How an old loop of railroads is changing the face of a city | Ryan Gravel

This picture is from my metro card when I spent a year abroad in Paris
in college in the mid-’90s. My friend says I look
like a French anarchist — (Laughter) But this is still what I see when I look in the mirror in the morning. Within a month of living in Paris,
I’d lost 15 pounds and I was in the best shape of my life because I was eating fresh food and I was walking wherever I went. Having grown up in suburban Atlanta, a region built largely
by highways and automobiles and with a reputation
as a poster child for sprawl, Paris fundamentally changed
the way I understood the construction of the world around me, and I got obsessed with the role
of infrastructure — that it’s not just the way to move people
from point A to point B, it’s not just the way to convey water
or sewage or energy, but it’s the foundation for our economy. It’s the foundation for our social life
and for our culture, and it really matters
to the way that we live. When I came home,
I was instantly frustrated, stuck in traffic as I crossed
the top end of our perimeter highway. Not only was I not moving a muscle, I had no social interaction with the hundreds of thousands of people
that were hurtling past me, like me, with their eyes faced forward
and their music blaring. I wondered if this was
an inevitable outcome, or could we do something about it. Was it possible to transform
this condition in Atlanta into the kind of place
that I wanted to live in? I went back to grad school
in architecture and city planning, developed this interest in infrastructure, and in 1999 came up with an idea for my thesis project: the adaptation of an obsolete loop
of old railroad circling downtown as a new infrastructure
for urban revitalization. It was just an idea. I never thought
we would actually build it. But I went to work
at an architecture firm, and eventually talked
to my coworkers about it, and they loved the idea. And as we started talking
to more people about it, more people wanted to hear about it. In the summer of 2001, we connected with Cathy Woolard, who was soon elected
city council president. And we built a citywide vision
around this idea: the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile loop of transit and trails and transformation. I was doing two and three meetings a week
for two and a half years, and so was Cathy and her staff
and a handful of volunteers. Together, we built this amazing movement
of people and ideas. It included community advocates
who were used to fighting against things, but found the Atlanta BeltLine
as something that they could fight for; developers who saw the opportunity to take advantage of a lot
of new growth in the city; and dozens of nonprofit partners
who saw their mission at least partly accomplished
by the shared vision. Now, usually these groups of people
aren’t at the same table wanting the same outcome. But there we were,
and it was kind of weird, but it was really, really powerful. The people of Atlanta
fell in love with a vision that was better than what they saw
through their car windshields, and the people of Atlanta made it happen, and I guarantee you we would not
be building it otherwise. From the beginning,
our coalition was diverse. People of all stripes
were part of our story. People on the lower end
of the economic spectrum loved it, too. They were just afraid
they weren’t going to be able to be there when it got built,
that they’d be priced out. And we’ve all heard
that kind of story before, right? But we promised that
the Atlanta BeltLine would be different, and people took ownership of the idea, and they made it better
than anything we ever imagined in the beginning, including significant
subsidies for housing, new parks, art, an arboretum —
a list that continues to grow. And we put in place the organizations and agencies
that were required to make it happen. And importantly, it is. Now we’re in the early stages
of implementation, and it’s working. The first mainline section
of trail was opened in 2012, and it’s already generated
over three billion dollars of private-sector investment. But it’s not only changing
the physical form of the city, it’s changing the way
we think about the city, and what our expectations are
for living there. About a month ago, I had to take my kids with me
to the grocery store and they were complaining about it, because they didn’t want
to get in the car. They were saying, “Dad, if we have to go, can we at least ride our bikes?” And I said, “Of course we can. That’s what people in Atlanta do. We ride our bikes to the grocery store.” (Laughter) (Applause) Thank you, yeah. Now, they don’t know
how ridiculous that is, but I do. And I also understand
that their expectations for Atlanta are really powerful. This kind of transformation
is exactly like sprawl in the last century, the movement where our investment
in highways and automobiles fundamentally changed American life. That wasn’t some grand conspiracy. There were conspiracies
within it, of course. But it was a cultural momentum. It was millions of people
making millions of decisions over an extended period of time, that fundamentally changed
