I spent a little over 24 hours in a gloriously crisp Atlanta, Georgia last week to speak at the Portfolio Center, the creative school I spent two years at over a decade(!) ago. And while I was there I was absolutely floored to experience one of the most exciting urban transportation projects in the country, one that I’ve been tracking ever since I moved away from the city: The Atlanta BeltLine.
The BeltLine is an ambitious project that uses 22 miles of former railroad right-of-ways to build 33 miles of walking and biking trails in a wide oval around Atlanta’s urban center, providing car-free transportation routes, connections to transit, and recreational paths for 45 different neighborhoods. I had learned about the project years ago because of its awesome origins: a Georgia Tech student named Ryan Gravel came up with the idea as his masters’ thesis, connecting the dots between these unused corridors, and passing his proposal along to the city.
After I came to LA, I always joked that Atlanta was good practice for moving here because it re-taught me how to drive. Unlike Boulder, where I’d spent the previous 3.5 years and only got behind the wheel of a car maybe five times (and one of those times I smashed my friend’s car into a curb during a snowstorm, causing $600 of damage), Atlanta felt less like a city and more like a dozen neighborhoods scattered days apart across the entire width of northern Georgia. I drove everywhere. And I’m sorry to say that I never took public transit, not even once.
But that’s exactly the brilliance of the BeltLine. These neighborhoods are not that far away. At all. They only feel that way because you’re traveling between them in a car. By connecting them directly like this, you begin to see the way the city was originally knit together. And how easy it is to navigate it.
I walked a few miles of a brand-new stretch that had just opened near Piedmont Park (those trees aren’t blowing over, they haven’t been planted yet), I marveled in what a light touch the BeltLine had taken to transform the corridors into their new use. The paths were wide, and the landscaping (or what I could see of it so far) felt native and appropriate.
Since much of the land along the corridors remains undeveloped, there were these awesome vignettes where wilderness and industry collide.
There were dozens of pieces of public art, much of it interactive, and all of it feeling like it had been curated from the neighborhoods surrounding the BeltLine. Instead of monumental pieces of sculpture from Very Important Artists, it all felt very grassroots.
For me, the great delight of the BeltLine is seeing the visual echoes of the railway system in the architecture along the way.
Like Ponce City Market, a massive building that has served as a Sears warehouse and distribution center, which will reopen in 2014 with two million square feet of retail and housing. And it was right about this point in the walk where I thought about the BeltLine’s relationship to another reclaimed railroad “Line”… the High Line.
As my friends and fellow critics Philip Nobel and Mark Lamster have both noted recently (provoked by a skewering if sloppy op-ed in the New York Times), hardly anyone ever says anything bad about the High Line. Well, I’ve often said one bad thing: the High Line is actually not very good for walking. (These clever little pavers? Dangerous for shoes and slippery when wet.) But you could argue: it’s not really designed for transportation, is it? It’s more for promenading. Strolling. People watching. And being watched.
That’s why the BeltLine was so refreshing. It manages to keep the incredible infrastructure of the rail line intact, and it serves a vital transit need in the city. The BeltLine proves that you can do both.
And views are just as incredible.