Sierra Magazine

One Small Step

Ryan Gravel, Atlanta, Georgia
Architect and planner, and mastermind behind the Belt Line rail plan, age 30

An idea so beautiful it could stop traffic

"I grew up in the Atlanta area, where sprawl and traffic problems are terrible. As an undergraduate at Georgia Tech, I spent my year abroad in Paris. I lived in that great city studying how it was built and then returned to Atlanta and all its problems. For my master’s thesis in architecture and city planning, I designed a system for Atlanta called the Belt Line.

"I like maps and trains a lot so I was looking at these abandoned railroad lines within the city that make a loop around downtown and midtown. The first component of my plan was a light-rail transportation system, using those existing rail lines. Because the rail area is wide, I also included a greenway trail for bikes and pedestrians. Finally, there was an industrial zone associated with the railroad, so the last component was a redevelopment scenario for mixed-income housing and retail.

"I finished graduate school in 1999 and put my thesis on the shelf. But then coworkers encouraged me to put together an information packet about my idea. I sent it to everybody–from the governor to the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA).

"The one very strong reaction was from city councilor Cathy Woolard. She represented some of the neighborhoods through which the Belt Line would run. For the next year and a half, we went around to neighborhood groups, the city council transportation committee, and others. I got pretty good at public speaking, something not in my nature at all. The response has been phenomenal. I think people understand intuitively what a positive impact it would have on their communities.

"We’re now at the beginning of an 18-month MARTA feasibility study. I’m very optimistic that the Belt Line will get built." —interview by Marilyn Berlin Snell

SPRAWL BUSTERS: In the 1970s, Potland, Oregon, instituted "smart growth" policies while Atlanta opted for sprawl. Today, vehicle miles traveled have jumoed 17 percent in Atlanta but barely 2 percent in Portland.

For updates on the Belt Line check out www.cathyatlanta.com; for smartgrowth information visit www.sierraclub.org/sprawl.

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