What Benefits Older People Benefits Everyone

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By 2050, one in five Americans will be 65 years of age or older, but, unfortunately, less than half of our country’s jurisdictions are prepared for this massive demographic shift. At The Atlantic’s “Conversation on Generations” forum at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Steven Clemens, Washington editor-at-large of The Atlantic and Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class and other bestsellers, discussed how communities can better prepare for their aging populations. The big point they made: what makes these communities healthier for older people will really benefit Americans of all ages.

Florida defined aging baby-boomer populations as Empty-Nesters, those 45-64, and retirees, those 65 and older. These groups are now replicating the trends of the Millennials: they are moving to urban centers. Boomers are moving to cities to be closer to their children and grandchildren. In part, they may be moving there to build a sense of community that may be missing in the suburbs.

But at least with the aging, the differences between the suburbs and urban areas may not be so stark. Florida said the traditional “categories of city and suburb don’t cut it anymore.” The distinction is now between whether a community is livable or not. A livable community is safe, secure, and offers access to transit, health care. These places are walkable and enable a high level of sociability. All of these things combine to help people age in place. According to the AARP, this is something the vast majority of older Americans want to do.

Clemens added that “cities have become better at being cities,” but there is still work to be done to make the majority of our communities truly livable. Transit systems need to be expanded or built in the majority America’s communities. Improving the connectivity of neighborhoods via networks of sidewalks and bike lanes is important. And the things that used to draw people downtown, “the SOBs – symphony, opera and ballet,” as Florida jokingly called them, aren’t enough of a draw anymore. Boomers and Millennials alike both call for more street-level vibrancy.

Florida admits this move by the boomers to urban centers, rather than retirement communities set in warmer climates, may lay the “seeds of generational conflict,” simply because boomers have more money and freedom of movement and can therefore potentially squeeze out younger people in their 20s and 30s.

That said, it isn’t just older people who will benefit from what Clemens called the “density and connectivity” of these livable communities. Florida noted that 33 million Americans across all age groups live in solo households. The more social ties a person has between friends and family, the longer and richer their life will be. Older Americans are more and more looking to live among a diversity of ages and experiences, which living in urban centers can give them.

While livable communities allow older people to age in place, the assets that allow them to do it with dignity – sociability, walkability, access to affordable and quality healthcare, proximity to community parks and greens spaces – are also the things that make cities healthy and livable places for people of all ages.  “Cities are not just places and built environments, they are collections of people,” said Florida, also noting that, “the places that really do well, do well across the board.”

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, ASLA 2013 summer intern and Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)

Image credit: ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award. Lafayette Greens: Urban Agriculture, Urban Fabric, Urban Sustainability. Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture / Image credit: Beth Hagenbuch

Green Infrastructure Is Becoming Mainstream

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Green infrastructure is now big time, given the head of water for the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) is now promoting its benefits. At the E.P.A’s Brownfields conference in Atlanta, Nancy Stoner, assistant administrator for water, said she tells people who don’t know what green infrastructure is that it’s about “spreading water out, slowing it down, and soaking it in.” Stoner; Joe Dufficy, land revitalization manager, E.P.A.; and Walt Ray, a registered landscape architect and director of visioning, Park Pride, then moved through a set of projects to illustrate how green infrastructure works, how the E.P.A. can help, and how one group in Atlanta is addressing some challenging flooding problems.

Why Green Infrastructure Now?

Stoner said increasingly powerful “wet weather events are impairing our water quality.” Combined sewage overflows (CSOs) now hit 700 municipalities in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Together, these CSOs lead to 850 billion gallons of discharge into streams, lakes, and oceans annually. All of that polluted stormwater caused nearly 11,000 beach closings and advisory days in 2011. With so many problems, clearly just adding more grey systems (pipes) isn’t the answer.

Green infrastructure is “one solution for many objectives.” It can be defined as an interconnected network of green systems that “reduce flooding risks, create habitat, improve water quality, and manage stormwater.” Unlike single-use infrastructure like those concrete underground water conveyance pipes, green infrastructure uses “soil, vegetation to deal with stormwater and improve our quality of life.”

She further described green infrastructure as “systems and practices that mimic natural processes.” It’s about “adapting, renaturalizing the built landscape, introducing trees and vegetation into the built environment.” These systems can include bioretention technologies (planter boxes, bioswales, rain gardens), green roofs, and permeable pavements. She said increasingly these systems are being added into our public spaces, including our streets and alleys.

