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Ryan Gravel: How an old loop of railroads is changing the face of a city

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Urban planner Ryan Gravel shares the story of how his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, rallied to build a massive urban park that will transform an abandoned railroad track into 22 miles of public green space called the Atlanta BeltLine. The places we live aren't inevitable, he says -- and if we want something different, we need to speak up.

- Urban planner, designer, author
Ryan Gravel is an architect and urban planner who played a key role in developing the Atlanta BeltLine. Full bio

This picture
00:12
is from my metro card
00:14
when I spent a year abroad in Paris
in college in the mid-'90s.
00:16
My friend says I look
like a French anarchist --
00:20
(Laughter)
00:23
But this is still what I see
00:24
when I look in the mirror in the morning.
00:26
Within a month of living in Paris,
I'd lost 15 pounds
00:28
and I was in the best shape of my life
00:31
because I was eating fresh food
00:33
and I was walking wherever I went.
00:35
Having grown up in suburban Atlanta,
00:38
a region built largely
by highways and automobiles
00:40
and with a reputation
as a poster child for sprawl,
00:43
Paris fundamentally changed
the way I understood
00:47
the construction of the world around me,
00:50
and I got obsessed with the role
of infrastructure --
00:52
that it's not just the way to move people
from point A to point B,
00:56
it's not just the way to convey water
or sewage or energy,
01:00
but it's the foundation for our economy.
01:04
It's the foundation for our social life
and for our culture,
01:07
and it really matters
to the way that we live.
01:10
When I came home,
I was instantly frustrated,
01:13
stuck in traffic as I crossed
the top end of our perimeter highway.
01:16
Not only was I not moving a muscle,
01:20
I had no social interaction
01:22
with the hundreds of thousands of people
that were hurtling past me,
01:24
like me, with their eyes faced forward
and their music blaring.
01:27
I wondered if this was
an inevitable outcome,
01:32
or could we do something about it.
01:35
Was it possible to transform
this condition in Atlanta
01:37
into the kind of place
that I wanted to live in?
01:40
I went back to grad school
in architecture and city planning,
01:43
developed this interest in infrastructure,
01:46
and in 1999 came up with an idea
01:49
for my thesis project:
01:51
the adaptation of an obsolete loop
of old railroad circling downtown
01:53
as a new infrastructure
for urban revitalization.
01:57
It was just an idea.
02:00
I never thought
we would actually build it.
02:02
But I went to work
at an architecture firm,
02:06
and eventually talked
to my coworkers about it,
02:08
and they loved the idea.
02:11
And as we started talking
to more people about it,
02:12
more people wanted to hear about it.
02:15
In the summer of 2001,
02:17
we connected with Cathy Woolard,
02:20
who was soon elected
city council president.
02:21
And we built a citywide vision
around this idea:
02:23
the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile loop
02:27
of transit and trails and transformation.
02:30
I was doing two and three meetings a week
for two and a half years,
02:33
and so was Cathy and her staff
and a handful of volunteers.
02:37
Together, we built this amazing movement
of people and ideas.
02:41
It included community advocates
who were used to fighting against things,
02:46
but found the Atlanta BeltLine
as something that they could fight for;
02:49
developers who saw the opportunity
02:53
to take advantage of a lot
of new growth in the city;
02:54
and dozens of nonprofit partners
who saw their mission
02:57
at least partly accomplished
by the shared vision.
03:02
Now, usually these groups of people
aren't at the same table
03:07
wanting the same outcome.
03:10
But there we were,
and it was kind of weird,
03:13
but it was really, really powerful.
03:17
The people of Atlanta
fell in love with a vision
03:19
that was better than what they saw
through their car windshields,
03:22
and the people of Atlanta made it happen,
03:25
and I guarantee you we would not
be building it otherwise.
03:28
From the beginning,
our coalition was diverse.
03:32
People of all stripes
were part of our story.
03:35
People on the lower end
of the economic spectrum loved it, too.
03:38
They were just afraid
they weren't going to be able to be there
03:42
when it got built,
that they'd be priced out.
03:45
And we've all heard
that kind of story before, right?
03:47
But we promised that
the Atlanta BeltLine would be different,
03:51
and people took ownership of the idea,
03:54
and they made it better
than anything we ever imagined
03:56
in the beginning,
03:59
including significant
subsidies for housing,
04:00
new parks, art, an arboretum --
a list that continues to grow.
04:03
And we put in place
04:08
the organizations and agencies
that were required to make it happen.
04:09
And importantly, it is.
04:13
Now we're in the early stages
of implementation, and it's working.
04:15
The first mainline section
of trail was opened in 2012,
04:19
and it's already generated
over three billion dollars
04:24
of private-sector investment.
04:27
But it's not only changing
the physical form of the city,
04:30
it's changing the way
we think about the city,
04:33
and what our expectations are
for living there.
04:35
About a month ago,
04:39
I had to take my kids with me
to the grocery store
04:41
and they were complaining about it,
04:44
because they didn't want
to get in the car.
04:46
They were saying, "Dad, if we have to go,
04:48
can we at least ride our bikes?"
04:52
And I said, "Of course we can.
04:54
That's what people in Atlanta do.
04:56
We ride our bikes to the grocery store."
04:58
(Laughter)
05:00
(Applause)
05:02
Thank you, yeah.
05:03
Now, they don't know
how ridiculous that is,
05:05
but I do.
05:08
And I also understand
that their expectations for Atlanta
05:09
are really powerful.
05:13
This kind of transformation
is exactly like sprawl
05:15
in the last century,
05:18
the movement where our investment
in highways and automobiles
05:20
