“The Atlanta Beltline is a catalyst for sustainability at an urban scale,” says Ryan Gravel, senior design manager at Perkins + Will. If anyone can speak for the Beltline — Atlanta’s ultra-ambitious 25-year plan to reprogram its urban core into a leafy, pedestrian-oriented, energy efficient global village — it is certainly him. Gravel’s 1999 graduate thesis at Georgia Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning laid out the vision, which is now becoming a reality.
Gravel always wondered about the abandoned railroad tracks he’d seen in some of the city’s older neighborhoods. Further investigation during his thesis research revealed the gem that became the Beltline’s canvas. The tracks form a complete 22-mile loop around the downtown core and they were entirely abandoned. Many were completely lost in a kudzu jungle; others had been claimed by vagrants, with graffiti, bottles and syringes littering the landscape. Alongside the tracks were thousands of acres of derelict industrial buildings and abandoned land that had long since been reclaimed by the forest.
Now, much of that land is being converted to new parks, low-income housing and pedestrian-oriented retail districts, all tied together with a multi-use path. “The old railroads that historically acted as barriers between neighborhoods are being reinvented as new public meeting grounds, supporting the revitalization of existing neighborhoods,” says Gravel.
By the time it is complete, a light rail system will also snake through the corridor, creating an entirely new urban fabric for the city, one where cars are increasingly obsolete. It will be quite a turnaround for a city that is known for its smog and sprawl as much as anything else.
When designing a 22-mile mixed use alternative transportation corridor, there is a lot of room to try out innovative ideas. Many of the parks, condos, housing developments and shops going in along the Beltline represent the best of ecological design, not surprising given the underlying premise of the project. D.H. Stanton Park was one of the first to be built, and it “uses a photovoltaic array to generate enough energy to offset the park’s energy costs, making it the first energy-neutral park in the city of Atlanta,” says Gravel.
The giant reflecting pool at Historic Fourth Ward Park has become one of the Beltline’s icons, but it doubles as a massive stormwater filtration facility, accepting the runoff from a huge section of Atlanta’s east side and holding it in a landscaped reservoir, rather than letting it scour the banks of the city’s badly eroded waterways. “This park saved Atlanta taxpayers $15 million compared to a traditional tunnel storage system, and in doing so offers an amazing public amenity in an under-parked neighborhood,” says Gravel. He also notes that the native plants used in the park landscaping help to re-create a valuable ecosystem in an environment once littered with concrete slabs and illegally dumped trash.
Beyond native plants, Perkins+Will specifies organic land care practices, local materials and energy efficient lighting for the various sites being designed as they slowly knit the Beltine together. So far, 4 miles out of the 22 have been completed and another 5 miles are currently under construction and should be open soon. The goal is to have the loop completed by 2030, so it looks like the project is more-or-less on schedule.
Gravel’s tireless work to convince Atlantans of the validity of the idea as a community organizer and now as a professional overseeing its implementation is a testament to the potential for human willpower to create profound societal change. Ever humble, however, gravel says that
“[Atlantans] claimed ownership of the project. They didn’t wait for permission. They took control of their future. The public believed in the Atlanta Beltline before anyone else, and it is this energy and expectation that continues to empower – even obligate – today’s leadership to tackle the many challenges of building it.”