To note, though, Stoner took issue with the idea of Complete Streets as they are currently defined — streets with space for all types of users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars — arguing that “a street can’t be complete unless you have room for the water, too.” Complete streets then need to also be green.

There’s a lot of overlap between green infrastructure and brownfield redevelopment. “These things all mesh because it’s about revitalizing communities, improving aesthetics, creating a better quality of life, while boosting economic development.” Green infrastructure is about making “eyesores” like brownfields beautiful. In fact, one E.P.A. program started by former administrator Lisa Jackson, Urban Waters, seeks to connect brownfield redevelopment with improved access to waterfronts.

Green Infrastructure Works

Stoner pointed to the Solaire building rooftop garden in Battery Park, which was designed by Diana Balmori, FASLA, Balmori Associates, as a great example of how a building can use green infrastructure to “achieve zero water footprint” (see image above). The additional benefits of green roofs like these are they “reduce heat, improve air quality, create wildlife habitat, improve energy efficiency, and boost property values.” The E.P.A. is now conducting community-scale studies to quantify these benefits.

At the broader scale, Stoner pointed to Nashville’s Cumberland Park as a great example of a park that is using green infrastructure to deal with water. There, a 4-acre parking lot was transformed into a park with a 100,000 gallon cistern underground that stores rainwater for future irrigation use.

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In Cleveland, one community even demonstrated that green infrastructure can work in very polluted areas. With the Slavic Village Union Avenue green street, liners were used to separate contaminated soils in a green street median from the new soils and vegetation added on top. “There are significant stormwater management benefits even with the liners.” A 33-acre site near the Willamette River in Portland scaled-up this approach, putting a cap on top of polluted soils and green infrastructure on top.

For these types of project, Stoner said “resources are tight, so communities have to look at all possible revenue streams, including tax credits or stormwater utility fees.” There can be funding from multiple sources. But she said spending the initial money on “cleaning water and greening communities” is truly worth it, given that “every $1 spent yields a $7 dollar boost in housing wealth.” (To help communities communities figure out where to spend their money on green infrastructure in contaminated sites, the E.P.A. will also soon release a “Brownfield and Vacant Parcel Stormwater Infiltration Decision Making” tool.)

The E.P.A. Will Help If You Turn Your Vacant Properties into Green Infrastructure

Joe Dufficy, who works on land revitalization programs at the E.P.A., said the E.P.A. can offer communities “technical support, brownfield grants, and partnerships.” Technical assistance shows “communities how to safely demolish vacant properties.” If this work is done improperly, the land become contaminated and remediation becomes even more expensive to clean up for green infrastructure. The E.P.A. has actually done “test demolitions to see what works best.”

The E.P.A. also offers brownfield area-wide planning grants. For example, Cleveland has taken advantage of this program to create a plan for an “opportunity corridor” that will transform 500-600 vacant properties into a green infrastructure system. The E.P.A. helped “assemble the environmental information, do the cost comparisons.” The city decided to merge together hundreds of smaller parcels together into larger parcels for redevelopment. Now, the sewage district is using some areas for stormwater management, while another 27-acre zone has just become a massive urban farm.

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As described in an earlier session, Cincinnati’s sewage district also unearthed the 2,700 Lick Run watershed, daylighting a stream that had been covered by development. Hundreds of acres will now be used for green infrastructure for stormwater management. With this project, the E.P.A. helped produce a “strategic implementation plan.” Everyone was “assigned goals, responsibilities.”

Again, Dufficy said this was all worth it, given green infrastructure does so much, including boosting property values. One recent University of Wisconsin study showed new green infrastructure yielded a $1.7 million bump in nearby property values. Who doesn’t want to live next to clean water and parks?

Vine City’s Bottom-up Fix for Flooding

Walt Ray, Park Pride’s head of park visioning, said at Park Pride, an Atlanta non-profit that helps communities create new parks, “we don’t want to inflict a park on anyone.” The idea is to let communities figure out their own solutions and then help them make it happen. In the case of the Proctor Creek North Avenue (PNA) Watershed Vision project, Ray is working with communities in Vine City and English Avenue, two poor inner-city Atlanta neighborhoods, to deal with the atrocious flooding problems. The area used to be “the headwaters of the Proctor Creek.” More than 100 years ago, it was all paved over. Now, the water is coming back.