not only the way that we build cities, but it changed our expectations for our lives. These changes were the foundations
for urban sprawl. We didn’t call it sprawl at that time. We called it the future. And it was. And we got all the highways
and strip malls and cul-de-sacs we wanted. It was a radical transformation, but it was built by a cultural momentum. So it’s important to not separate the physical construction
of the places we live from other things that
are happening at that time. At that time, in the second half of the last century, science was curing disease and lifting us to the moon, and the sexual revolution
was breaking down barriers, and the Civil Rights Movement
began its march toward the fulfillment
of our nation’s promise. Television, entertainment, food, travel,
business — everything was changing, and both the public
and private sectors were colluding to give us the lives we wanted. The Federal Highway Administration, for example, didn’t exist
before there were highways. Think about it. (Laughter) Of course, today it’s important
to understand and acknowledge that those benefits accrued
to some groups of people and not to others. It was not an equitable cultural momentum. But when we look today
in wonder and disgust, maybe, at the metropolis sprawl before us, we wonder if we’re stuck. Are we stuck with the legacy
of that inequity? Are we stuck with this dystopian
traffic hellscape? Are we stuck with rampant
urban displacement, with environmental degradation? Are we stuck with social isolation or political polarization? Are these the inevitable
and permanent outcomes? Or are they the result
of our collective cultural decisions that we’ve made for ourselves? And if they are, can’t we change them? What I have learned
from our experience in Atlanta is not an anomaly. Similar stories
are playing out everywhere, where people are reclaiming
not only old railroads, but also degraded urban waterways
and obsolete roadways, reinventing all of the infrastructure in their lives. Whether here in New York or in Houston or Miami, Detroit, Philadelphia, Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore, Toronto and Paris, cities big and small all over the world
are reclaiming and reinventing this infrastructure for themselves, including the mother
of all catalyst infrastructure projects, the Los Angeles River, the revitalization effort
for which similarly started as a grassroots movement, has developed into a cultural momentum, and is now in the early stages
of being transformed into some kind of life-affirming
infrastructure again, this one with trails and parks
and fishing and boating and community revitalization, and of course, water quality
and flood control. It’s already improving
the lives of people. It’s already changing the way
the rest of us think about Los Angeles. This is more than just infrastructure. We’re building new lives for ourselves. It’s a movement that includes
local food, urban agriculture, craft beer, the maker movement, tech and design — all of these things,
early indicators of a really radical shift in the way we build cities. We’re taking places like this and transforming them into this. And soon this. And this is all exciting and good. We’re changing the world for the better. Good for us! And it is awesome — I mean that. But our history of sprawl, and from what we can already see
with these catalyst projects today, we know and must remember that big changes like this
don’t usually benefit everyone. The market forces unleashed
by this cultural momentum often include the seemingly unstoppable and inevitable cycle of rising taxes,
prices and rents. This is urgent. If we care, we have to stand up and speak out. This should be a call to action, because the answer can’t be
to not improve communities. The answer can’t be to not build parks
and transit and grocery stores. The answer can’t be
to hold communities down just to keep them affordable. But we do have to follow through
and address the financial realities that we’re facing. This is hard, and it won’t
happen on its own. We can do it, and I’m committed
to this goal in Atlanta, to sticking up again for people
who made it possible in the first place. We can’t call it a success without them. I certainly can’t, because the people I made
commitments to all those years weren’t abstract populations. They’re my friends and neighbors. They’re people that I love. So even though it started
as my graduate thesis and I’m working hard for 16 years
with thousands of people to help make this thing come to life, I know and believe that who
the BeltLine is being built for is just as important
as whether it’s built at all. Not just in Atlanta, but locally and globally, we have to understand this accountability to the people
whose lives we are changing, because this is us. We are the lives we’re talking about. These places aren’t inevitable. The places we live aren’t inevitable, and if we want something different,
we just need to speak up. We have to ensure that change
comes on our terms. And to do that, we have to participate actively
in the process of shaping change. Thank you. (Applause)

