The Country's Most Ambitious Smart Growth Project

Atlanta's BeltLine development could become a model for sustainable communities worldwide. But will it become a reality?

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I once called the Atlanta BeltLine "the country's best smart growth project." I still haven't seen one that is better in concept. But now, with a few years of history, how is the implementation coming along? Is the reality matching the vision?

The challenge with writing about the BeltLine is that the massive public/private undertaking is so enormous, so multifaceted, so ambitious and potentially transformative, and so complicated that it is difficult to know where to start, how much to say, and what comments are fair. I'll try to boil it down to a few impressions that I have formed as a highly interested observer from afar:

1. The concept remains extraordinarily impressive.

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To briefly review the basics, the city is seeking to invest some $2.8 billion in a new, 22-mile public transit, trails, and parks loop around the heart of the city of Atlanta on the site of an abandoned rail and industrial corridor. Because the BeltLine passes through some of the inner city's most distressed neighborhoods, the intent is for this major public investment to leverage substantial private investment in revitalization, particularly workforce housing. The transit is to be either light rail or streetcars, connecting in several places along the loop to the MARTA regional rail transit system.

Around 2,000 acres of new, expanded, and improved parks are involved, all of which will be linked by a multi-use trail, itself a linear park, along the BeltLine as well as by the transit loop. Many of the parks are being designed to include significant green management features. The project will also involve the remediation of over a thousand acres of brownfields. 

The hoped-for economic impacts include 5,600 units of workforce housing, 30,000 permanent jobs and 48,000 person-years of construction jobs, and a $20 billion increase in the city's tax base over 25 years. It's an incredible bundle of related public benefits if the city and its partners can pull this off. 

2. Visible benefits so far include but are largely limited to parks and trails.

Last week, a representative of the Atlanta Beltline Partnership, a fundraising and outreach affiliate of the initiative, helpfully sent me her organization's new annual report, along with the latest report from Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (ABI), the entity created by the city to oversee the project's implementation. (The Partnership and ABI jointly sponsor the BeltLine's web site.)  Both point to some significant achievement in the development and improvement of parks as a result of the initiative. 

From the Partnership's report:

All over the city, the Atlanta BeltLine is beginning to take shape. In the West End, a multi-use trail is complete. Work is underway on a walking and biking path on Atlanta's east side. And in the Old Fourth Ward, in the heart of the city, a signature park is emerging.

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Of the 20 pages of ABI's report allocated to substantive accomplishment, 14 are devoted to parks and green space. Perhaps the most impressive of the parks work to date is the new (if awkwardly named) Historic Fourth Ward Park on the east side of the Beltline (photo above, site plan below). Critic Jonathan Lerner writes of the park:

But I can say -- from the times I have slipped through an opening in the fence to explore during the construction -- that this is a transformative space. Its centerpiece is a sinuously shaped "lake" sunk deep into the topography that does double duty. It provides a focal point and -- edged by boardwalks, bridges and piers, terraces and fountains, and a gracious amphitheater -- will be an inviting activity center.

More mundanely, it functions as a stormwater detention device for this historically flood-prone location. The artificial declivity dug for the lake -- emphasized by soaring granite retaining walls -- along with the natural, gentler rise of the park's topography beyond it toward the east, south and west, creates long views up and down and lots of visual drama. The descent into it and the soft, curvaceous shapes of its hardscape and waterscape are a respite from the Historic Fourth Ward's sharp-edged buildings and rectilinear street grid.

The park's 17 acres include some significant green technology, according to ABI's report:

  • "The purpose of the lake is to provide capacity relief to the combined sewer system and is designed to integrate aesthetically with the surrounding Historic Fourth Ward Park while meeting federal consent decree requirements.
  • "Converts five acres of former contaminated industrial land into a clean, green public space.
  • "City of Atlanta's first water-neutral park: all irrigation needs will be met by the storm water basin and no water will be drawn from the City's water supply.
  • "Utilizes energy-efficient LED lighting to minimize energy costs and provide a secure environment."

The park also includes a nifty and quite sophisticated skate park.

Among additional green features in new BeltLine parks, the new eight-acre D.H. Stanton Park on the Beltline's south side is equipped with solar panels that, ABI says, will generate enough electricity to completely offset the park's energy costs. And the report dryly notes that the BeltLine's new, five-acre Boulevard Crossing Park (really, improve these names) was facilitated by an "innovative partnership with Trees Atlanta [that] used 24 goats to clear 1.5 acres of invasive kudzu over a three-week period in Fall 2010."

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Work has also begun on several miles of trails (see above) in at least three segments of the BeltLine. Some portions are finished and open to the public, while other portions are sufficiently cleared for "interim hiking."

Presented by

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.

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