Ray showed how flooding is a systemic issue. The nearby World Congress center, where the Brownfields conference was held, is a source of 30 million gallons of runoff. Water moves from the World Congress Center and other huge buildings, like hotels, office buildings, and the stadium, down towards the bowl at the center of Atlanta, where Vine City and English Avenue lie. “They are downsteam, downpipe.”

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Interestingly, many of the vacant properties in Vine City are right on top where streams used to be, so there’s really a reason why people didn’t want to live there. Ray said when it rains a little, it floods a lot in those houses. One family just opens their door to let the water move through their house faster.

The big watershed vision project had a small start. The PNA Coalition wanted to turn a block filled with vacant properties into a park. While this project got started, Ray asked, “Why not look at other blocks, the whole neighborhood?” Park Pride ended up doing a whole watershed analysis and then involving the community in formulating a new green infrastructure approach to solving the flooding problems. “We’ve held 12 meetings, 6 public hearings, and 9 briefings.”

Through this process, Ray said the “community had to educate itself about what green infrastructure can and should do.” Local directed the design team. They wanted to eliminate the flooding but not totally bulldoze the neighborhood. They wanted to keep the historic character while also creating new green jobs training programs. “Can we do the green infrastructure work in our own neighborhood?,” they asked.

The conceptual plan that resulted called for a new green street project along with parks that will have detention ponds to store water. Green infrastructure can then also help deal with flooding. “We are going to save the water here. We’re going to become a big sponge.”

Image credits: (1) The Solaire / Hydrotech USA, (2) Nashville Cumberland Park / Nurture Valley blog, (3) Cleveland Urban Farm / The Huffington Post, (4) Vine City, Atlanta / Atlanta History Center.

In New Orleans, a Vietnamese Community Bounces Back with Urban Agriculture

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In 1975, there was a Vietnamese exodus after the fall of Saigon. Many of the Christian Vietnamese who supported the U.S.-allied government in the south fled. Some of them ended up in camps in the Midwest, at least until the Archdiocese of New Orleans invited some to come to the Gulf of Mexico, where the climate was more like what they were used to in Vietnam. Many of the Vietnamese were also fisherman, so the Roman Catholic church thought they’d have a better chance if they could pick up their old trade in Louisiana.

Now, almost 40 years later, there are 8,000 Vietnamese concentrated in a one-mile radius in New Orleans East. The community of fisherman was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and then the Deepwater Horizon debacle but found ways to come together and come back with sustainable urban farming. At the E.P.A’s Brownfields conference, Tap Bui, Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, discussed how this unique community recovered with sustainable aquaponics.

New Orleans East, where the Vietnamese community of New Orleans lives, has 60 percent of the land mass of New Orleans but only 20 percent of the population. Before the storm there was lots of poverty, high unemployment. Post-storm, the community was left without a hospital and other basic services. As the community fled in the wake of the storm, many wondered what they would come back to, said Bui. Still, by the end of October after the storm, more than 2,000 people had returned, and then the majority came back.

Meanwhile, implementing an “emergency master plan,” then-Mayor Ray Nagin had turned a green space near their community into a landfill. The debris from the damaged homes and commercial buildings across New Orleans had to be dumped somewhere. But soon pesticides and other chemicals were being dumped there, too, right near a wetland and nature preserve. Bui said this spurred one of the first “cross-racial” collaborations ever in New Orleans East, a mass protest to shut down the landfill.

“We rallied outside City Hall,” said Bui. The group also bused in protestors to Baton Rouge, the state capitol. She said this was the first time “we Vietnamese actually felt like real Americans. Before, we had just paid our taxes. Our community had become more engaged.”

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Their efforts paid off: The landfill was closed, and more than 200,000 cubic yards of debris was removed. But still more needs to go. Bui said “the landfill is slowly sinking into the ground. The dump site is affecting the wetlands.” Environmental remediation work is ongoing.

Then, Deepwater Horizon, the BP offshore oilspill, struck, which was a fishing disaster. Bui said 40,000 Vietnamese work in the Gulf of Mexico, and a third of those are in the seafood industry. “With the loss of livelihood, mental and physical health issues increased.” Bui said particularly for the older Vietnamese, it’s really a case of “I fish, therefore I am.” More Vietnamese were suffering from depression and drinking too much.

In a sign of the truly resilient nature of the Vietnamese community in New Orleans East, the community once again rallied. “We did power mapping to determine how we going to make BP pay for what they did to the Gulf.” The Vietnamese joined together once again with a broader coalition of seafood industry groups to pressure the oil company. But while the Gulf was being restored, the fisherman had to find new jobs, immediately.

