Infrastructure determines how we live, says Ryan Gravel, an Atlanta planner. But he’s not just talking about the tedious methods for relieving road congestion or figuring out how to efficiently transmit water, gas and electricity to every home. No, Gravel’s got something more personal in mind. Infrastructure, to him, determines how people interact and bond, children grow up, residents spend their time and communities preserve their heritage. “Infrastructure is the foundation of social life and economy and culture,” he tells NationSwell. That may sound grandiose, but thinking big hasn’t stopped Gravel before. He’s the visionary behind the mother of all urban redevelopment projects: a 22-mile metamorphosis known as the BeltLine, linking Atlanta’s unused railroad tracks and abandoned industrial zones in a gigantic loop of public transit, green parks, walking and biking trails and neighborhood revitalization.
“If we build highways and off-ramps, then guess what? We end up with a way of life that’s dominated by cars. If we build walkable communities with transit, we get something that’s entirely different,” Gravel says. “The BeltLine is catalyzing a new way of life, a new kind of infrastructure. It’s supporting something other than what Atlanta is known for, which is car dependency, and it’s working.”
By picturing what kind of city he wanted to live in, Gravel first envisioned the BeltLine in 1999 as part of his master’s thesis. Cathy Woolard, former city council member and gay rights advocate who’s readying to replace Mayor Kasim Reed (who’s in the midst of serving his second term) in 2017, provided invaluable early assistance and got the massive 25-year project up and running by 2005. Gravel personally helped oversee its rollout with a full-time role at city hall. Yet working in government bureaucracy quickly tested his nerves. He loved meeting all the different stakeholders interested in the BeltLine — from local restaurant owners to fellow urban planning wonks — but, as he told Ozy, “The politics of it got too much.” Gravel quit after five months. (He notes he continued to be involved in the BeltLine’s development through volunteer work, advocacy and private-sector work.)
A decade later, the BeltLine has generated $2.5 billion in economic development, and Gravel wrote a book about infrastructure, out last month. Recently, Gravel announced he’s rejoining the planning process from within the mayoral administration, by serving as manager of the Atlanta City Design project, a new design studio that will sketch out long-term plans for Atlanta’s growth after at least six months of public meetings at Ponce City Market. Writing in an email, he made clear that the job isn’t a long-term position: “My role … is as a consultant. And by this time next year, I’m guessing it will be over/near over.” But on the phone, he communicates enthusiasm for the project’s ambitious goal. Essentially, Gravel wants to find out what makes Atlanta tick and preserve those elements through a projected boom in population.
In January, Mayor Reed welcomed Gravel back to city hall. ”His vision to transform old railroad corridors into a 22-mile transit greenway has spurred economic development across the city, improved the quality of life for residents and led to a total transformation for Atlanta,” Reed said. Part of that renewal has been an in-migration to Atlanta’s downtown. Regarded as the capital of the South, the urban center of Atlanta dwarfs in size compared to the city’s suburbs. Fewer than one in 10 people live downtown out of the 5.7 million that claim the metro area home. Stretching out 50 miles in every direction, the outer ring of the nine-county area was once the hotspot for new growth. Now, people are pouring back into downtown. ”There’s a limit to the sprawl,” Matt Hauer, head of the University of Georgia’s Applied Demography Program, tells the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’re seeing much more urban revitalization and growth in the central metro counties.”
With so much in flux, Gravel’s assessment of what defines Atlanta will be all the more important. “The purpose of City Design is to identify the things that are special about Atlanta, then embed those things in the decisions about how the city grows in the future,” Gravel says. In other words, he believes that Atlanta’s history and environment should inform every planning decision. The BeltLine, in repurposing old railroads, for instance, would get high marks for its nod to Atlanta’s beginnings and its reclaiming of industrial land. The neighborhood containing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthplace and burial site in the Historic Fourth Ward have been connected to the BeltLine via a trail and a 17-acre park, but there’s plenty of other sites from the Civil Rights Movement to safeguard and integrate.
“We have been so car-centric that you didn’t experience the city in an intimate way,” Reed explains to The New York Times. “We are changing Atlanta into a city that you can enjoy by walking and riding a bike.”
There’s not much precedent for this type of metropolitan-wide planning in North American cities. Workers within individual departments may come up with an idea for housing stock or parks and recreation, but they’re almost never joined together in one unified vision. (Gravel points to only one prior example in the United States that he can find: Chicago’s Burnham Plan in 1909.) That’s because the hardest part is getting everyone to sign off on one big plan.
By taking hundreds of thousands of people’s opinions all being taken into account, the BeltLine has run up against some major political hurdles (typical for massive government undertakings). Not surprisingly, the biggest tiffs involved money. When the stock market took a nosedive in 2008, it looked as if the BeltLine wouldn’t get built. Under then-mayor Shirley Franklin, the city set up a new process, known as tax-allocation districts in 2005, to borrow school tax revenues to fund the initial construction (to be returned upon the project’s completion), but it didn’t go into effect until a state constitutional amendment was approved in 2009. Construction resumed, but when the city missed its payments on the $162 million owed by 2030, Reed received a sharp rebuke from Atlanta’s school superintendent, including threats of a lawsuit. “Bikes or books?” one graduate student at George State University asked. “What does Atlanta support more?
This February, three years after that budget fight turned nasty, Reed brokered a deal that offered less money, but with a guarantee the schools would be paid first. He argued that funding the BeltLine would foster a more robust tax base — a $30 billion increase is hoped for by 2030 — filling both the city and the school’s coffers. The deal “will allow the Atlanta BeltLine to recover from the worst recession in 80 years. And then, when the Beltline is strong and able again, it can make payments at a higher level,” he promised. The school board unanimously agreed.
Across the rest of the city, however, individuals still questions if they will be able to cash in on the investment. Neighbors bordering the city’s new lifeline worry that gentrification will drive up rents to sky-high prices. There’s plenty of evidence in other cities to support their point. For instance, in Southern California’s Elysian Valley, proximity to the Los Angeles River redevelopment — a concrete blight that’s now a natural asset — drove up the median price per square foot 28.3 percent in one year.
Gravel hopes people see that the answer is not to leave the city as it is, without improvements, in the hopes of warding off gentrification. That’s not to say, there won’t be unintended consequences, he admits. But if anything, this is where planning is all the more important, preparing ways to keep housing affordable while sprucing up a neighborhood’s character.
Gravel looks around him for all the signs that the BeltLine’s already improving Atlanta. “It’s not just people commuting or exercising, they’re going out on dates, going to the grocery. That to me is a huge measure of success. To me, it’s changing the way that people live their lives,” he says. With more long-term planning still to come, we can expect to see a new model for urban growth born in the south in the decades ahead.
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Atlanta City Design as a “committee.” It is a design studio. The article also said that Ryan Gravel was nervous about his new position, which was incorrect. It also stated that Mayor Reed set up the tax-allocation districts. That work was done under Mayor Shirley Franklin. NationSwell apologies for these errors.