A conversation with Ryan Gravel, creator of the Atlanta BeltLine, on his new book Where We Want to Live.
As the creator of the Atlanta BeltLine project, Ryan Gravel is partly responsible for one of the most successful sustainability efforts in recent history. Starting as the subject of Gravel’s master thesis back in 1999, the BeltLine is now credited with reducing sprawl, limiting car-dependence, and generating a vibrant cultural hub within the city of Atlanta. Since its approval in 2006, the project has revitalized 22 miles of railroads and connected 40 of the city’s disparate neighborhoods. As the BeltLine has helped neighborhoods revitalize, however, it has generated concerns about rising gentrification and deepening inequality.
In his new book, Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities, Gravel reconciles his passion for big ideas with some of the unfortunate realities of urban expansion. He also advances a few key strategies for building healthier, prosperous, and more sustainable cities. Of critical importance, he argues, is the need to experiment with new ideas, develop a political structure for change, prohibit sprawl, and redirect growth toward existing corridors and historic downtowns.
I spoke with Gravel to delve deeper into these insights, and learn more about his vision for the future of sustainable cities and infrastructure.
Your book touches on a critical aspect of city planning that is often overshadowed. In addition to important considerations like income, education, and public works, you argue that what city residents really want is “infra-culture,” or “the physical manifestation of our preferred lifestyle.” What does this infra-culture look like in our current and future cities?
I try to make the case that infrastructure is not only a tool for moving people, water, or information around. It’s the foundation for our economy, for our social and cultural life. It matters what kind of infrastructure we build. It affects how we live our lives. Instead of addressing culture—or even our local economy—directly, too much of our dialogue about city planning today revolves around large, abstract concepts. People have a hard time translating how they affect their day-to-day lives. Perhaps out of sheer frustration, however, that’s changing. In every city I go to, people are reclaiming obsolete infrastructure—from old railroads to degraded waterways and obsolete roadways—as new conduits for urban life. When these efforts embrace a broad, inclusive vision for what this infrastructure might mean for their lives, they are tapping into the real opportunity for infra-culture.
At the end of last year, the BeltLine project finally received approval from the city council to build a modern streetcar network. How do you think this construction of new transit will change the city, either socially, economically, or otherwise?
It’s fascinating because the trail component of the Atlanta BeltLine is already transforming the city. It’s changing how people live their lives and generating a hefty return on the city’s investment in the process. It’s taking these old railroads—barriers between places—and making them into a new meeting ground in the city. It brings people together, and it’s working. When the transit comes—and it must—it will not only amplify those positive changes, but will also provide the infrastructure required to handle the magnitude of change that is coming.
This is essential because what we see today is only the beginning, and we need traffic-free infrastructure if we want to maintain a high quality of life in the face of that growth. Transit will also help ensure that these changes benefit everyone—not only the able-bodied who are traveling short distances. No matter rain or cold, the dark of night or cumbersome loads, physical injury or disability, everyone will be able to use this infrastructure, and it will benefit everyone’s lives.
Your approach to sprawl is pragmatic, even optimistic. On the one hand, you argue, sprawl contributes to car-dependence, as well as social, cultural, and political isolation. On the other, it often allows for larger, newer, less expensive housing, as well as better public school systems. To settle this conflict, you propose that sprawl should achieve a balance between the diversified streets of Paris, a city’s whose infrastructure and urbanism you see as something of a model, and the more dispersed, sprawling pattern of your own Atlanta. What does this balance look like, exactly, and is there any city that has achieved it already?
I don’t know, but I’m confident that what we’re building is a new kind of city. In the 1950s we didn’t call what we were building “sprawl.” We called it “the future,” and it was. Changing technology and ideas about our health and economy contributed to a cultural momentum that changed more than our physical world. Innovative business models were invented to deliver distinct kinds of housing and products that didn’t exist before. Entire new government agencies were built around the lifestyle these changes offered. So when we’re imagining what our future looks like today, there’s little doubt that a balance between urban and suburban can’t quite capture the nature of what we are building.
Your book devotes an entire chapter to “catalyst infrastructure,” or visions that “catalyze larger opportunities,” like New York’s High Line or your own BeltLine. One of the main takeaways of catalyst infrastructure, according to your book, is that it should include everyone—even automobiles. Explain how you reconcile this with public health issues that often accompany car dependency.
I include automobiles in the equation because I think they will be essential to preserving quality of life in places that are structured solely around them—think of the vast cul-de-sac’d communities of sprawl. The physical structure in these places is so rigid that they are unlikely to adapt physically. But if we at least stop building more of them, and we advance technological and cultural innovations like car-sharing and automation, we at least have a chance of helping them adapt. So when we’re talking about cars, there are still some health challenges, but these are not the same cars that created the problem in the first place.
In the penultimate chapter of your book, you draw an interesting parallel between the infrastructure of Detroit and that of Atlanta before the BeltLine project. Do you foresee Detroit’s Inner Circle Greenway project having a similar effect and, if so, how?
There are lessons from the Atlanta BeltLine, and other catalyst infrastructure projects all over the world, that are certainly applicable to the concept that is developing in Detroit. But they are less about a specific recipe: one-part transit, one-part trail, one-part housing, bake at 450 degrees, and,“Viola!,” community revitalization. The lessons are more about a way of seeing and building infrastructure that celebrates civic identity and addresses the specific conditions and needs that are found in each place. In that regard, Detroiters have much more to teach us. They’ve been creating new things all their lives.
There does seem to be a growing fear that big urban projects can actually feed into gentrification, inequality, and affordability problems as the affluent and advantaged crowd around new transit stops or even green spaces like the NYC’s High Line. You argue that we can stop these divides from getting worse by “reducing congestion rather than investing in growth in other areas.” Tell us more about that.
I get the fear of big ideas, but I think it’s more about a distrust for our ability to implement big ideas according to their original vision. That’s why the ownership of the Atlanta BeltLine by the people of Atlanta is so critical—the role of the public is to keep the implementers in line. The problems aren’t transit, parks, and grocery stores. They are rising taxes and rents, and there are many proven tools to tackle these issues if we summon the collective will to do so. Beyond that, I also think that the scale of our answers needs to be commensurate with the magnitude of our problems. We’ve got really big challenges ahead—a dramatic regional reorganization over the next generation with an entirely new set of winners and losers—and if we want to survive those changes and thrive, we need to think big. We also need to act.