fundamentally changed American life.
05:23
That wasn't some grand conspiracy.
05:26
There were conspiracies
within it, of course.
05:28
But it was a cultural momentum.
05:31
It was millions of people
making millions of decisions
05:33
over an extended period of time,
05:36
that fundamentally changed
not only the way that we build cities,
05:38
but it changed our expectations
05:41
for our lives.
05:44
These changes were the foundations
for urban sprawl.
05:46
We didn't call it sprawl at that time.
05:49
We called it the future.
05:51
And it was.
05:53
And we got all the highways
and strip malls and cul-de-sacs we wanted.
05:54
It was a radical transformation,
05:59
but it was built by a cultural momentum.
06:01
So it's important to not separate
06:04
the physical construction
of the places we live
06:05
from other things that
are happening at that time.
06:08
At that time,
06:11
in the second half of the last century,
06:12
science was curing disease
06:14
and lifting us to the moon,
06:16
and the sexual revolution
was breaking down barriers,
06:18
and the Civil Rights Movement
began its march
06:21
toward the fulfillment
of our nation's promise.
06:23
Television, entertainment, food, travel,
business -- everything was changing,
06:26
and both the public
and private sectors were colluding
06:31
to give us the lives we wanted.
06:34
The Federal Highway Administration,
06:37
for example, didn't exist
before there were highways.
06:39
Think about it.
06:43
(Laughter)
06:44
Of course, today it's important
to understand and acknowledge
06:45
that those benefits accrued
to some groups of people
06:48
and not to others.
06:51
It was not an equitable cultural momentum.
06:52
But when we look today
in wonder and disgust, maybe,
06:56
at the metropolis sprawl before us,
07:00
we wonder if we're stuck.
07:02
Are we stuck with the legacy
of that inequity?
07:04
Are we stuck with this dystopian
traffic hellscape?
07:08
Are we stuck with rampant
urban displacement,
07:12
with environmental degradation?
07:15
Are we stuck with social isolation
07:18
or political polarization?
07:20
Are these the inevitable
and permanent outcomes?
07:23
Or are they the result
of our collective cultural decisions
07:26
that we've made for ourselves?
07:29
And if they are,
07:32
can't we change them?
07:34
What I have learned
from our experience in Atlanta
07:36
is not an anomaly.
07:39
Similar stories
are playing out everywhere,
07:40
where people are reclaiming
not only old railroads,
07:43
but also degraded urban waterways
and obsolete roadways,
07:46
reinventing all of the infrastructure
07:49
in their lives.
07:52
Whether here in New York
07:53
or in Houston
07:55
or Miami,
07:56
Detroit, Philadelphia,
07:58
Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore,
08:00
Toronto and Paris,
08:03
cities big and small all over the world
are reclaiming and reinventing
08:04
this infrastructure for themselves,
08:09
including the mother
of all catalyst infrastructure projects,
08:10
the Los Angeles River,
08:15
the revitalization effort
for which similarly started
08:17
as a grassroots movement,
08:20
has developed into a cultural momentum,
08:21
and is now in the early stages
of being transformed
08:23
into some kind of life-affirming
infrastructure again,
08:27
this one with trails and parks
and fishing and boating
08:30
and community revitalization,
08:35
and of course, water quality
and flood control.
08:37
It's already improving
the lives of people.
08:40
It's already changing the way
the rest of us think about Los Angeles.
08:42
This is more than just infrastructure.
08:47
We're building new lives for ourselves.
08:49
It's a movement that includes
local food, urban agriculture,
08:52
craft beer, the maker movement,
08:55
tech and design -- all of these things,
early indicators of a really radical shift
08:57
in the way we build cities.
09:02
We're taking places like this
09:04
and transforming them into this.
09:08
And soon this.
09:12
And this is all exciting and good.
09:14
We're changing the world for the better.
09:18
Good for us!
09:20
And it is awesome -- I mean that.
09:22
But our history of sprawl,
09:24
and from what we can already see
with these catalyst projects today,
09:26
we know and must remember
09:30
that big changes like this
don't usually benefit everyone.
09:32
The market forces unleashed
by this cultural momentum
09:36
often include the seemingly unstoppable
09:40
and inevitable cycle of rising taxes,
prices and rents.
09:42
This is urgent.
09:47
If we care, we have to stand up
09:49
and speak out.
09:51
This should be a call to action,
09:52
because the answer can't be
to not improve communities.
09:54
The answer can't be to not build parks
and transit and grocery stores.
09:58
The answer can't be
to hold communities down
10:03
just to keep them affordable.
10:05
But we do have to follow through
and address the financial realities
10:08
that we're facing.
10:11
This is hard, and it won't
happen on its own.
10:12
We can do it, and I'm committed
to this goal in Atlanta,
10:15
to sticking up again for people
who made it possible in the first place.
10:18
We can't call it a success without them.
10:23
I certainly can't,
10:25
because the people I made
commitments to all those years
10:27
weren't abstract populations.
10:30
They're my friends and neighbors.
10:32
They're people that I love.
10:34
So even though it started
as my graduate thesis
10:36
and I'm working hard for 16 years
with thousands of people
10:39
to help make this thing come to life,
10:42
I know and believe that who
the BeltLine is being built for
10:44
is just as important
as whether it's built at all.
10:48
Not just in Atlanta,
10:51
but locally and globally,
10:53
we have to understand
10:55
this accountability to the people
whose lives we are changing,
10:57
because this is us.
11:01
We are the lives we're talking about.
11:03
These places aren't inevitable.
11:06
The places we live aren't inevitable,
11:07
and if we want something different,
we just need to speak up.
11:10
We have to ensure that change
comes on our terms.
11:13
And to do that,
11:16
we have to participate actively
in the process of shaping change.
11:17
Thank you.
11:22
(Applause)
11:23