The development corporation found a trainer who could teach aquaculture, the practice of raising fish on land. A two-day session brought up new ways to create more sustainable systems. In a pilot phase, workshop attendees tested out growing koi, bluefish, and catfish. Some then experimented with “aquaponics,” which uses the waste from fish as fertilizer to grow produce. “This is more sustainable growth,” as the fish byproduct isn’t simply dumped into waterways.

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Now, the VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative, a scaled-up aquaponics operation for the community, sells fresh produce to local restaurants and stores.

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Amazingly, the fisherman who lost their livelihoods with the oil spill have “supplemented 100 percent of their earlier incomes,” said Bui. Taking out marketing and transportation costs, some “80 cents of each dollar goes back to the cooperative members.” Now, there are aquaponics plots spread throughout backyards. Also, some 2 acres of urban farms are now being worked in a 4-acre site the community development corporation rented from a community member.

This project has been a long time coming. Working with Elizabeth Mossop, FASLA, and Wes Michaels, ASLA, at Spackman, Mossop + Michaels, they created a wonderful masterplan for an urban farm back in 2007, which won an ASLA professional design award.

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Unfortunately, Bui said, “we couldn’t make that project work” given the land is “jurisdictional wetland” and required remediation. The 28-acre site the community had purchased was returned to its original owners. But the community development corporation found other solutions, and there’s no doubt this unique form of aquaponics-supported urban farming will continue to expand.

Image credits: (1) Vietnamese urban farmers / Mary Queen of Vietnam Development Corporation, (2) Mary Queen of Vietnam community meeting/ NOLA, (3) Mary Queen of Vietnam community aquaponics / USDA, (4) Mary Queen of Vietnam community aquaponics / WYES New Orleans, (5) ASLA Profesional Analysis and Planning Award, 2008. Viet Village. Mossop + Michaels / Image credit: Mossop + Michaels

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 19 – June 1)

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The Dirt has initiated a new bi-weekly feature highlighting news stories from around the Web on landscape architecture. For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at info@asla.org.

Public Gardens: A New Model BlossomsArchitectural Record, 5/19/13
“In the 1970s, it was a profession gripped with the ideals of modernism and the issues of postwar suburbanization. At best, plants were thought of more as architectural elements than organisms that could form ecosystems; landscape architects viewed themselves as design professionals, not gardeners.”

Open SeasonNew York Post, 5/22/13
“So you’re one of those Manhattanites fortunate enough to have outdoor space — a nice-size terrace, say, or maybe even a sprawling roof deck — but you haven’t had the time to turn it into that lush oasis you’ve always wanted. Yes, it’s a big job — and an expensive one — but considering that, say, 1,000 square feet of outdoor space can easily add hundreds of thousands of dollars of value to your home, it’s worth investing to make it look good.”

City Shaping VI: In 21st Century Toronto, There is MomentumHuffPost Arts & Culture, 5/29/13
“Moreover, landscape architecture, often the last and frequently underfunded component in development projects, is leading the charge in places like the city’s Waterfront district with innovative and inspiring new work by Claude Cormier + Associés, West 8, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and others.”

Urbanism and the Landscape ArchitectPlanetizen, 5/30/13
“Landscape architects are not given nearly enough recognition for being urbanists. This is not because we don’t get enough work in cities but, rather, it is the types of projects we get or, more importantly, don’t get.”

Re-Cultivating the Forest CityWorld Landscape Architecture, 5/31/13
“The interior of this territory is organized by defining nine overlapping land-use categories. Each landscape type is not singularly contiguous, but collectively represents an overall approach to defining use, form and character within the lower valley. The intention is to create a highly varied set of adjacencies within the territory that not only produce a compelling landscape experience within the valley, but that also catalyzes investment in existing areas at the valley’s perimeter.”

These articles were compiled by Phil Stamper, ASLA Public Relations and Communications Coordinator

Image credit:  PORT via World Landscape Architecture

The U.S. Will Soon Look Like California

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“Oh, my god, America has changed,” exclaimed Dr. Manuel Pastor, Professor of Sociology, University of Southern California, mock-shocked, at the E.P.A.’s Brownfield conference in Atlanta. And even more change is coming. By 2043, the U.S. will become like California, with whites in the minority and the majority minorities. Currently, white Americans make up 64 percent of the population. By 2050, they are expected to only make up 45 percent.

