Atlanta has long been the nation’s poster-child for urban-sprawl. The idea that transportation infrastructure’s value is equivalent only to the speed it allows its commuters is a sorry one. As someone who lives in and loves the city of Douglasville, yet is incredibly frustrated by the morning commute to Atlanta, I too have come to question the efficacy of Atlanta’s focus on ever-larger highways rather than developing conditions which encourage the settling of land within the perimeter. Perhaps even more than I-285, 75, or 85, the effects of a sprawl mentality are best seen in downtown Atlanta. Ask a Georgia State student what happens to downtown on the weekend and they will tell you — nothing. It becomes a quiet, parking-lot filled ghost-town, devoid of weekday dwelling commuters, and without tenants.
Transportation is tricky business that should not necessarily be simplified into larger ideals. Building effective roads and bridges that can support Metropolitan-Atlanta is a foundational must. However, we should also consider the role transportation plays in shaping our communities. In 1999, Ryan Gravel, a Georgia Tech graduate student in architecture and city planning, had the incredible idea to transform the railroad tracks that circled Atlanta into a walkable pathway; this has become known as the Atlanta BeltLine.
The Atlanta BeltLine is a twenty-two-mile circular trail that connects several Atlanta parks and neighborhoods, and displays various public art installments. Since its inception, the BeltLine has had the overwhelming support of the majority of Atlanta’s population, and has directly generated more than $3 billion of private development. Between the backing of the city of Atlanta and numerous federal grants, the BeltLine is expected to grow even larger, with a “completion date” set at 2030.
The Atlanta BeltLine, though economically significant and in our backyard, is only one of several examples across the nation where historical infrastructure was reinvented (not scrapped!) to engage today’s communities. New York City’s High-Line repurposed a snaking railroad line into an elevated linear park. The movers and shakers at Main Street Douglasville are constantly searching for unique and innovative ways to develop our historical district into a thriving community gathering place. These efforts are to be applauded, as they advance historically important public spaces while respectfully considering culture and community. As has been regularly demonstrated, when due diligence is provided to the community during planning and development, economic vitalization soon follows.
We ought not to demonize cars. The most successful transportation solutions will effectively combine cars, bikes, busses, rail-lines, and walking paths. As Gravel reminds us however, “this is more than just infrastructure. We’re building new lives for ourselves”.
Mahdi Al-Husseini is the volunteer organizer of TEDxDouglasville, a senior at Georgia Tech studying biomedical engineering and public policy, and a U.S. Army cadet. TEDxDouglasville 2017 is scheduled for Saturday, March 25, 2017 at Douglas County High School. Tickets are $10 and include a Chick-fil-A lunch. Visit www.tedxdouglasville.com for more information.