The city of Atlanta’s 2023 fiscal year budget feedback and approval process is over, but you can still have a say in how your tax dollars are spent. How, you ask? Neighborhood Planning Units, aka NPUs.
NPUs are advisory councils designed to amplify the voices of city residents, giving them a way to express their opinions about hot-button civic policy issues that affect their communities. The nearly 50-year-old NPU system has faced criticism in recent years over lack of funding, low participation, and infighting among members, which has raised questions about the program’s structure, but city leaders say it’s still a viable tool for civic engagement.
Participating in NPU meetings, officials say, is one of the best ways for Atlantans to influence what happens in their neighborhoods and across the rapidly growing and changing city. Last year, for example, input from NPUs helped convince City Council members to reconsider zoning changes that would have eliminated the minimum number of parking spaces residential developers are required to have to make room for more housing creation across the city, according to WABE.
Despite a 51% rise in participation rates between 2019 and 2022, less than 1% of the city’s estimated 500,000 residents attend NPU meetings, according to attendance sign-in stats tracked by city planning officials. In some instances, those who show up don’t reflect the diversity of their communities.
“You have to be at the table where these recommendations are made because if you’re not, you better believe they’re making these recommendations without you,” said Leah LaRue, the city’s assistant director of neighborhood planning, who has worked with the city’s NPU program for the past three years.
If you’re a concerned Atlantan who wants to weigh in on the issues that affect your community, keep reading. We’ve broken down what NPUs are, why they matter, and what you need to do to get involved.
What are NPUs?
These advisory councils allow citizens to vote on and provide written recommendations to the mayor’s office and Atlanta City Council on zoning, land use, alcohol licenses issued to local businesses, and other civic policy proposals. NPU recommendations are nonbinding advice that give city leaders a sense of how the public feels about policy decisions they’re tasked with making.
There are 25 NPU territories in Atlanta, each represented by a letter of the alphabet (except the letter U, to avoid naming confusion, officials say). Each unit includes two or more of the city’s roughly 240 neighborhoods. NPU members include people who live or work in a given NPU territory. Anyone can show up at NPU meetings, but only members in a given NPU territory are allowed to vote on policy recommendations, officials said.
Why were NPUs created?
The origin of Atlanta’s NPU system can be traced back to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty policies, including the 1966 Model Cities program.
During Johnson’s presidency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development set aside funds for cities across the country to come up with their own methods for providing citizens greater input in community development.
Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, created the NPU program in 1974 to give residents a voice in the city’s development process. Jackson was known for transforming how Atlanta did business with the Black community.
“He wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to participate in city government, not be overlooked, and have their voices heard,” LaRue said.
How are NPUs organized?
Each NPU has a leadership board that includes a chair, a vice chair, and a secretary, but most have more officers than that. NPU officers are elected by members to serve on an annual basis. Some NPUs include neighborhood or civic associations officers in their leadership structure. They also have representatives from the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board, a body comprising members from every NPU district in the city. APAB is another entity that was created around the same time as the NPU system to give locals a voice on citywide issues, not just neighborhood affairs.
NPUs typically have subcommittees made up of additional volunteer members, usually chosen by representatives of the NPU general body. These subcommittees make recommendations to the general body on a range of issues, including public safety, zoning, development, and transportation.
The NPU general body then votes to make a recommendation to the city on these issues.
NPUs can vary greatly in size and the rules that govern them. Some, for example, require residents to attend at least three meetings in a year before they’re allowed to vote on matters. This, in theory, helps ensure the views of voting residents are truly representative of the local community, but critics have suggested the opposite.
What happens at NPU meetings?
Meeting structure varies by NPU, but agendas typically include time for city leaders — such as zoning officials and police commanders — to provide residents with information about new developments, projects, events, and problems in their communities. Meetings also typically include a time for voting on policy recommendations. Attendees who are members — individuals who live or work in the NPU district — typically get to vote on what actions the NPU wants city officials to take on issues raised at meetings.
NPU members who show up at meetings also give officials their view on the actions they want city leaders to take, advice that’s taken into consideration before the mayor’s office and council members sign off on regulations and policies.