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About the Speaker:

Ryan Gravel - Urban planner, designer, author
Ryan Gravel is an architect and urban planner who played a key role in developing the Atlanta BeltLine.

Why you should listen

Ryan Gravel is an urban planner, designer and author working on site design, infrastructure, concept development and public policy as the founding principal at Sixpitch. His Master's thesis in 1999 was the original vision for the Atlanta Beltline, a 22-mile transit greenway that, with fifteen years of progress, is changing both the physical form of his city and the decisions people make about living there. Now a $4 billion public-private investment in the early stages of implementation, the project's health and economic benefits are already evident through record-breaking use of its first section of mainline trail and $3.1 billion of private-sector investment since 2005.

Alongside project work at Sixpitch and research on similar "catalyst infrastructure" projects around the world, Gravel's new book makes a compelling case about what these unexpected assets mean for our lives and why they matter. In Where We Want to Live – Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities (St. Martin's Press, 2016), he summons the streets of Paris, the spirit of Detroit, the unruly Los Angeles River and dozens of other examples to illustrate how a new cultural momentum is illuminating a brighter path forward for cities. Through insightful narrative, Gravel articulates how projects like the Atlantas Beltline, New York's High Line and Houston's Buffalo Bayou are part of this movement and how they will ultimately transform our way of life with the same magnitude that automobiles and highways did in the last century. More than discrete projects, he argues, they represent a shared vision for our future that will require us to forget tired arguments about traffic, pollution, blight and sprawl -- and instead leverage those conditions as assets in the creation of something far more interesting than anything we’ve seen so far.

Gravel's early work as a volunteer and later across the nonprofit, public and private sectors has brought his long-term commitment to sustainable city building full circle -- from vision, to advocacy, to planning, design and implementation. He speaks internationally and has received numerous awards for his work on the project. 

Gravel's latest pipedream is a nonprofit idea studio called Generator, to be funded in part by a bar. While juggling two kids, amazing projects like the Atlanta City Design and requests for help navigating impacts from the Atlanta Beltline, he's also taking time to look up and enjoy the city he wants to live in.

More profile about the speaker
Ryan Gravel | Speaker | TED.com