Atlanta’s Emerald Necklace—Land&People

When the Reverend Gerald L. Durley speaks of a new green gospel, he doesn't mince words. "Let's face it," says the charismatic community activist from the south side of Atlanta, "the environmental movement in this country hasn't always been real inclusive of African Americans. For a long time, the welcome mat extended to us has been like a party invitation sent in the mail but covered in mud."

These days, however, Pastor Durley is preaching urban conservation from the pulpit—in part because a revolutionary park concept is taking shape in his city, where he ministers to 1,500 parishioners at Providence Missionary Baptist Church. "I truly believe that parks can be a way of bringing us closer to the Almighty," Durley says. "We all want to live in the Garden of Eden. If that makes me sound like a tree hugger, so be it."

Durley's inspiration is a big and bold vision known as the Atlanta BeltLine Initiative, which would create a 22- mile ribbon of interconnected parks, trails, light-rail routes, and landscape friendly development encircling downtown. By the time the BeltLine nears fruition in a quarter-century, upwards of $3 billion will have been spent on revitalizing the city's historic railroad corridor and adjacent neighborhoods, some of which have been regarded as blighted eyesores and symbols of urban decay for generations. In the way it proposes to link park-making with new transit, economic development, and community revitalization, the initiative also has national significance, shaping up as one of the most important pioneering park efforts of the 21st century.

"The BeltLine is changing the way cities across the country think about urban parks, and it is enabling Atlanta to ponder how it thinks about itself," says Jim Langford, state director of TPL's Georgia field office, which has played a cornerstone role in the project's planning and development. "Moments like this, in which a major city literally has an opportunity to reinvent itself, seldom happen. We need to seize upon it. Atlanta's been given a second chance, and what we're doing is unprecedented."

Atlanta reigns as the booming capital of the New South, headquarters to famous multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola and CNN. The city also holds the distinction of having hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games; supports a thriving arts community and successful professional sports franchises; and is home to nationally known political leaders, world-class universities, and the nation's busiest airport. But Atlanta is also known for some of the worst traffic congestion in the country. And in one notable category of civic resource, it clearly has missed the mark. According to statistics gathered by TPL's Center for City Park Excellence, only 4.4 percent of Atlanta's total land area is set aside as public parks and open space—approximately half as much as the average of major U.S. cities of similar population density. Furthermore, the Big Peach ranks near the bottom among cities of similar size and density in acres of parkland per capita, offering fewer than nine acres for every thousand residents.

Park-Making for the New Millenium

The idea for the BeltLine as a transit corridor was born in 1999, as a master's thesis by Ryan Gravel, then a 27- year-old graduate student at Atlanta's Georgia Tech University. "Everybody asks if there was an aha! epiphany, and there really wasn't," says Gravel, now a trained architect who works as the city's coordinator of the BeltLine project. "I was looking at designs of infrastructure relating to public policy in the city and ended up focusing on the old railroad corridors."

Through the mid-20th century Atlanta's growth was fueled by its position as a railroad nexus of the South. By 1999, however, most of the rail corridors within the city were abandoned or little used, and Gravel thought that a solution to the city's transportation problems might be found in the mass transit and trails those corridors could support. In 2001, Gravel mailed packets of maps and a briefing paper on the BeltLine to dozens of influential people around town. One of these was Atlanta Councilwoman Cathy Woolard, who sat on the city's transportation committee and soon thereafter became city council president.

"She loved the idea because it offered an alternative to the way transportation systems had been approached in Atlanta for the last 50 years," Gravel says. "Systems were based on the unquestioned paradigm that you send people from the suburbs into the city in the morning to work and then send them back out again at the end of the day. In her mind, Atlanta's neighborhoods should be active places where you can work, live, and play without ever getting into a car."

Jim Langford heard about the idea shortly after taking over as director of TPL's Atlanta office, and he immediately saw that new parks should be an important part of the project. With funding from three Atlanta-based foundations, TPL commissioned Yale University professor Alexander Garvin to complete a landscape assessment and a report that would help Atlanta residents visualize what a BeltLine system of parks, trails, and transit might look like.

Garvin entitled his report The BeltLine Emerald Necklace: Atlanta's New Public Realm, positioning the project in the grand tradition of 19th-century park pioneers Frederick Law Olmsted, a creator of New York's Central Park, and Daniel Burnham, who laid out Chicago's breathtaking network of public green spaces along Lake Michigan. The prototypical "emerald necklace" was Olmsted's 1878 design for Boston's five-milelong system of six parks.

As outlined by Garvin, Atlanta's emerald necklace would be more than four times as long as Boston's, linking four existing parks and creating nine new parks—five of them doubling as staging areas for transit, trails, and new residential units. In all, the blueprint spans more than 2,500 acres and connects 45 different Atlanta neighborhoods over its circular course.

"When Olmsted created America's first parks, they were desperately needed by overcrowded cities with no place for people to have easy contact with nature," Garvin says. "By the time Burnham proposed a park system for Chicago, that city, like many others, already had some wonderful parks. His idea was to open up the shore of Lake Michigan to everybody and eliminate barriers to public access."

