ATLANTA. — Atlanta--Contentious, unyielding, litigious, uncompromising, bull-headed -- there are many unpleasant adjectives a foreigner might use watching how Americans come to loggerheads on issues from waste dumps to homeless shelters to low-income housing sites.
We even have two new words in our language -- NIMBY for ''not in my backyard'' and LULU for ''locally unwanted land uses.''
City councils argue such issues for years. Cases get ensnarled in endless litigation. Arbitrary court judgments sometimes frustrate all the parties.
But a surprise resolution has just emerged from what some have called the ''Second Battle of Atlanta'' -- a 30-year war over a corridor the state highway builders wanted to turn into a roaring freeway.
It began in 1961 when Georgia's state government started acquiring land for a ''Stone Mountain Tollway.'' It was a controversial idea from the start, a hated idea among the neighborhoods it would have cloven and such a hot potato that then-Gov. Jimmy Carter moved to kill it in 1972.
But the highway builders (rarely crossed in Georgia state politics) never gave up on their lust for another fast way to move lots of cars in and out of Atlanta. In 1981, a defeated President Carter announced he'd build his presidential library along the right-of-way -- and now he wanted a road.
Decisions ''pro'' and ''con'' flew back and forth between the Atlanta city council, mayors, governors and the Georgia courts.
Residents continued to seethe over a bleak strip of kudzu weed, a scar both physical and psychological through their neighborhoods. They formed a protest group and called it CAUTION.
Finally, a local superior court judge -- Clarence Seeliger -- began to lose patience. He called in a mediator, told the parties to start talking or face a court-imposed solution.
The warring parties talked for 43 hours, but again fell short of agreement.
Then, to almost everyone's amazement, the city's planning commissioner, Leon Eplan, stepped forward with a compromise design in late August.
Instead of a highway gobbling up still more land, including Frederick Law Olmstead-designed linear parks, Mr. Eplan downsized the road. He pushed it away from the parkland, made it into a four-lane surface road slowed by curves and stoplights, and added a raft of amenities.
There would be picnic areas, jogging and bike paths and lots of trees. The land alignment would link the Carter Center to the Martin Luther King Center to form ''Freedom Park'' and ''Freedom Parkway,'' a symbolic joining of Mr. Carter's work for human rights and Dr. King's work for civil rights. National-park status is envisioned for part of the site.
The plan was attractive. It embodied many ideas that had bubbled up in the mediation sessions. It would let self-conscious Atlanta score a public-relations coup rather than painful embarrassment when the 1996 Summer Olympics comes to town.
The mediator and negotiating team reassembled. Within a day, they had ironed out details, accepted Mr. Eplan's plan. Politicians started falling over each other to share credit.
''Atlanta is a classic case of heroic proportions'' in alternative dispute resolutions, says Michael Keating, the Providence (R.I.) attorney and seasoned mediator whom Judge Seeliger brought into the case.
Is what worked for Atlanta a good formula for the country?
The logical answer is ''yes'' -- if mediation can prove an alternative to disrupted neighborhoods and years of bitter standoffs in court.
''Mediation,'' says Mr. Keating, ''takes very controversial issues out of the special-interest category'' and obliges people ''to sit down and come up with a resolution that's acceptable to all.'' They decide -- not the courts or legislature.
When you shift the focus ''from who's done what to whom'' people start talking with each other instead of at each other. ''A suspension of distrust seeps into the process and changes the nature of the bargaining,'' Mr. Keating claims.
Hundreds of public disputes are getting settled by mediation these days. In Newark, residents sued to stop the city from blowing up crime-infested public-housing projects. But a mediator secured an agreement that the city would create substitute housing before resorting to dynamite.
In Hawaii, mediation was the catalyst for adoption of a new state water code. The process also helped Minnesota work out new rules for aerial herbicide spraying.
Since 1985, the National Institute for Dispute Resolution has helped seven states -- Florida, Hawaii, New Jersey, NTC Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio and Oregon -- set up offices making mediation services available across their states. As American society becomes more of a ''social mosaic,'' says the institute's president Madeleine Crohn, disputes will become more complex and numerous, making mediation all the more necessary.
Mediation often works best, of course, with correct alignment of the political suns and moons. In Atlanta, there was a new governor (Zell Miller) who fired the old ''roads-first-and-always'' highway commissioner; a pro-neighborhood mayor (Maynard Jackson instead of Andrew Young); and a politically savvy planner who saw beyond blueprints and numbers to what a road could mean for a city's psyche. The 1992 Olympics was also a catalyst.
Not all cities are always that lucky. But when they are, they should grab their mediation tool bags and go for it.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.