62 thoughts on “How an old loop of railroads is changing the face of a city | Ryan Gravel

  1. The urban decay is of greater benefit to humans than a concrete foot or cycle path, it's shelter to wildlife from blazing sun and freezing winters. There's so much wildlife if you stop and take the time to look, when I was a kid there was an old disused steam railway 11 miles long and only the steel rails were taken away. Along its length there was wild fruits, slow worms, lizards and rare plants. Now because of development there's only a mile or so left, it's been interrupted by housing estates. It's no longer there.
    We need to live alongside nature, not push it aside.

  2. So when people use a car to travel it is a dystopia.

    But when people walk or bike to travel, it is a utopia.

    Got it.

  3. When I pass people in a car, it is isolation.

    But when I pass people who are walking, it is community.

    Got it.

  4. this is a brilliant concept. trying to get this sort of project to actually happen in the built environment will probably make your hair go grey, but still worth striving for.

  5. It's certainly correct that the answer to the problems created by improving an area cannot be not to improve an area.
    The answer is actually very simple and very old. When an area improves it naturally raises rents and the value of land, this in turn attracts speculators who will buy up as many land titles as they can. Summed up nicely here.
    “Don’t wait to buy land, Buy land and wait. Find out where the people are going and buy the land before they get there.” –Will Rogers
    Zoning adds a new dimension to this speculation, when farmland is rezoned it can rise by upto 200 times in value at the stroke of a pen, that's a recipe for corruption.
    The answer is to use existing taxes, in the US the split rate property tax, just lower the rate on buildings and raise the tax on land. Ideally this can replace taxes on wages and consumption all together, then recycle the collected unearned rents as a dividend and we have gentrification for all with no sprawl or speculative boom bust cycles.

  6. I didn't think this talk was awesome but what he is talking about is beyond great. The beltline is a real destination that people go to. Living in Atlanta people really do get out and walk to places they never would before.

  7. I really like this project he came up with! It's a good use of old infrastructure, revitalising it to make it relevant and uniting normally opposing people in the process.

  8. So proud to see a fellow Yellow Jacket with such a successful project! I never got the chance to see parts of the Belt Line when I was in Atlanta. Now, I really wish I had, and maybe I will. I wish he would have discussed some of the solutions for funding such a massive project without excluding the poor, but it probably wouldn't fit in a 10 min video.

  9. If you want to see what is being done in your community–and how you can help–search for the Rails to Trails Conservancy.

  10. This is brilliant. I go to beltline all the time and We all love it. It's not just for traffic. It it's good to meet new people , do physical activity and save our environment. Love the market and community that's being build around it. Truly brilliant idea.

  11. the average person doesn't have time to ride a bike to work. I work 80+ hours a week to provide for my family. some of my peers work more than that. it's a great proposal, but it is only applicable to people who have the time to spare. . or bums.

  12. I understand Building communities are important, but trees are too. Trees and nature filter the air. Nevertheless a good community recovery story. I hope more parks and natural space is integrated with keeping pollution down for a healthy way to breathe.

  13. jfc, can presenters please stop with this self congratulating, fake humility, utopian tone! it's nauseating and the foundation of many a boondoggle. if what he's selling is so wonderful, he should find more than enough willing participants to fund it! i'm pretty certain that isn't the case. every talk like this should start with the speaker and interested parties declaring their financial interest in the project, and who's funding it.

  14. The land area of the US is huge and the differences in climate throughout is varied. Some states have feet of snow every winter and other have little to none. So, in the US, it really depends on what region you live in – whether it is even feasible to ride a bicycle to the market regularly. Also, in rural areas you may not even have a local grocery store (or the items are priced so high, that most people travel to the nearest metro area just to save money). Most state or local governments in the US have not made alternative transport a priority, in terms of support or infrastructure; the ones that have are in the minority.

  15. That is occurring in Beaufort SC where I live. the old tracks are becoming a really nice bike trail that runs around the whole county.
    Some of the wealthier home owners weren't happy about it because those tracks had become known as the "Crack head super highway". they thought crime would increase.

    that was silly. now the paths are open. criminals can't try to hide behind and within the overgrowth that once existed there.

    I like it.

  16. I appreciate the focus on people as the priority of urban development.

    I believe that sometimes our biases for our projects draw priority to our egos, and away from the broader purpose of our projects. I have been guilty of this.

    Seeing the Humility displayed in this talk is inspiring. Thank you.

  17. Why is it ridicolous to ride a bike to the store??? Here everybody does that… Especially older people or mothers with children who do not have a car…

  18. Changing the world for the better?, dude here in the Netherlands we've been doing this for years!.

    And most countries couldn't keep up with our solution in infrastructure and renovations because of politics.

  19. Having moved to Atlanta from Germany i was used to a certain standart of getting around just by walking, riding my bike or using my longboard to only realize that this is not the reality here. Then a friend told me about the Atlanta Beltline and it has changed my life and made me so happy. Everybody i see there is in a good mood. There are so many great things along side the Beltline. I'm truly thankful for what Ryan Gravel has done!

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