By Wendy Binns
The Atlanta BeltLine, the 22-mile loop connecting our city, was the graduate thesis of Ryan Gravel in 1999 while a graduate student at Georgia Tech. Now he says that he is “living the dream.” His idea of the BeltLine is coming to life. As we celebrate Earth Day this month, I sat down with Ryan at his office in Ponce City Market to talk about his recent projects, the future and striking that balance between nature and urban life.
Congratulations on your book, “Where We Want to Live,” which came out last month. For those not living in Atlanta or too young to remember as the BeltLine was becoming a reality, this is a good history. What are your goals with publishing this book?
I wanted to do two things. One is I wanted to share the story of the BeltLine for people, especially young people. I believe very strongly that the only reason we’re building the BeltLine is because the people of Atlanta fell in love with it. And they made it happen. They empowered and even obligated the City leadership to put the nuts and bolts together to make the project come to life. Otherwise, it’s just too hard. It created a political context in supportive of very expensive and enormous political undertaking. And, that’s why we’re doing it. Because people love it and they wanted it. Our movement was in 2001-2004. That’s when we built that base of the support and obviously the support has grown since then, too. That was the beginning where people really felt a sense of ownership and authorship of the project. That idea itself expanded beyond what we ever could have imagined. And so that sense of ownership was really clear at the time, but today – if you’re 25 now, you weren’t even a teenager at the time, so you weren’t paying attention. It’s important going ahead that people still feel that sense of ownership so that we make sure we get the best version of the BeltLine, the best outcome. We are in the very early stages of implementation. We have a long way to go. And, how it gets built really matters and people need to remain vigilant and make sure that it happens in the best possible way. And that everybody is included in that. That’s one piece, is to remind people of that and tell that story. The other that I really wanted to say is that I have a unique view of the project. I get to travel a lot and share our story abroad, all over the country and increasingly internationally. And the world is watching us. This is part of a much larger story. These projects like the BeltLine are in every city I go to. But the BeltLine is definitely a leader. It’s big geographically. It’s broad programmatically. We’ve made a lot of progress. It’s doing what we said it’s going to do. And so it’s important that we locally think of it in those kinds of terms that the world is watching. If we saw the importance of it in terms of a larger national story, that maybe we’d find some other revenue sources to build it faster.
This month you are the keynote speaker at EarthShare of Georgia’s Earth Day Leadership Breakfast on Thursday, April 14, with an audience of environmental, business and other community leaders. Attendees will be part of a discussion focused on the event’s theme of land conservation, including greenspace, urban agriculture and sustainable building. How do you think these conversations could inspire attendees to collaborate and create results for a more sustainable environment for Georgia?
If anything the BeltLine story proves that we can accomplish more together than we can individually. And, part of the appeal of the BeltLine is that it has meaning and value for lots of different people who have lots of different perspectives and different interests. You can like it for the trail, you can like it for the transit, you can like it for the parks, you can like it for the economic development, community revitalization, health, art. There are all these different layers of reasons you can love it. And the reason why it is so broad in that way is because there were a lot of people at the table and that the vision was basically built around a table. I call it a table of ideas. And people get to share what they’re doing and see their interests align in strategic ways that actually supports each other and makes the larger outcome better. In the early days with the BeltLine and the movement, we would have meetings when there was nobody really in charge of the BeltLine at that time. But, we had these monthly discussions and we would just share what each of us was doing individually. It not only set the framework for an expanded vision for the project, but also the organizational relationships that would carry it out. That type of table collaboration is essential to accomplishing big things.
What does it feel like walking or riding your bike on the BeltLine? Is it becoming what you envisioned?
Yeah, it’s better than I ever imagined. I use it everyday. I ride my bike six minutes to get to work. I live on Krog Street and I work at Ponce City Market. My ulterior motive really was always to create the kind of life that I want and there are no complaints. I’m living the dream. This is what I always wanted. We do have a long way to go to finish it. I wrecked my bike a couple of weeks ago and today was the first day I could ride again. It proved a point that not everyone can ride bikes and that transit is really important if the BeltLine is going to be for everybody. So, if you’re injured, physically disabled or just to young or too old or carrying a load or it’s raining… there are lots of reasons why the trail isn’t always the answer. But, if we’re going to generate all this growth and change, then we’re really going to need the transit otherwise we’re going to be just stuck in traffic. It’s important that we make steps in that way. It’s happening. It’s coming for sure.
What could be another transformative project for the city? Are the streetcars transformative?
In that the same way we think of the BeltLine very broadly, in all of those terms, not just as a transportation project, but also as an economic development project as a community revitalization project, as an art project or health project, that we should think of our entire infrastructure in that way. And I think that if we did, that we would do things a little bit differently. And, you can see us building big, expensive infrastructure projects all over the region and none of them really have that level of detail and they’re not inclusive of people sort of outside of cars. And, there’s really very little discussion around the impact of those projects on our lives in terms of affordability, equity, development or anything like that. I’d love to have that conversation around everything. I think it would change the kind of projects that we build. So, when you look at the streetcar network, we need to have that conversation around the development of streetcar, for MARTA expansion. We need that conversation because it’s critical, it’s essential for the success of transit. But, frankly it’s also critical to the success of roads and highways and we should be having the same conversation around the new highway interchanges and the other projects that we’re spending billions of dollars on.
Mayor Kasim Reed announced that you will lead the Atlanta City Design Project. What does this appointment mean to you and what are your goals?
I’m super excited. It’s a dream job. We know that the city is going to grow significantly. The City of Atlanta is only a tenth of the regional population is going to take on a larger percentage of the share than it has historically because the future is really wanting a more urban trans-oriented, compact, walkable lifestyle than it did before. We’re targeting a number right now; we’re working on that. We’re going to grow from half a million to probably a 1.2-1.5 million in the next 20 years. As we do, we want to make sure that Atlanta becomes more of what Atlanta is and not some other place that we don’t like or recognize. So the idea with the City Design is to ask people and ourselves: what Atlanta is; what are the physical characteristics that make it special. And, then embed those in the decisions we make about the City so that, as we grow, we become more of what we are. That’s a thing like the tree canopy, which is an invaluable resource not only from an environmental standpoint but also from an identity standpoint for the City. Often it’s in conflict with development. We know we want to grow and we need urbanization, but that tension and that balance between nature and city life is not only critical to figure out, but that’s the beauty. The beauty is in that sort of balance so that we can live lives that are both walkable and urban, but also have access to nature, fresh air, and biodiversity. The idea is to strike that balance.
Ryan Gravel is the keynote speaker at the EarthShare of Georgia Earth Day Leadership Breakfast on April 14 at the Stave Room at American Spirit Works. The 21st Annual Earth Day Party on the Rooftop at Ponce City Market is April 21. To purchase tickets and for more information about the Earth Day Events, visit EarthShareGA.org.