Atlanta BeltLine

This article –and others highlighting innovative new urbanist projects in the Atlanta area– can be found in the book on the region produced especially for CNU 18: Building Metropolitan Atlanta: Past, Present & Future.

Tour the BeltLine with the CNU! For more information, see Tour 5, Atlanta's Beltline: America's Largest Public Works Project.



by Ryan Gravel

Ryan Gravel is an urban designer in the Atlanta office of Perkins+Will.

An innovative plan geared toward achieving a sustainable, desirable future for metropolitan Atlanta is located on the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile loop of existing freight railroad lines encircling the central city at a radius of about three miles. The BeltLine’s latest reincarnation was born in 1999 as my graduate thesis at Georgia Tech in Architecture and City Planning. This plan will reuse these existing railroad rights-of-way as a wide linear park with streetcars, bicycle and pedestrian paths connecting over 40 diverse neighborhoods, as well as city schools, historic and cultural sites, shopping districts and public parks. It organizes adjacent underutilized urban land for transit-oriented development, expands transit service within the urban core, and connects various parts of an emerging regional trail system. The original vision has grown to include over 1,000 acres of new parks, (thanks to the Trust for Public Land), the largest affordable housing initiative in the city’s history (thanks to the Atlanta Development Authority) and perhaps the longest and most unique arboretum in the country (thanks to Trees Atlanta). The BeltLine leverages Atlanta’s intown population growth to create smartly planned new districts for over 100,000 new residents and improved quality of life for hundreds of thousands more.

Beginning in the summer of 2001, the BeltLine found a champion in Cathy Woolard, then chair of the City Council’s Transportation Committee and later elected City Council President. Woolard intuitively understood the BeltLine’s potential, and our initial presentations to community groups confirmed that public support could be found for such a bold idea in a city that lacked a unifying vision for itself. I worked as a volunteer with Woolard and her staff to spread the idea to a wide array of community groups, business groups and other organizations, and in the process, the idea was ushered to the forefront of transportation projects in the region. We created a critical mass of public support and simultaneously addressed technical questions and provided practical and affordable solutions, pressing MARTA, our transit authority, to confirm the BeltLine’s transit component’s ridership potential, and the Atlanta Development Authority to investigate its economic impact.

By 2004, our grassroots efforts were paying off and by 2005; the project had become one of Mayor Shirley Franklin’s top priorities. Late that year the Atlanta City Council, Atlanta School Board and Fulton County Commission approved a tax allocation district (TAD) that will generate the bulk of the project’s cost over the next 25 years. For its $2+ billion price tag, the BeltLine will generate over $20 billion in economic return; it is a public/private investment in Atlanta’s long-term vitality. Early grassroots public support for the BeltLine was critical to getting the attention of other elected officials, civic leaders and regional planners; it was critical to the TAD’s success and has remained essential even in current implementation activities. Now led by Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., which is focused on a variety of tasks including corridor acquisition, corridor design, transit planning and ongoing district planning, the BeltLine is also breaking ground on new parks, trail segments and public art all along its route.

The BeltLine’s progress over these last ten years has been largely due to its ability to provide a tangible vision for thousands of people who simply want to protect and improve their quality-of-life, a desire that comes in the context of dramatic regional transformation fueled by traffic congestion, poor air quality and the related impacts on our region’s economic performance. We have only begun to recognize the changes that lie ahead. But just as the end of the dinosaurs did not mean the end of life – only the end of life as they knew it – Atlanta will survive because it will adapt to changing conditions. This is our challenge as planners, designers and policymakers, to set the course for Atlanta’s transformation and to ensure that it evolves into a more sustainable region over time.

As with the BeltLine, the strategies we use to set that course must provide a tangible vision for the public to take ownership of their own future and demand a better environment for living. Otherwise our challenges are too vast and daunting to accomplish on our own. New Urbanism plays a critical role in this because it has already achieved a national discourse about quality of life and the way we build our communities. In Atlanta specifically, it has demonstrated high-quality prototypes for mixed-use neighborhood design, especially at Glenwood Park, which sits directly on the BeltLine route. Built on the site of a former concrete facility, Glenwood Park has narrow streets that connect through to the adjacent neighborhood, street-front retail and a good mix of offices, apartments, townhouses and single-family homes. It has public spaces, generous sidewalks, street trees and alleys. Perhaps even more important, it has become a successful model for community advocates and a desirable place to live.

