway improvements. These merchants were angered that the continuous median would limit vehicular access to their properties which would in turn, destroy their businesses. More importantly however, the ethnic groups who occupied the land adjacent to Buford Highway believed that such a construction project would ruin their way of life that had been established decades before and felt alienated by the process. This issue was exacerbated due to the fact that many of the Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Mexican business owners and residents spoke little to no English.

County officials began to step away from the project citing a lack of support from the business community and the negative public image that began to be associated with the roadway improvements. The Buford Highway Project at this stage had evolved into a multi-party, multiple issue crisis:

Principal Party


DeKalb County, Georgia Planning Department

For the project, but only if they had the support of the local merchants

DeKalb County, Georgia Government

For the project initially

DeKalb County Police Force

For the project

Georgia Department of Transportation

For the project from a safety and environmental justice point of view

Center for Disease Control

For the project (Advisory role)

Families whose children attended various schools in the area

For the project

The Center for Pan Asian Community Services

Against the project

The Latin American Association

Against the project

Various Chinese, Latino, Korean, and Vietnamese Merchants

Against the project

Basic Issues

  • DeKalb County officials would not support the project if they did not have the backing of the Buford Highway merchants

  • Are raised medians “business killers?”

  • If so, what other ways could the planners improve pedestrian safety?

  • How could planners engage the diverse community of Chinese, Latino, Korean, and Vietnamese citizens – many of whom did not speak English?

Resolution Process

The Georgia Department of Transportation suggested the use of public meetings in order to come to a consensus between all the stakeholders that were involved. At first, it was proposed that the state agency along with officials from DeKalb County would stage design workshops over multiple days with members of the local community. It became apparent however that due to the fact that most residents and business owners spoke mainly Chinese, Spanish, Korean, and Vietnamese, this strategy had to be abandoned due to presence of language barriers. Instead, they favored the crafting of two parallel public involvement plans that engaged the Hispanic and Asian communities separately.

First, they sought to create a collective vision from the Latino community by hosting surveys at locally owned groceries and by providing translated material to families at area schools. Children who attended the educational facilities along Buford Highway had a better understanding of the English language than their parents had and would have a better ability to engage the adults they lived with who were mostly distrustful of government authorities. Urban planners also came to the realization that parents of children who would cross the roadway would likely be more sympathetic for the project if the safety of their children was at stake. This strategy, along with other methods of public involvement, provided a way to build coalitions that would move the project forward.
Next, they set up interviews with Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese merchants by calling them by phone or through personal invitation in each of their native dialects. Unlike the local Hispanic community who distrusted authority figures in many cases, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese residents and merchants wished mainly to be approached in a more intimate manner as a method of respect and consideration. In both cases however, the ability of the local and state planners to reach out to the ethnic groups through the use of third parties was extremely helpful and their decision to approach community leaders in various community organizations had a “trickle down” effect that engaged more and more people. Protesting families wishing to increase the safety of the corridor also had a way of swaying public opinion in favor of the Buford Highway Project as well.
The Georgia Department of Transportation enlisted the help of interpreters and public facilitators to engage local merchants and residents at each meeting along with community leaders. Additionally, planners limited the amount of written information at each encounter choosing instead to include photos of the project’s designs and area landmarks in order to frame the location of each improvement. The meetings occurred at many community centers such as the Center for Pan Asian Community Services and at educational institutions such as Woordward Elementary and Montclair Elementary Schools over the course of several months. Planners made the conscious effort to come to the local community rather than invite them at government offices near the downtown area in order to avoid alienating any members of the ethnic groups who may have felt outside of the process.
Shaping a Shared Problem
In all cases, local community leaders participated directly with Georgia Department of Transportation and DeKalb County planners and officials in order to gain the trust of the merchants and residents. Overall, planners utilized mediation, visioning, planning, and consensus building to ease local concerns and social isolations. In the end, the coalition of merchants, residents, and officials decided to abandon the initial continuous median schematic. As a group they decided to:

  • Implement new signal improvements

  • Three “medianettes” (mid-block crossings with flashing lights and distinct pavement in a roadway) that were shorter than having singular elongated medians in an effort to maintain the accessibility of the majority of the corridor

  • Streetscape and landscaping improvements

  • Raised medians at select locations

Analysis with Carpenter’s Ten Principles

When analyzing what had occurred in the Buford Highway Project with what Susan Carpenter and W. J. D. Kennedy suggests in their book, Managing Public Disputes: A Practical Guide to Handling Conflict and Reaching Agreements, many similarities arise. The authors’ Ten Principles of Conflict Management identified in Chapter three of the book is used in this study as a model for improved public-private relations. Did government officials in this case follow Carpenter and Kennedy’s model as they pertained to:

1. Conflicts are a mix of procedures, relationships, and substance?

Yes, although the conflict resolution in this case may have been straightforward, retrofitting the corridor to improve public safety, the addition of the concerns of the local business community and the language barriers presented obstacles that required mediation.

