Atlanta BeltLine is a leader, but not unique

Urban designer Ryan Gravel tells national conference that the Atlanta project is one of many around the country
Ryan Gravel

How do you say “beltline” in French? If you’re from Paris, it’s La Petite Ceinture–literally, “little belt”–and you know it as the 22-mile-long crescent of abandoned railway that runs through the outskirts of the city. You likely also are aware that a long-term project is under way to convert the old rail corridor into a greenway with a transit component.

Sound familiar? To Ryan Gravel, the land-use visionary behind the Atlanta BeltLine, it’s more than familiar. It’s a trend, one that’s spreading to many of this country’s older cities, as well as overseas.

Speaking Wednesday before a Georgia World Congress Center ballroom full of environmentalists, engineers, Environmental Protection Agency employees and government contractors, Gravel told hundreds of attendees of the national “Brownfields 2013” conference that Atlanta’s ambitious rails-to-trails program is only one of many being implemented across the U.S.

He’d been invited–much to his own surprise, as it turns out–to deliver the opening-day keynote address for the four-day event, which serves as a networking and education session for folks whose careers involve cleaning up and rehabilitating the kinds of aging industrial areas that border much of the Atlanta BeltLine.

After describing the genesis and development of the Atlanta project, Gravel listed similar undertakings in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and, of course, New York, where Chelsea’s High Line, the linear park built along a mile-long elevated railway, has become the toast of Manhattan.

Just as the High Line has been studied by urban planners around the country, the progress of the Atlanta BeltLine is being carefully watched by other cities, Gravel says.

While abandoned railroad tracks are the most obvious candidates for being repurposed for pedestrians and commuters, Gravel notes that some cities have looked at overhauling obsolete canals and waterways, like the Los Angeles River. And wide city streets that no longer serve a large volume of traffic offer enough space to accommodate median trails or even light rail, he suggested.

After Gravel’s presentation, a number of conference-goers came up to tell him about smaller-scale projects going on back in their home states.

“It helps the Atlanta BeltLine to have all these other examples that we can point to,” says Gravel, a senior urban designer at the Midtown office of Perkins Will, a global architecture firm. Gravel believes that few people have the connections between these similar park, trail and transit projects in disparate urban areas. He’s working on a book to be published next year in which he plans to discuss how old transportation corridors and industrial zones can be absorbed back into the urban landscape in a way that spurs economic development and repairs the environment.

As for the Atlanta BeltLine, Gravel says he was disappointed by the failure of the regional transportation tax, or T-SPLOST, but is encouraged by the reception that has greeted the opening of the eastern portion of the BeltLine between Piedmont Park and the Old Fourth Ward.

The next big test, he says, actually rests on another project, the Atlanta Streetcar, which is scheduled to begin service next year through the Auburn Avenue corridor and downtown.

“The success of the streetcar is important to regional transit in general and the BeltLine in particular,” Gravel says.