Over the past ten years, white people have had the lowest growth rates, while Latinos and Asian Americans have had the highest. Pastor said in the past decade the Latino population has grown 43 percent, Asian Pacific population 42 percent, African American population 12 percent, and whites — just 1 percent.

Interestingly, the fast growth in Latinos is not due to increased immigration. “Immigration is no longer defining demographic change.” Instead, it’s actually the rise of “the second generation, those born from immigrants.” Also, immigrants from Mexico may not be as high as many people think. “The Mexican economy is doing well so there’s actually negative immigration. People are moving back.”

The American Latino population is also rising in aggregate number, particularly among young people. “The number of young Latinos is up 4.8 million.” In comparison, there are 4 million fewer young whites than a decade ago. Pastor showed tables that also demonstrated how the white population is relatively older than other groups. The current median age for whites is 42, 35 for Asian, 32 for African Americans, 32 for Native Americans, and 27 for Latinos. The future is literally old white people and younger minorities.

But demographic change isn’t uniform across all parts of the country. “It’s happening most rapidly in America’s suburbs.” It’s also not as much about minorities moving into predominately white areas, but African Americans and Latinos coming into closer proximity. “Latinos are moving more into African American areas.”

Pastor raised a note of caution about the big demographic shifts that are about to occur, arguing that it could lead to broader societal conflict. From 1980 to 2000, when California was becoming non-majority white, “it was a turbulent time for race relations, with riots and conflicts around immigration. We’re just now coming to the end of this process.”

Environmental inequality is also a stubborn problem. Historically, wealthy white populations have received the most environmental benefits. “Brownfields are most often found in communities of color.” Pastor said cleaning up brownfields then wasn’t just about giving more people access to environment benefits, but also “dealing with environmental justice.”

Other sources of tension could be generational differences. It may be that the “older generation increasingly doesn’t see itself in the younger generation,” in part because the younger generations just superficially looks different. The younger generations coming up also faces a very different world. “The educational gap is really generational. The generation coming up has not been invested in as much.” And many aren’t very happy about this.

Beyond the moral issues in inter-race and inter-generational inequality though, Pastor argued that being more equitable and inclusive just pays. “Communities that aren’t inclusive don’t build a base for the economy over the long run.” Looking at the data, he believes that “the places that are more equitable and have less segregation grow more rapidly, sustainably over time.” Cleaning up those brownfields that predominately affect poorer neighborhoods of color then benefits everyone.

While the coming demographic and generational changes that will change the face of the U.S. could lead to increased tensions, Pastor was positive, viewing it as a “huge opportunity.”

He could have been speaking to the design professions and development community when he said new approaches were needed to adjust to a changing country. For example, he said the upcoming generation, which has lost out of many educational opportunities and is loaded with debt, “isn’t fundamentally angry, but aspirational.” They want a better world. He said this generation views “equity and inclusion as essential to any project, not just add-on benefits.” So environmental remediation isn’t viewed as just more economically sustainable over the long-term, but “transformational.”

Image credit: ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award Winner. Powell Street Promenade, San Francisco, CA, by Hood Design / Image credit: Marion Brenner and Beth Amann

With the Beltline, Atlanta Wants to Become a New City

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A bit more than 10 years ago, Ryan Gravel, a Georgia Tech architecture and urban planning master’s student, delivered a whopper of a thesis. His vision was to transform the mostly abandoned railroad lines that circle Atlanta into a new network of transit, parks, and pedestrian and bike trails. While that vision would have died in other cities, it actually took root in Atlanta and is now becoming a reality. Seven years into the wildly ambitious Atlanta Beltline, a 25-year, $3 billion project, more than 640 acres of land have been acquired and tens of millions raised. By the end of the project, more than 22 miles of modern streetcars, 1,300 acres of new parkland, and 33 miles of bike and pedestrian trails will make Atlanta a far more sustainable, livable, and inclusive place. That streetcar will connect some pretty down-on-their-heels neighborhoods to wealthy ones, creating access to new opportunities for poorer Atlantans. The new infrastructure, parks, and trails will hopefully be the tipping point that will get Atlantans out of all those cars. To make this transformation happen, some $1.8 billion will be spent on the transit, $500 million on parks, and $250 million on trails.

In a bus tour of the Beltline as part of the E.P.A.’s Brownfield conference, Heather Hussey-Coker and Lee Harrop explained how the unique industrial history of Atlanta laid the foundation for the Beltline and how a wide-ranging coalition of organizations, government agencies, and private sector firms have made the project happen.