NPU participants also can influence the city budget and its Comprehensive Development Plan, which provides a blueprint for what municipal changes and improvements will be made in the coming years. NPU members can vote on budget and development plan recommendations made to the City Council the same way they do on other matters.
The City Council finalized the latest budget in June, but issues such as lack of affordable housing, nuisance properties and businesses, noise complaints, and neighborhood policing can be addressed at NPU meetings throughout the year.
Who typically shows up?
The number of residents who attend can vary widely. Hot-button issues such as rezoning and public safety matters can motivate hundreds to show up.
NPU board members and other officers typically attend meetings, along with a zoning representative and an official from the Department of City Planning.
Police zone commanders and representatives from the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department also participate frequently, along with officials from the Department of Public Works.
Leaders from community organizations, businesses, nonprofit groups, and applicants for alcohol and zoning licenses may also attend.
How do I attend my NPU’s meeting?
NPUs typically host monthly meetings that are free and open to the public. Anyone can attend, but only NPU members — people who live or work in the NPU district — can vote on matters presented at meetings.
Check the NPU by neighborhood guide on the city’s website to identify which NPU corresponds to your neighborhood. Contact LaRue if you’re unsure about which neighborhood you live in or have additional questions.
You can see every NPU meeting on the city’s NPU calendar of events. Since the pandemic began, most NPU meetings have been virtual, according to the city. Virtual meeting access is included on the city’s neighborhood and NPU contacts page, which also includes links to meeting agendas.
How can I speak at an NPU meeting?
Rules on who and when people get to speak at meetings varies based on each NPU’s bylaws, according to city planning officials. Paula Owens, senior public relations manager for the city’s planning department, encourages first-time NPU meeting attendees to review the agenda and bylaws before showing up.
“And of course they can feel free to call or email the Department of City Planning for more information or to be connected with the NPU leadership,” Owens said.
Business representatives and organizations that want to present or discuss proposals at an NPU meeting may be required to fill out the program’s external presentation request form 30 days ahead of time.
Some NPUs will only accept group participation at meetings from organizations whose leaders fill out the request form, which helps organizers plan ahead for major items on their agendas.
How do NPUs influence what happens in Atlanta?
With housing, public safety, development, and inflation on the minds of many residents, it’s important to know that NPUs can be crucial in representing community interests on major issues.
For instance, real estate developers looking to build higher-priced homes in a neighborhood can have their projects modified based on input from NPU participants, according to Forrest Coley, chair of NPU-M. Coley’s NPU covers Castleberry Hill, Downtown, Sweet Auburn, and the Old Fourth Ward.
NPU members have no authority to force developers to make changes. However, city officials can require developers to meet added requirements for issues such as the number of affordable housing units included in their projects, based on NPU input.
Coley also said local businesses — such as nightclubs and bars, which may attract crime and lead to noise complaints — can be penalized or shut down if NPU participants raise enough fuss.
NPU participation also influences how police address crime in certain areas, he said. Some have public safety committees that discuss and craft recommendations addressing concerns related to policing. At least one police leader attends every NPU meeting, according to the city. Most NPU meetings have police leadership address public safety concerns at the beginning of the meeting. They could be speaking about a crime that just happened or ideas that affect public safety more broadly.
What’s the future of NPUs in Atlanta?
In April, Atlanta City Council member Byron Amos filed a resolution encouraging city planning leaders to create a best-practices list to improve, boost, and expand NPU participation. The move came about eight months after the Center for Civic Innovation published a list of 10 best practices to improve the NPU system. CCI originally launched its own NPU initiative three years ago.
Department of City Planning officials are in the process of finalizing a list of recommended best practices for leaders of the NPU program to consider adopting in the near future. LaRue says after conferring with NPU leaders across the city throughout July, her office expects to present their list to the City Council by the end of August.
Former CCI civic engagement manager Asile Patin led the nonprofit’s NPU initiative from 2019 to 2021. She acknowledged NPU program participation and funding has improved some in recent years, but she said more work still needs to be done.
“We have an NPU system where there’s a disproportionate set of access to power and a disproportionate set of access to resources within these communities,” Patin said. “As a result of that, we have the few still representing the many.”