22 miles, 45 neighborhoods, 15 pounds

Beltline founder fights for healthy transportation

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Paris, France 1999

“Within weeks of my arrival for that year abroad in Paris, I had lost 15 pounds. I was eating Fresh food from the local market, and I was walking wherever I went- two blocks to the Métro; two more from the station to school; four blocks to the grocery; two more to the laundromat; seven to my friends apartment (split by a transit ride with one transfer); six more to dinner; four more from there to the Champ de Mars; fifty-two more for an evening stroll simply because I was living in the most beautiful city in the world. Suddenly, I was in the best shape of my life, and the connection between our built environment and my personal health and well-being was undeniable. What was less apparent was how much more connected I was to people, in a way that had not been conceivable for me in Chamblee in the 1980’s. On an average commute from my apartment near the Gare de Lyon to my school near La Villette, I would watch strangers interact, catch someone’s eye, or overhear a conversation that I could at least partly understand. Leaving our building, my roommate and I would often encounter the building supervisor sweeping out front and children on their way to school next door. The streets were full, but many were familiar faces. There was the owner of a big German Shepherd waiting at a café door, the man behind the counter at the tabac, the guys setting up tables at the seafood restaurant that faced the train stations tower and the woman at the ticket counter in the Métro station underground. There were musicians and mimes on the train. There were kids gossiping about friends, men in suits reading Le Monde, women with small dogs and dark hair, arrests, couriers, lawyers, teachers, salespeople, and tourists. When we departed the Métro at Corentin Cariou, we would buy a small piece of bread of small quiche at the (bakery) with the clerk who had a higher tolerance for American students, rush along a sidewalk past the rank smells of strange meats and urine, and finally step through an anonymous door into the courtyard of the school. The trip was not only healthy, affordable, and efficient, it was a social experience. Even though I rarely spoke a word on that commute, I participated for nine months in a social construct that included acknowledgement of and empathy for strangers… The lesson is not about the French or about big cities or subways. The lesson is that transportation infrastructure does more than move people. It builds communities, and it constructs our way of life.”

(Excerpt from Gravel’s book “Where we want to Live”)

Atlanta, Georgia 2016

17 years later, Gravel reflects on the study abroad opportunity he had and how it changed his life.

“Paris changed the way that I saw things,” said Gravel. “I was walking everywhere I went and eating fresh food from the markets. I became more healthy.”

Specifically, life in Paris made him realize the importance of transit.

“The connection between transit and our health and well-being became very clear to me at that point,” Gravel said.

When he came back to the United States for Graduate School, he received a joint degree with architecture and city planning. When it was time for his thesis project, he had to incorporate both of those things.

Before Paris, Gravel had never been fully exposed to an urban environment. He grew up in Chamblee and attended high school outside of Atlanta.

One day, he read an article in a magazine about developing cities in different ways. The idea was to build much more concentrated and walkable cities, similar to the Gilded age, instead of millions migrating out to the Suburbs during the 1950s. When Gravel read this article, his vision of how cities should be changed.

“I realized living in cities makes healthy living much more attainable. Having to drive hours and hours to get to work simply going to get you any exercise. It isn’t like biking or walking to work.”

He started to see some of Atlanta’s issues with traffic and poor transit, and wanted to make big changes. He wanted to make Atlanta a more walkable, urban city and less spread out.

“I was fascinated with railroads and infrastructure and how those might affect the future,” he said.

Gravel knew about the existing abandoned industrial railroads cutting through Atlanta and figured it would be a great opportunity for his thesis.

“That’s what became the project,” he said.

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After completing his thesis, Gravel went to work for an architecture firm that worked on mixed use projects, many of them on the Beltline.

“The city of Atlanta was growing more than neighboring suburban counties, and there was pressure for further city development,” he said. “We did a lot of that.”

It wasn’t always easy to plan projects without knowing what the future held for the areas surrounding them.

“We tried to decide if we should back the parking lot of a development up to the ugly abandoned railroad (the space the beltline is today) or if we should face the project towards the railroad in hopes it becomes something better one day,” he said.

Gravel told his coworkers about his thesis and the idea he had for the abandoned railroads.

“They loved it. We just started talking about the idea and thinking of ways to execute it,” he said. “It spread like wildfire.”

Weeks later, people were desperate to hear more about his idea.

