From Atlanta to Anacostia

Written by Scott Kratz


Cities are increasingly defined by their civic spaces – think Millennium Park in Chicago or New York’s High Line. And more and more, municipal leaders and local non-profits are working to transform aged out infrastructure into these new civic spaces that can serve as gathering places for local residents and tourists alike. The Atlanta BeltLine is such a project. In his compelling new book “Where We Want To Live,” BeltLine founder Ryan Gravel describes the park’s origins, the importance of community engagement as well as challenges encountered along the way.

The ambitious idea for the BeltLine began as Ryan’s masters thesis to transform 22 miles of aged out railroad into a circular loop that could stitch together Atlanta’s diverse and disconnected neighborhoods. What began as an academic concept quickly gained the support of nearby residents, an influential city councilmember, non-profit groups and the business community. This was a similar path for the Bridge Park as we started with hundreds of meetings with nearby stakeholders. This community driven design process continues to be at the center of our work to this day.

In his book, Ryan recounts eight lessons learned:

  1. Think Big – Ryan shares that “the very best big ideas find ways to strike the delicate balance between being bold enough to be worth our efforts and realistic enough to be accomplished.”
  2. Include Everyone – These infrastructure projects are too large to be accomplished by any one person or organization. And by building multiple partnerships to help shape a park’s design, programming and impact as we’ve done with the Bridge Park, we can create collective ownership.
  3. Promote Authenticity – Successful civic spaces need to be grounded in their local community. Ryan shares that “done well, catalyst infrastructures support our human desire for uniqueness, identity, and meaning in the places where we live and work.
  4. Compel Change – These kinds of projects can inspire residents to host a picnic, explore the river, perform a dance, start a new business or start a community garden. Through careful and deep listening to the community, parks can respond to the needs of residents and support residents’ cultural, economic, environmental and physical health.
  5. Inspire Life – Ryan describes early conversations with the founders of the High Line who were enthralled with the scrappy native vegetation that somehow thrived on the abandoned railroad tracks. Working with their design team, they captured this wild spirit that can be seen in the park today.
  6. Stay Focused – Transforming abandoned infrastructure into parks is a marathon, not a sprint and it is important to have clear goals that are shared by partners and advocates. You can read about the Bridge Park’s four key objectives here.
  7. Emphasize People – This is the DNA of the Bridge Park. The community determined each of our programming concepts, helped select the design team and continues to drive our arts interventions.
  8. Band Together – Big projects can create a diverse and broad constituency. I think about all of the partners that have come together to implement our Equitable Development Plan. Non-profits that address a variety of disciplines – affordable housing, healthy food access, homelessness, education, teen development, small business growth – are working together to build a more inclusive city. That is powerful stuff.

We can learn much from our colleagues around the country and we want to thank the folks at the BeltLine for inspiring our work. If you are looking for a good read this winter, Ryan’s book can be ordered at the East City Bookshop located by Eastern Market.