When we extrapolate these strategies for change to a larger scale across an existing, complex, compromised framework of changing urban conditions, we realize very quickly that our challenge as planners and designers is more than physical. The problem with our sprawling metropolis is not just its physical separation of people (by income, race, age, etc.) or separation of human activity (home, office, retail, recreation, etc.) or the inefficient use of public resources (water, sewer, police, fire, schools, etc.). The other problem with sprawl is much less part of our public discourse, and perhaps even more important. In the five decades since Jane Jacobs wrote her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Atlanta’s growth has been defined primarily by sprawl, and during that time there have been generations of people, myself included, who grew up with the shopping mall as the highest standard of how we build our cities. Office parks, big-box retail and superblocks pervaded our formative years. Most of us never went shopping in a vibrant downtown district, rode transit on a regular basis, or enjoyed the “sidewalk ballet” that Jacobs described in 1961. To too many of us, the mall (or its more recent form, the open-air ‘lifestyle center’) and all of its accoutrements including highways, drive-thru’s and pay-at-the-pump, are the physical manifestation of our preferred lifestyle. Perhaps more important than the physical problem of sprawl is the challenge of educating people that their city can be built to better standards.

The city that Jacobs wrote about was a coherent place that was only just beginning to unravel under the devastating practices of highway construction, displacement and urban renewal. Her world and her counsel were sensible, but unfortunately, we did not heed her advice. We live in the world that resulted from those destructive practices, now spread across a vast landscape multiple times the original’s size and embedded soundly in our cultural expectations. It is unlikely that we can ever quite make it back. The Atlanta region is now, in fact, defined by these poor decisions. They have become our dominant physical condition, and are surely what prompted James Howard Kunstler to write, “In my view, Atlanta has become such a mess that really nothing can be done to redeem it as a human habitat. Like the other great, roaring, car-dependent megalopoli of the American Sunbelt, Atlanta’s only plausible destiny at the threshold of the new millennium is to become significantly depopulated” (The City in Mind, 2001. p. 75).

In a more hopeful vision for Atlanta’s future, the BeltLine begins to set an example for how we can move forward. By itself, it cannot resolve the dramatic infrastructural inefficiencies of this sprawling metropolis, or traverse its vastness, or negotiate its political complexity, but it does begin to demonstrate strategies for repositioning this territory that can be applied to other areas. The BeltLine does not replace the extensive transit network that once criss-crossed our city streets, or provide regional transit service in a way that fully engages sprawl, but it does help create a new framework for this future system. It does not set regional growth policy or even engage the densest part of the central city, but it does support downtown and adds weight to its position as the logical center of the metropolitan region.

In some ways, like New Urbanism, the BeltLine merely provides the people of Atlanta with an opportunity to live differently. It advocates for principles like connectivity, compactness, diversity, scale, civic-mindedness, public space and human interaction. In another way, the BeltLine, like New Urbanism, is much more assertive. By acting on its public confidence, it has captured our imagination and challenged the way we think about our city and our future. It has elevated our expectations for our urban environment and it is empowering us and inspiring us to do even more. With the BeltLine, we have set into motion a vision for our future that will set a new standard in the region for sustainable growth, and plant seeds of hope and change here.

At a press conference in the Spring of 2004 held on the BeltLine where it crosses Memorial Drive just east of downtown, Mayor Franklin said, "Imagine right now we are laying the foundation for the next one hundred years of the city.” Indeed, Atlanta's future will depend on its ability to creatively address its challenges head-on and find innovative solutions to building a more sustainable region. We, as planners, designers, policy makers and community leaders must get actively involved. We must develop new strategies that will transform this splintered region into the kinds of places where people want to live, within the economic, political, cultural and spatial conditions of the contemporary city.

To learn more about the BeltLine, go to: Click here to view a two-minute video on the ongoing rail removal efforts along the BeltLine corridor.