Similarly, the BeltLine not only will offer contact with nature to people across the city—many of them underserved by parks—but will provide the kind of open space resource in landlocked Atlanta that public waterfronts do in Chicago and other cities. And by the sheer ambition of its vision, it will stand as one of the first extraordinary park efforts of the 21st century, when new parks typically may be expected to support sustainable transportation, economic development, and livable and affordable communities.

"We have learned that we cannot stop creating parks, otherwise we do not keep up with population growth or the demands of our citizens," Garvin says. "We have also learned that there are all sorts of opportunities we had never imagined to create new parkland and recreational components here."

Friends and Funds for the BeltLine

Only two years after Garvin's report appeared, the ambitious— some might say audacious—plan for the Atlanta BeltLine has matured from an idea into a reality. To date, TPL has completed more than 20 transactions to acquire almost 50 acres for approximately $30 million, and plans for the park system are moving full steam ahead. This progress is based on the hard-won alignment of political support, a dedicated funding stream, and residents across a wide spectrum realizing that the project will be good for both business and neighborhoods.

One key political supporter is Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, a rising political star whom TPL and others convinced of the plan's benefits, and who made building the BeltLine a key commitment of her 2005 reelection campaign. Franklin formed the BeltLine Partnership, a citizens group charged with coordinating progress of the project. Members include Reverend Durley and former TPL national board chairman Christopher Glenn Sawyer.

In 2005 the BeltLine scaled a significant hurdle with the approval of a special tax allocation district expected to generate $1.6 billion for the effort over the next 25 years. (See sidebar, page 33.) That funding mechanism, on top of $75 million appropriated through a Fulton County recreation bond, has put the project on the path to a sound financial future.

To supplement the public investment, TPL, the BeltLine Partnership, and the PATH Foundation are currently stewarding a $60 million capital campaign by appealing to Atlanta's corporations, foundations, and individual donors.

"In my career as a businessman, I've never seen any idea reverberate so loudly and deeply as the BeltLine," says Ray Weeks, a real estate developer and lifelong Atlanta resident who was tapped by Mayor Franklin to chair the BeltLine Partnership. "When I started to understand it, it scared me to death. It seemed incredibly complex and overwhelming. There weren't even preliminary resources to pay for the early work. I credit TPL and its partners with stepping forward and methodically laying the groundwork for momentum to grow."

One big concern was that the prospect of the BeltLine would drive up land values, making parkland more expensive to acquire. This is why TPL, even while promoting the plan publicly, also has been quietly at work behind the scenes optioning property while it is still affordable for the city, its eventual owner. "This project has involved leaps of faith by many players," TPL's Jim Langford says. "We went out and bought $22 million worth of land before the public bonds were even passed. We had no guarantees we would be paid back by the city, but Mayor Franklin and the city have always delivered on their promises. Everyone involved with BeltLine has been motivated by the power of the idea."

Support has grown among developers and businesspeople as they have come to understand how the project's parks and transit could stimulate economic growth. Economists predict that the project will generate 48,000 construction jobs and that economic activity in the BeltLine corridor will create another 37,000 new jobs, resulting in millions of new tax dollars to support city services. One important anticipated upshot is new collaborations to build affordable housing along the BeltLine in some of Atlanta's poorest neighborhoods.

This is one reason that grassroots groups and African-American communities have come to see the BeltLine as an equal-opportunity resource, says Pastor Durley. "When I first heard that the BeltLine concept was being embraced and championed by developers, I thought, 'Uh oh, here's another plan to displace poor folks from their neighborhoods,'" Durley says. "But when I got involved and started investigating what the proponents of the BeltLine are aspiring to do, I saw that the intent is building a better city for all of Atlanta's residents—rich, poor, white, black, Hispanic, you name it."

"The BeltLine gives residents a better understanding of parks as part of their birthright," Durley adds. "You don't have to travel to Yosemite to feel ownership in a public park. I tell people in my congregation that the BeltLine is bringing parks right here in their backyards. They own them along with everyone else."

Angela Graham, who oversees TPL's Parks for People program in Atlanta, sees the BeltLine as a vehicle for connecting people to nature and to each other. Graham, who is African American, says that "the BeltLine is an opportunity to bring people together from many diverse backgrounds to places where they can commune and get to know their neighbors, thereby creating a better quality of life for generations to come."

So much has happened so quickly on the project, leaving everyone involved a little breathless. One thing Atlantans are coming to understand is that the project may forever change the city's image. When people think of Atlanta now, they think of traffic and sprawl. Someday the image may be of parks, livability, public transit, and equitable access to open space across communities.

Jim Langford cites the famous quote of Canadian clergyman Basil King (sometimes misattributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe): "Be bold—and mighty forces will come to your aid." "That's exactly what has happened in Atlanta," Langford says. "By daring to dream big, we're making the unimaginable a tangible reality. Since the Civil War the city has had a chip on its shoulder, wanting to be a great city. This is our chance to do something original that is bigger, better, and more meaningful than anyone else is doing."

Montana-based writer Todd Wilkinson is a western correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. His story about protecting land for wildlife in the Yellowstone ecosystem appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Land&People. He is currently writing a book about Ted Turner.