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VOL. 129 | NO. 93 | Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Lessons for Memphis Abound in Atlanta’s Beltline

RYAN GRAVEL | Special to The Daily News

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Ryan Gravel will speak about the Atlanta Beltline and Mid-South Greenprint & Sustainability Plan effort at “Building Cities We Want to Live In: Learning with the Atlanta Beltline.”

Wednesday, May 14
5:30 p.m.
The Atrium in Overton Square

The Atlanta Beltline is an infrastructure framework around the urban core of Atlanta – a 22-mile loop of mostly abandoned railroads that is being transformed into a transit greenway.

It is a linear park with streetcars, bicycle paths and pedestrian trails that will connect more than 40 diverse neighborhoods, as well as city schools, historic sites and cultural locales.

It’s one of the largest, most wide-ranging urban redevelopment programs currently underway in the United States. I first proposed the idea as my graduate thesis in 1999. It’s been truly unbelievable watching it slowly become a reality over the past several years.

The critical breakthrough I had when conceiving the Atlanta Beltline was to design infrastructure oriented around people – not cars. Atlanta, like many Southern cities, is famous for its sprawl and gridlocked highways.

The Atlanta Beltline is a “human scale” amenity that connects people to their community, neighborhood by neighborhood, and allows them to move at a slower pace, whether on foot or bicycle.

This not only makes the Atlanta Beltline safe and accessible, but also makes it a powerful community-building tool; when people are invited into public spaces to explore and have fun, they connect with one another.

Based on the overwhelming response we have seen so far, the demand for these sorts of amenities is clearly strong.

Over $1 billion worth of private sector development has come to the corridor since 2005. With over 4,000 acres of underutilized industrial land following these railroads around the city, the Atlanta Beltline offers a generation’s worth of prime locations for the development of new mixed-use districts in some of Atlanta’s most desirable and most underserved communities.

The Atlanta Beltline can support, protect and enhance the quality of life for our city through the next several decades of regional transformation.

It offers a wide range of lifestyle enhancements, from physical activity and improved public health to community revitalization and massive economic redevelopment. The original vision has expanded to include over 1,000 acres of new parks, the largest affordable housing initiative in the city’s history and perhaps the longest and most distinctive arboretum in the country.

The Mid-South Greenprint & Sustainability Plan here in Memphis and Shelby County bears a lot in common with this project. By focusing our plans for growth around a more affordable and sustainable kind of infrastructure, these kinds of efforts are changing the physical form of our cities. Moreover, they are bringing community organizations and private-sector actors together to reinvent our cities around people, recreation and exploration.

Simply put, the Atlanta Beltline and projects like it around the country are changing the way we think about the places we live and the decisions we make about how to move them forward.

This is an exciting time for cities everywhere, and I am particularly thrilled about the progress Atlanta, Memphis and others have made – and where we can go from here.

Gravel is a senior urban planner at Atlanta-based Perkins & Will.

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