Atlanta’s pursuit of the “delicate balance” of staying true to its ideals of inclusiveness while embracing rapid growth is a driving force behind deeper global engagement, Mayor Andre Dickens said Wednesday.
As solutions to multilateral issues are increasingly devised in cities, the mayor often finds himself comparing notes with counterparts around the world, sharing innovations that are translatable across borders.
“How we try to go from where we are to where we really know we can be, it requires a global focus on those things and not just taking on American solutions,” he told World Affairs Council of Atlanta President Rickey Bevington in an interview over breakfast at the Buckhead Club.
In an era of “subnational diplomacy” and unbridled connectivity, cities no longer have to wait for national governments to drive these discussions, said the mayor.
“We’re now all connected — I know mayors that are across the globe,” said Mr. Dickens, who a year ago traveled to the United Nations in Geneva to contribute to a discussion on ending racial bias.
As the cradle of the civil rights movement, Atlanta is well placed to share its triumphs and travails on this front, while acknowledging it still has a ways to go, the mayor said. Operating the busiest airport in the world also gives it a platform on aviation and logistics issues, he added, noting there’s much room to learn from other cities that are further along in areas like sustainability and public transportation.
“When I was at the UN in Geneva, I was able to speak mayor talk and that level of diplomacy, where in the past we would all rely on state departments to talk to each other and it trickled down,” he said.
The mayor, who co-chairs the Truman Center National Policy’s task force for city and state diplomacy, sees local and global issues as increasingly connected.
While experiencing an economic boom, he said, Atlanta also faces income inequality and risks becoming a “victim of its own success,” where prosperity in one corner fails to ameliorate poverty in another.
The solution, he said, is bringing new partners into the “group project” that is the city, including foreign investors and diplomats either passing through or posted here.
“And that’s why we have this roomful of Consular Corps members, these ambassadors and consuls general,” he said. “They’re talking to mayors; they’re talking up and down the political spectrum, because solutions and action actually happen in city halls.”
The data bear that out locally: Last year the Mayor’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs hosted more than 100 delegations.
“I shake a bunch of hands in City Hall,” Mr. Dickens said.
That’s partly a recognition of Atlanta’s international stature, he said, pushing back on the idea that because it doesn’t have the same walkable urban core of European cities that it has somehow not arrived on the world stage.
“Atlanta already is an international city. Berlin knows us — they know we’re over here doing Atlanta stuff,” he said to laughter from the crowd. “Paris knows us; they know we’re doing Atlanta stuff over here, so we’re on the map.”
The World Cup’s arrival in 2026 will underscore this further, but the mayor hopes the impact of the world’s largest sporting event will be more widespread than the city’s last seminal coming out party: the 1996 Olympics.
“Not only should the World Cup and will the World Cup occur downtown — we want the World Cup experience to be throughout the whole city,” he said. “I don’t want the World Cup to come here and happen to Atlanta. I want it to happen with Atlanta.”
With the right preparation in advance, and with collaboration with other counties, cities and jurisdictions, the wealth can be spread around the region, which will be better recognized for inclusivity that is “in its “DNA,” said Mr. Dickens.
He noted that Atlanta should nurture its role as a place that welcomes diversity in all forms, from race to nationality to income, an asset he recognizes as unique the more he travels the world.
“We don’t force it; it just happens. Atlanta has a way of demonstrating itself to be what it says wants to be, which is inclusive,” he said.
Initiatives like the Year of the Youth, which aims this year to make Atlanta “the best place in the world to raise a child” and other economic development initiatives are focused on making sure these ideals translate into local impact, even as outside investors and a swelling population threaten to price out locals.
Beyond tech and corporate giants, the city is also working to improve its entrepreneurial base to address income inequality.
“It’s not just about the large businesses that are coming to Atlanta. Yes, we have this concentration of Fortune 500s, but we have a whole lot of signature, smart, crafty, culturally relatable and sensitive, community-based small businesses that are doing amazing things. We want to give them a shot at prosperity, whether that be on the south side of town or anywhere else. We’re going to be growing, and we want the growth to be inclusive.”
International relationships, he said, can help achieve that goal, as long as local communities remain in view. The mayor just returned from a trip to Montreal, where he joined 120 other metro Atlanta leaders sharing best practices with the Canadian city on transportation, housing and other issues.
“This city has amazing potential, and it is doing wonderful things. You have to invest in international relations. You don’t just let it happen to you.”
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