The economic — and political — power of trails

THE 350-seat Thomas Auditorium on the campus of the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick was filled to capacity March 21, as people from up and down the coast gathered to hear a guy talk about a master’s thesis he wrote 20 years ago.

The star power of the document’s author is due to what happened after the assignment was completed. Ryan Gravel’s thesis, which he wrote while a graduate student at Georgia Tech, put forth the original vision for the Atlanta Beltline, a 22-mile transit greenway.

In Gravel’s words it is “changing both the physical form of the city and the decisions people make about living there.”

click to enlarge The economic — and political — power of trails
A scene from Atlanta's BeltLine

A bold statement, to be sure, but one that few would challenge. The $500 million invested in the project so far has spurred $4.1 billion in private sector investment since 2005. It will ultimately connect 45 intown neighborhoods via multi-use trails, light rail, and parks – all based on railroad corridors.

The goal is to build “a more socially and economically resilient Atlanta” through “job creation, inclusive transportation systems, affordable housing, and public spaces for all.”

The effect of the BeltLine is not limited to Atlanta. Cities all over Georgia and all over the South are busy building their own versions of the BeltLine.

Sadly, Savannah is not among them, though a plan is being developed.

For communities that are eager to jump on the BeltLine bandwagon, Gravel urged them to “translate civic identity” into plans that are sympathetic to local geography, history, and culture.

He said residents must ask themselves, “Who are we? What kinds of lives do we want? What changes are needed?”

For example, since Atlanta was founded as a railroad town, it made sense to repurpose abandoned rail lines that encircled the city’s core to create a trail network. Those working on Savannah’s version of the BeltLine, the Tide to Town urban trail system, would seem to be on the right track by using canal banks for portions of the proposed route.

(Disclosure: I serve on the board of directors of Friends of Tide to Town, a nonprofit founded last year to advance the project).

Gravel also noted that those former rail corridors — now used by approximately 2 million people each year for walking, biking, running, strolling, skating, and commuting — once divided neighborhoods. Living on the wrong side of the tracks, he said, wasn’t just a figure of speech.

While there are concerns about gentrification and access to affordable housing near the BeltLine, it certainly delivers on its tagline: “Where Atlanta comes together.”

It’s a social space and not just a place for recreation and transportation. Gravel explained the BeltLine has developed its own culture and traditions, and pointed to the annual Lantern Parade, which is free and open to all — organizers simply ask that participants bring a lantern or glowing object to carry.

In 2010, its first year, the parade attracted about 200 people. Last year 75,000 participated. It’s part of the Art on the Atlanta BeltLine initiative, now in its 10th year, which has grown in scope to become the largest temporary outdoor art exhibition in the South that is completely free to the public. It features a “year-round public art collection as well as temporary exhibitions designed to engage the community in thoughtful expression.”

Gravel suggested communities explore new ways of thinking about the built environment. “It’s more than infrastructure, it’s a way of life,” he said, urging his Brunswick audience to use infrastructure to “deliver the kind of future you want.”

Gravel admitted to some initial surprise that his thesis was taken up as a cause. After all, he was simply trying to fulfill the graduation requirements of his master’s program. Yet he soon saw people adopt the BeltLine as their own.

In public meetings people he’d never met stood up to passionately advocate for his idea. Today, he said, you cannot be a viable candidate for public office in Atlanta without supporting the BeltLine.

This should encourage people in Savannah and all of coastal Georgia who want to harness the public health, public safety, economic, and social benefits that trails bring to communities.

Terry Landreth is owner of the Camden Bicycle Center, a bike shop in St. Marys, and has been an advocate for trail projects on the coast. He was in the audience for Gravel’s presentation.

“Every elected official is hearing more and more about bike and pedestrian projects from the Georgia Municipal Association to the Georgia Main Street Program to downtown development authorities, plus boots on the ground like us,” Landreth said.

“We are a coast with a great history to tell,” he said.

Trails will help tell it.



John Bennett

John Bennett is Safety Education Programs Manager at Georgia Bikes.
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