After he completed his thesis, Gravel formed the Friends of the Beltline and started shopping the idea around Atlanta. Many presentations later, support started to build. The Trust for Public Land came in and did a research study that showed how the Beltline could become Atlanta’s Emerald Necklace. Soon thereafter, then Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin commissioned a study to determine whether the Beltline could be financed with a tax allocation district (TAD). The city found that it would raise more than 60 percent of the total cost so decided to move forward with that approach.

A TAD is basically “tax increment financing.” As Kevin Burke, ASLA, senior landscape architect for the Beltline, explained, imagine the tax value of a property goes up with rising property values. That incremental tax revenue is set aside for specific projects like the Beltline. The problem that came later was that the real estate market in Atlanta crashed, “skewing market projections of how much money the TAD would provide the Beltline.” Burke said this is the main reason “we have only delivered 60 acres” of parkland out of the planned 1,300-acre system of greenways and parks.

On top of that, the use of a TAD for the Beltline was delayed because a local resident sued, arguing that the public school portion of local taxes couldn’t be used to finance the Beltline. The case went all the way to the state supreme court, which just recently sided with the Beltline. Then, in a state-wide referendum, the voters of Georgia decided that school districts could opt in to TADs.

The Beltline is back on track though, largely because of an “aggressive fundraising campaign,” said Burke, which has brought in more than $40 million. Now in year six of the TAD, that measure will deliver money to the Beltline over the next 19 years. In reality, Burke said this will mean about “53-55 acres of parkland should be built each year.”

Hussey-Coker said the original railroad tracks that the Beltline follows were used to circulate industrial goods from manufacturing facilities on the outskirts of Atlanta to the city’s downtown, where they were then moved to other parts of the country. Residential areas then grew up around those industrial centers. “Beltlines were created to avoid the industrial downtown,” which was viewed as not a great place to live. The circular Beltline around the city served to “pause development for a long time.” Within its boundaries, “trolley suburbs” were created.

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The parkland that has been added already is pretty spectacular. As the bus drove past, everyone oohed and aahed over the new historic 4th ward park, a Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) pilot project that has spurred $400 million in development around it. In a clever landscape architecture design, the Beltline team created a new basin that doubles as a park. An example of smart multi-use infrastructure, the new park, which cost $50 million, is designed to flood in severe storm events. When not flooding, there are ledges for exercise, with a theatre in the center. “We built a 17 acre park and a new piece of infrastructure for $50 million.”

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The park also leaps and bounds through the neighborhood, with additional smaller pieces dotted through the community. The nearby skatepark, which legendary skater Tony Hawk helped finance to the tune of $25,000, looked like a skater’s paradise. Burke said a new space for beginning skaters will be added soon, given what’s there now is for pretty advanced stuff.

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Design work has already begun on a number of other parks. James Corner Field Operations, designers of the High Line, and Perkins + Will, originally created the “25 percent-level designs,” said Harrop, creating the basic language of the greenways, parks, and trails. While Perkins + Will is doing more design work, Field Operations is no longer involved. Request for qualifications are going out for each individual park. While Burke said some $75 million has been spent so far – on parks and trails, there’s a long ways to go over the next 10-15 years. He said he’s already working 10-12 hours days getting new parks online.

One exciting park will be appearing soon at the Bellwood Quarry, an old quarry that the city bought in 2006. There will rise a new reservoir, the focal point of the new Westside Reservoir Park. In a unique partnership with the city’s department of watershed management and parks department, the Beltline will develop the park around the reservoir while the city will ensure the security and safety of the water supply. Harrop also told us that a herd of American bison, which are actually native to the area, may be imported and be used to organically amend the soils. The Beltline crew likes to set herbivores on their plant problems: goats were recently let loose on kudzu in some spots and sheep on poison ivy in others.

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Still other areas near the Beltline targeted to become parks are currently brownfields. Just west of University Avenue, in the southwest segment of the Beltline, a property next to the former State Farmer’s Market, which is now a wreck, will rise like a phoenix from the ashes and become a new 5-6-acre urban farm. To make way for this transformation, several layers of asphalt were removed, along with old gas tanks, axles, and transmission tanks. Harrop said the area will be restored from an abandoned industrial site to its original use as an agricultural resource for the neighborhood. He remarked on the “poetry” of that transformation.