2. To find a good solution, you have to understand the problem?

Yes, as mentioned in the authors’ book, “Instead of acting on assumptions and the stereotypes that commonly creep into controversial situations, an intervener should begin by untangling the muddle of emotions, perceptions, needs, and cross-purposes that surround the issues” (Carpenter and Kennedy, 1988, p. 54). The planners did just that and met personally with local residents and business owners in order to understand the issues from multiple points of view rather than jump right into the design and construction phase of the project. The shared problem they shaped is described above.

3. Take time to plan a strategy and follow it through?

Yes, rather than follow through the original public meeting series strategy, planners sought to approach various ethnic groups differently as a show of respect. They crafted a public involvement process that was unique to the situation and employed community leaders, facilitators, and interpreters to maximize community involvement.

4. Progress demands positive working relationships?

For the most part, yes. However, when DeKalb County threatened to leave the project out of fear of losing public support and future elections, it created a hostile environment that may have left the State of Georgia feeling caught in an awkward situation. As the process went on however, officials at the local and state level joined forces for the common goal of public safety once the business community was on board.

5. Negotiation begins with a constructive definition of the problem?

Yes, the problem of inadequate pedestrian infrastructure was a common and mutual problem that had to be solved. Business owners and local residents understood the hazards of the Buford Highway corridor and supported the measures as long as it did not limit motor vehicle access to their properties. The ability of both sides of the issue to see the lack of crosswalks and other amenities as a serious problem enabled the coalition to move forward to come to an overall consensus.

6. Parties should help design the process and solution?

Yes, all parties involved joined forces to come to a consensus. Had the government agencies moved forward without the business community, their distrust of authoritative figures would have likely grown deeper ensuring that future collaborations would not happen at all. Several government agencies such as the police force sought to include the public in various ways such as the idea of handing out soccer balls to Mexican children who may not have included their parents without the show of understanding and sense of community that the simple gesture created.

7. Lasting solutions are based on interests, not positions?

Yes, although the Georgia Department of Transportation wanted very much to create continuous medians to maximize the safety of the corridor for pedestrians and eventually other forms of transportation, they decided to “bargain away chips” in an effort to create bonds that eventually snowballed into a coalition that got things done (Carpenter and Kennedy, 1988, p. 60). This strategy enabled the planners to persuade various groups of people who were wary to deal with the government over an issue they felt would destroy their ways of life.

8. The process must be flexible?

Yes, planners with the Georgia Department of Transportation were flexible with the overall design of the project as long as the goal of improving the health, safety, and environmental justice of the residents along the corridor was met. It should be noted that the DeKalb County Planning Department was initially difficult to work with due to the lack of funding to enact the medians that the State wished to build

9. Think through what might go wrong?

Unclear, however the determination of the planners to include as many people within the problem may have been a part of their intention to avoid any potential surprises. Also, had they ventured into their original idea of hosting several joint public meetings may have alienated members of the community.

10. Do no harm?

Yes, the planners in this study minimized the amount of damage done within multiple facets of the project by ensuring that everyone had a voice in the matter. It should be noted though despite the ultimate decision to build “medianettes,” several businesses may have been affected during the construction of the devices over the course of several years.


In the end, the Georgia Department of Transportation and DeKalb County were able to craft a project that would increase the health, safety, and environmental justice of the corridor for pedestrians while at the same time, designing a development that had the support of multiple merchants, residents, and social groups. The purpose of this case study was to illustrate how stakeholder and expert input can be integrated in a community with serious language and cultural barriers. It is unfortunately not clear how the planning departments would have reached out to the local communities had the area media not “leaked” the information to the public however, they responded admirably to the crisis. Their ability to incorporate various recommendations from interviews, working group exercises, and public meetings ensured that the planners were able to generate a shared vision that would ensure social and economic benefits for years to come.


Carpenter, S. & Kennedy, W. (1988). Managing Public Disputes: A Practical Guide to Handling Conflict and Reaching Agreements. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2004). Buford Highway and NE Plaza Redevelopment Project. University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angles. Retrieved March 29, 2013 from: http://www.hiaguide.org/hia/buford-highway-and-ne-plaza-redevelopment-project.

Georgia Department of Transportation. (2006). Buford Highway Public Outreach Packet. Atlanta. Retrieved March 29, 2013 from: http://tomcat2.dot.state.ga.us/PublicOutreach_ex/projectInfo/0004640/PDF/PIOHPacket.pdf

Naddra, R. (2012). Advocacy group clashes with state over Buford Highway project. Champion Newspaper: Decatur, GA. Retrieved March 29, 2013 from: http://www.championnewspaper.com/news/articles/1616advocacy-group-clashes-with-state-over-buford-highway-project1616.html.

United States Federal Highway Administration. (2011).Environmental Justice Emerging Trends and Best Practices Guidebook. Washington D.C.

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