Atlanta Considered: Living Where We Want

May 18, 2016

Atlanta urban designer and Chamblee native Ryan Gravel has a way for Georgia communities to solve their transportation problems and create more sustainable, livable places to live.

Gravel's new book "Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities” explores the process of reviving abandoned railroad tracks, degraded waterways and obsolete roadways. 

And when it comes to re-purposing old infrastructure, Gravel is one of the world's leading thinkers.

His Georgia Tech Master's thesis became the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile ring of abandoned railroad tracks encircling Atlanta’s urban core that’s being reclaimed and turned into green space, pathways and, eventually, light rail.

Interview Highlights

On where he wants to live

I already live where I want to live, where I can walk places and ride transit and ride my bike. I've got a six minute bicycle commute to work. My kids' worldview is being framed by the Atlanta BeltLine. It's just a nice sustainable, walkable, livable place to live. I live in Inman Park on Krog Street, right on the Atlanta BeltLine.

On growing up in the Atlanta suburbs

My parents moved to Chamblee, Georgia from Louisiana to take advantage of the booming economy that was being built in the 1970s as a result of all the highway investment that the region was making. It worked. It lifted millions of Americans to economic prosperity including my own family and I had a very comfortable childhood. But it's a very different time now. At that time, we were building highways, the region was growing, and you didn't really see the problems with the way that we were building things. Now, they're pretty crystal clear. We can't build out of this problem with roads.

On "catalyst" infrastructure

The Atlanta BeltLine is the perfect example of catalyst infrastructure. It catalyzes change. It doesn't solve all of our problems but it does begin to. It's really changing the way that people think about Atlanta and what our expectations are for living here. I live on Krog Street and every evening and weekend there are cars lining the streets from all over the region [like] Gwinnett and Cherokee [Counties]. People are unloading their strollers and their dogs and they're spending the day in the city. I love it because they're getting a new perspective on what life is like in the city. Or, they're taking ideas back to their communities about what kinds of changes are needed there and rethinking the infrastructure that we build there.   

On infrastructure Atlanta can reclaim

Railroads, obviously, not only with the Atlanta BeltLine which is already making itself clearly successful. The region was built on railroads. All the little towns that were swallowed by metropolitan growth used to be able to take a train to Marietta Square or Lawrenceville or Griffin. There's no reason why we can't put that service back in place. It will create a place where people want to live out in those communities with direct access to the broader economy of the region.

On designing a city that makes everyone happy

Everybody kind of wants something different. Everybody also wants something kind of the same. They want economic prosperity, they want time with their family and friends. They want to be happy. Right now we have lots of opportunities for people to live with car dependency and driving everywhere. Not everybody is stuck in traffic. It works fine for lots of people. But what we don't have is a lot of opportunities for people to live a walkable, healthy, sustainable, transit-oriented lifestyle.

On not being against new construction

We're building an entirely new way of life. It's fascinating to watch what's happening. Some people say that we're going back to the way things used to be but that's not true at all. We're creating something entirely new. The airport will take you anywhere in the world you want to go. You've got automated vehicles coming and car sharing. This is going to be a completely different world. It requires a lot of new construction. 

Adding bike lanes to existing roadways is just one way Ryan Gravel says Atlanta can use current infrastructure to improve livability.