“We sent out letters to the mayor and the governor and regional planning agencies and it all progressed very quickly,” he said.

Not everyone approved of the idea. Some didn’t think it was possible to get the money and work out the logistics.

“Most of the responses told us “good luck with that” or “that’s impossible,” he said. “But we got one response from Cathy Woolard that was different than the rest.” 

Woolard was the City Council president until 2004, and she saw potential in the idea.

“She was interested very interested in the progression of public transit. She was frustrated with the lack of investment in that field, specifically in Atlanta,” he said. “She called us in and we told her more about the idea.”

Willard liked what she heard, and she took action. She held a town council meeting and got people’s interest.

“Neighborhoods loved the idea and more neighborhoods loved it and then we brought the discussion city-wide,” Gravel said. “Schools, churches, businesses, anybody and everybody that wanted to hear about it we told them about it.

It took a long time for people to be persuaded.

“We did public meetings all the time for almost two years and half years. I put all my eggs into that basket.”

The vision for the beltline was based around three different types of industries according to Gravel. Community activists, developers, and environmental groups all had to collaborate to for the beltline to become a reality.

“These people aren’t used to being at the same table, wanting the same things, and working on the same project,” he said. “But there we were. It was wonderful to see.”

Through time, the idea evolved from the initial plan.

“It snowballed into a life of its own,” he said. “It was changing before my eyes.”

The idea grew to include 1400 acres of parks, public art, and a 22 mile linear arboretum.

“Not to mention that it’s created the largest affordable housing industry the cities ever undertaken,” he said.

Gravel credits Willard in helping him achieve his vision.

“We wouldn’t be talking about the Beltline if it wasn’t for Willard,” he said. “She had an uncanny ability to recognize a big vision and recognize the power of communities. She just needed to unlock a few doors to let the public breathe life in this project.”

In addition to the Beltline, there are walkable transits being created all over the country and around the world.

“There are projects in every city,” Gravel said. “Every city’s got something going on.

“Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and New York City’s High Line are among the teeming developments.”

These developments are quite similar to the Beltline, and it’s clear that all of these projects have inspired each other.

“The Beltline has inspired projects around the country, but we’ve taken inspiration from a lot of those projects as well,” he said. “It’s mutual.”

Before the Beltline came to life, Gravel had no idea of it’s potential.

“I graduated, never expecting that we would actually build it,” Gravel said. “I only intended it for it to be a thesis project.”

Gravel recently traveled to Singapore in March, where they have a 15 mile abandoned railroad across their country. Their government is interested in creating a pedestrian path that cuts through their city, and they’ve been carefully observing growth of the beltline and development for five years.

“They know more about the Beltline than most people here do,” Gravel said. “They see the Beltline as their model because of the people it attracts. It’s about what the communities want for their future.”

And it’s not done. The west side trail is being constructed as we speak.

“Were far from done but we’ve spent about 400 million dollars including land, studies and reports and all the people it takes to pull it off,” he said. “We’ve seen private sector development of of to 2.4 billion dollars. It’s being built to anticipate the future of transit.”

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The Atlanta Beltline is a public walkable transit path around the city. It’s a $4 billion public-private project, 22 mile transit greenwa

y in the early stages of implementation. It changes the decisions people make, the way they live their lives and how people think of Atlanta according to Gravel. When it’s finally finished, it’ll bring together 45 neighborhoods and also link them to the entire metropolitan Atlanta region through a collection of transit offerings.

“The Beltline has turned into a real social space,” he said. “People are going out on dates and it’s awesome to see. All the industrial buildings are turning patios back to make restaurants and shops to bring life to the path.”

The Beltline benefits local businesses around it because it reels in so many people.

“Since the method of transit is so great, it drives the success you see of local businesses, and Ponce/Krog street market as well,” he said. “Without the Beltline, those would be close to nothing.”

One of the prime examples of this is the creation of the Ponce City Market (PCM). The old Sears building was converted into a lively retail and restaurant space by Gravel’s architecture company.

“PCM does a great job of illustrating the Beltline’s success,” he said. “There’s a never a time where no one’s there, and that’s what the Beltline’s about: people.”

Gravel has an office in the PCM and dines there all the time.

“It’s exciting to watch it come to life,” he said.

