By Mary Margaret Stewart, contributor
Ryan Gravel, a Georgia Tech student in 1999, wrote his master’s thesis about the idea of a Beltline in Atlanta. Fast-forward 17 years and his college paper has sprung to life.
But, the Beltline is more than a local novelty. It’s more than a nationally recognized shift in Atlanta’s infrastructure. It’s part of an international movement.
“There’s a lot of people watching what we’re doing, but every city I go to, there are similar projects there that are similarly transformational. People are really working and fighting for change, and a lot of those efforts are built around obsolete, old infrastructure,” Gravel said.
Atlanta is “certainly one of the leaders” in this movement, though, paving the road for more infrastructural reform.
“It is big geographically, it is broad programmatically. I mean, it’s more than just a trail or just a transit line,” Gravel said. “It’s also community revitalization and economic development. You can see what’s happening, and there are people all over the world really watching what we’re doing here, which is exciting.”
These projects are indicators of a much larger cultural shift in the way that we built cities, in the same way that urban sprawl came about.
During the 1950s and 60s, a cultural momentum moved people away from living in cities. Suburbanization took over, which according to Gravel, “fundamentally changed the way we built cities, and it came with a lot of unintended consequences for the places that we live.”
Gravel relates the 50s and 60s’ shift to trends people should expect to see in the near future.
“These projects indicate that there’s a huge change in the way that we’re building cities, and there will be a lot of both intended and unintended consequences that come out of that. We don’t know the results, but we can be thoughtful about how we do it.”
During the early 70s, Metro Atlanta experienced a huge influx of people, which was incentivized by the construction of I-285. Gravel’s parents bought a house in Chamblee, located in one of the neighborhoods built because of 285’s impact.
“In the same way these apartments are popping up on the Beltline, entire neighborhoods were being built in 285 as a direct result of that investment,” he said.
Prior to publishing his book, “Where We Want To Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities,” Gravel didn’t fully realize that his family was a part of such an impactful infrastructural shift.
But ultimately I-285 construction lifted millions of people, including Gravel’s family, to economic prosperity.
“My dad took a job with designing pump stations and water treatment plants to support this sprawl and growth of the region in the 70s and 80s,” he said. “It literally put dinner on the table and sent me to college, and so infrastructure did what it’s supposed to do, it just ultimately came with a lot of unintended consequences that are now, whether we know it or not, reevaluating.”
Today, Gravel wants people to recognize that the abstract qualities of infrastructure matter, “to get people to see that the investments we make matter to the way we live our lives.”
“If we build highways and off ramps, then we’re going to make communities that are dependent on cars for everything. If we build transit and sidewalks and public spaces and parks, we end up with a different and ultimately more sustainable and healthy way of life,” he said.
Atlanta is infamous for its traffic, and Gravel believes that a finished Beltline will drastically improve the day-to-day quality of life for many locals.
“In the face of the traffic that we have now, and that certainly we’ll be facing when we’re reaching 2.5 million people, yeah. It’s enormous,” he said. “It’s not only good for the people who live in Atlanta now, but for new people moving to the region who don’t want to be stuck in that kind of traffic. To create places where they can live without having to deal with that is really important.”
Thus, in terms of what building the Beltline can accomplish over the next few decades, Gravel sees great potential. Still, it’s up to Atlanta.
“Imagine, you’re stuck. Especially if you’re not driving age and you’re stuck in some cul de sac somewhere, you’ve gotta get someone to drive you, and your parents work or whatever. The mobility from there is sad, and for seniors, too,” Gravel said.
“I grew up in Chamblee on 285, you know, going to Perimeter Mall, but my kids are growing up with the Beltline,” he said. “For places like Decatur and some other parts of the region, people are scrambling now to figure out how to convert the places that they live into something more like that.”
Gravel sums up the mission of the Beltline’s growth as simply as, “make sure that it’s inclusive, that it benefits everyone and not just certain people – that it’s built in ways that are sustainable and healthy.”