By Clare S. Richie
Most of us know the Atlanta BeltLine. It’s where we walk, bike, run a 5K, watch the lantern parade, access parks and other neighborhoods. We’re hungry for this type of sustainable connectivity and community, which started fifteen years ago as an idea from then Georgia Tech graduate student, Ryan Gravel.
After spending his senior year in Paris, where he walked everywhere, ate fresh foods, and lost 15 pounds Gravel thought deeply about the role of city infrastructure in how we live our lives. Sidewalks versus highways, for example, encourage different lifestyles.
“Atlanta is a railroad town,” Gravel explained, “with compact mixed-use intown neighborhoods built around streetcars.” Gravel was fascinated by trains as a child growing up in Chamblee. So, when he needed a city-scale design project for his master’s thesis, Gravel knew what infrastructure was missing to revitalize Atlanta – transit. His master’s thesis became the kernel of a vision that would transform a 22-mile loop of old railroads with transit, trails, and green space to promote economic growth and quality-of-life in 45 neighborhoods.
Needless to say, Gravel graduated, but his idea was temporarily shelved as he went to work for an architecture firm. It was his masterplan for Inman Park Village, deciding whether or not to place the parking deck close to the old railroad line, which compelled Gravel to share his idea with his colleagues. That was the spark.
In their free time, Gravel and his colleagues mailed out letters and maps detailing the vision. Cathy Woolard, Atlanta City Councilmember at that time, was frustrated by the lack of city transit and embraced the Atlanta BeltLine. “With Cathy’s help, we used the NPU [neighborhood planning unit] system as a framework for sharing the idea all around the city,” Gravel recalled. From 2001 through 2004, Gravel spent countless evenings and weekends talking to NPUs, neighborhood groups, schools, churches, businesses, and anyone else who would listen.
The idea grew into a grassroots campaign of local citizens and civic leaders, with Gravel working full-time for Friends of the Belt Line. Other groups added to his idea. The Trust for Public Land proposed 1,400 acres of new parks, Trees Atlanta asked to plant an arboretum, Mayor Shirley Franklin suggested an affordable housing initiative, and more. Gravel welcomed these new ideas – they were better for the city and built a broader constituency.
In 2005, the 6,500-acre Atlanta BeltLine Tax Allocation District (TAD) passed with broad-based support and is expected to generate approximately $1.4 billion, covering close to one third of the total program cost. The same year, Friends of the Belt Line merged with Mayor Franklin’s Atlanta BeltLine Partnership. Wearing many hats along the way – Friends of BeltLine staff, city planner, Atlanta BeltLine Partnership Board member, and currently an urban designer at Perkins+Will – Gravel remains dedicated to the BeltLine and proud of all who came together to make it happen.
“The BeltLine is already doing what we said it would do,” Gravel said. The first two-mile phase of trail is a popular city feature with a 3:1 economic impact, turning $350 million investment into more than $1 billion of new mixed-use redevelopment. His favorite picture is a woman walking on the BeltLine with her groceries. “It is already showing us how Atlanta can revitalize its infrastructure to promote a more sustainable life.”
There’s still work to be done. The Eastside Trail design calls for access points to Ponce de Leon, lighting, and for water fountains accessing water lines criss-crossing under the trail. “We could see trains in corridor in the next five years if we push for it. Let’s pass a referendum and collect the funds we need to get it done,” Gravel urged.
“The BeltLine will evolve over our lifetime,” he reflected. For Gravel, future phases should include a more robust public art program with permanent exhibits, performance venues, and artist housing and work spaces. It should also include equitable access for all income levels, green standards for building in the corridor, and community food networks.
The BeltLine is a model and the world is watching. In fact, Gravel’s passion for revitalizing infrastructure has him traveling the world to research, document, and tell the story of how cities like Los Angeles, Toronto, Detroit, and Rotterdam can transform degraded rivers, canals, and railroads to renew their cities, health and spirit.