I moved to Midtown Atlanta in October 2004, right around the time that a project called the Atlanta Beltline was beginning to gain steam. The Beltline is the brainchild of a GA Tech graduate student named Ryan Gravel (the author of this book) and was written about in his 1999 master’s thesis. Rarely has a thesis gone on to change the direction of a city quite like Gravel’s.
The concept was simple (“simultaneously obvious and invisible” in Gravel’s words). Connect the four mostly unused rail lines that created an outer loop around the Atlanta city center into a light rail transportation method to connect to MARTA, Atlanta’s under and above ground train. Once the idea gained steam, it was combined with an idea of including a greenway along with light rail. The loop would be 22 miles long, would connect over 40 neighborhoods, and would be completed in portions over a 30 year time frame.
The city of Atlanta was founded as a railroad hub in the 1830s. Sherman decimated it during the Civil War, but it rose from the ashes to again become connected to rail lines reaching across the United States. The genius of the Atlanta Beltline plan is that it utilizes existing and unused rail lines into a preservationist dream that memorializes the reason for Atlanta’s founding.
While living in Midtown Atlanta, I spent a lot of time running and walking on the Beltline. My wife and I took extensive walks with our newborn girl on the Beltline and I moved my running route from Georgia Tech (where the Beltline idea was conceived) to the Beltline itself once the first 2-mile eastside stretch was completed. It was a marvel. No waiting at traffic lights. A connection to areas of town that were now easier to reach by foot than by car. Amazing views of the Atlanta skyline. And gobs and gobs of people. The people of Atlanta wanted this.
I must admit that this book probably held my interest more than the average reader since I lived in Atlanta as the Beltline took root. But this book is about more than the Beltline project. Author Ryan Gravel also discusses interesting infrastructure projects in Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. In fact, the book is about thinking big. About pursuing big projects that can be catalysts for other change.
The Beltline project is still a work in progress, but it is solving problems in a way that has garnered across-the-board support and an ownership amongst the people of Atlanta. This project provides the beginnings of solutions for traffic easing, pullback of sprawl, racial reconciliation, and historic preservation. To come to this “simultaneously obvious and invisible” solution, Ryan Gravel had to be well-versed in architecture, well-traveled within the nooks and crannies of Atlanta, and observant in other cities like Paris. This was not a random, lucky solution but rather was something discovered through study, collaboration, and hard work.
That we would all seek after projects where through hard work, collaboration, and study, we could find obvious and invisible solutions that become catalysts for change.