Gravel has a bird’s eye view of the Beltline’s growth. He’s owned a house on the East side trail right near Krog Street Market for almost 3 years now.

“When Krog Street Market opened, it was like the floodgates let go,” he said. “Huge masses of people crowd the Beltline, even more than before.”

Krog Street market has brought a variety of restaurants and shops to areas surrounding the Beltline. When asked what his favorite restaurant was, Gravel couldn’t decide.

“I really love the variety of restaurants and shops and there’s so many choices,” he said. “I love the places with patios overlooking the Beltline, one of them being Rathbun Steak House. The patio makes the restaurant even more successful.”

The Beltline enhances neighborhoods and increases property value of almost all neighborhoods touching it. However, the Beltline attracts a huge number of people, sometimes too many.

“The traffic and sideways suck,” he said. “It’s a price I’m willing to pay to see all of these people around.”

Gravel’s project has inspired many other projects, including a new pedestrian path development in Hong Kong, and other major cities in the US.

“I went to South Africa to talk about the project, and I’m traveling to Art Basel in Hong Kong to talk about it,” he said. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime. I also spoke about my new book titled “Where We Want to Live. Reclaiming Infrastructure For a New Generation of Cities.”

His book tells the story of the Beltline’s creation and how infrastructures affect cities and the way people live their lives.”

“I’m speaking about the book everywhere,” he said. “It’s gotten a lot of press.”

Gravel talks to a very wide range of people, anyone interested in his experience in the field and the Beltline itself.

“I often talk to high school and college students about the project,” he said. “They’re always very interested, attentive and curious.”

Gravel also talks to existing engineers and architects about his work and the development of infrastructure.

“I like to talk to people working on similar projects alot,” he said. “I think the Beltline inspires them to work hard on new designs of infrastructure and architecture.”

He believes that the beltline also represents a new way of building cities.

“I firmly believe that the Beltline is going to bring a lot of change. The Beltline represents a healthy lifestyle and a way of daily exercising,” he said. “There’s a strong push for living in the cities right now and I think the Beltline does a fantastic job of promoting good health. It’s very symbolic to the future we want to live in.”

During this 1950’s when people migrated out to the Suburbs, it was because of the low costs and racial fears. The costs of cities are only going up as the desire to live and work in the city is rising.

“The beltline became successful because it catered to everyone. I think what’s most important about the future is that we focus on not letting the Beltline and neighborhoods surrounding it become full of rich people,” he said. “It needs to include everybody. As the property value rises, some of that is natural, but in order for the Beltline to be successful, it needs to be cater to people who are on low and fixed income as well. It’s tough, and it takes a lot of political will.”

The beltline has lessened the need for cars, and many Atlanta citizens have stopped driving and using the Beltline, Marta, or Uber for the occasional need to travel.

“Highways and cars changed the way we built the world a century ago,” he said. “Now the improvement of Infrastructure is changing it right back. That’s what my book’s about.”

The Beltline and it’s popularity has brought Gravel a lot of attention.

“I haven’t made any money from the Beltline itself though,” he said. “However, he Beltline has given me a job in infrastructure with Six Pitch,” he said.

Even though Gravel hasn’t gained wealth specifically from the Beltline, he’s proud of it’s progression and some of the events that occur on the path.

“There’s always been the Breast Cancer 3 day run. There’s issue driven walks and bike rides as well,” he said. The most amazing thing I’ve seen on the Beltline is the lantern parade. It started with 200 people 6 years ago and it’s grown to 60,000 people. It’s simply jaw-dropping and it illuminates the Beltline’s success.”

The Man Behind the Beltline from The DEC on Vimeo.

In addition to those developments, other projects are rising quickly around the beltline. The trail is extending as well.

“There’s a big office development across from ponce city market, another office building on North Avenue and a hotel being built here Ervin street near Krog Street Market,” he said. “Everything you see, the Beltline and the projects around it, are just the beginning. There’s so much more to come.”

Gravel believes that without proper transportation, the city would not be improving at the rate it is.

“The public wants transit,” he said. “It’s symbolic of living in a more healthy, walkable world.”

Gravel firmly believes that infrastructure is, one of, if not the most important factor we consider when building cities.

“Infrastructures aren’t just about moving people around anymore,” he said. “They change the way that people live their lives. They create the city we want to live in.”