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The transit corridor itself will rise and fall through the city. Burke said it will look much like the St. Charles street car line in New Orleans. There will be grass below and on the sides of the tracks. Like in New Orleans, Atlantans will be able to walk or jog near the tracks. “It will be a porous transit line.” The big challenge, though, is that much of the Beltline isn’t at grade; much of the network will be above or below street level. Every street that crosses the line will offer an access point. The transit line itself will stop every half to quarter mile. While there are 10 at-grade access points, there will be lots of walking up and down stairs and ramps to get to the line. Burke said “it’s an extreme challenge to design access so that people don’t feel like they a deserve a piece of cheese when they reach the end of the ramp.”

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Once people find their way to the streetcar corridor, they will find a 14-foot concrete bike and pedestrian trail, said Hussey-Coker. The walking trail will run alongside the streetcar. In most places, there will be enough room between the two networks so that no physical divider between them will be needed. In the case where they are just 7-feet apart, the design team plans to add in low shrubs or fences.

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In some parts, interestingly, the trail actually diverges from the streetcar line. “The trail will be nearby but it’s not always side by side.” The trails are in fact designed to meander a bit to “connect isolated green spaces” near the light rail line. To ensure bicyclists can also easily access the trail, entrepreneurs in the city are looking at opening bicycle rental shops at key points. There is a feasibility study underway for a bike share program as well. “Before we can build the bicycle infrastructure, we need to build a bicycle culture,” said Hussey-Coker.

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A lighting scheme is being designed to enable access at night and enhance security. The team decided against security call boxes along the trail, but they will be in the transit stations. Harrop said the cost of adding security call boxes along the entire 22-mile line would have been prohibitive, plus “everyone has cell phones these days.” The Atlanta Police department is already putting together the Path Force, a team dedicated to patrolling the parks, trails, and nearby neighborhoods. In the beginning of the planning process, there were some fears that the Beltline could be used as a “criminal corridor, used for bad stuff.” But the market is saying something different. Harrop noted a marked improvement in the housing market in Beltline neighborhoods and said bidding wars for residences right off the line are becoming more frequent. In fact, speculators are buying up vacant properties along the Beltline in some areas, seeing opportunities to make lots of money.

The landscape design itself, which was informed by the work of Perkins + Will and James Corner Field Operations, will be built out in parts by Trees Atlanta, a local tree-planting organization. Some sections will be like an arboretum, while others will be a more straight-forward greenway. In many areas, the landscape itself needs to be cleaned up, with invasive plants removed and basic environmental remediation. Groups in the 45 neighborhoods the line transects are able to Adopt the Beltline and organize clean-up crews. The Beltline seems to have done an excellent job at involving the many diverse local communities in both planning and upkeep. “There have been no protests about the Beltline.”

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But the big question may be: Can this new streetcar and set of trails really get Atlantans to move around the city in ways the existing infrastructure has not? The Beltline team is serious about providing other forms of mobility, but will they succeed in uprooting the car culture? Can they get Atlantans to think it’s cool to bike to work, walk trails every day, or take the streetcar to connect to a subway or bus?

The relatively new MARTA subway system (at least in comparison with NYC and Chicago) seemed barely used when this blogger rode it about 10 times, with stations and trains largely empty. Local riders looked like they were among those unlucky enough to not own a car. There were some tourists and business travelers coming to and from the airport. The reality is that the 10-county Atlanta region has some 4.2 million people, yet just 200,000 use the MARTA subway each day, despite the billions that have been spent on the project. Another 200,000 use the bus system, which this carless blogger waited almost an hour for one day. When I went into a store and asked one shop owner how to get back downtown on the bus, she just laughed, saying that “nobody rides the bus.”

As the new infrastructure comes in, the Beltline team, Atlanta city government, non-profits, and private sector firms, will need to work together to change the culture of the city, so that this beautiful re-envisioning of Atlanta’s historic infrastructure is actually put to good use.

Learn more about the Beltline master plan and next steps and see more photos.

Image credits: (1) Beltline map / Atlanta Beltline, (2) Beltline / A is for Atlanta, (3-4) Historic 4th Ward Park / Steve Carrell, (5) Historic 4th Ward Skatepark / Steve Carrell (6) Bellwood Quarry / Tumblr, State Farmers Market / SwatsMatt blog, (7) Irwin Promenade / Atlanta Beltline, (8) North Highland Overpass / Atlanta Beltline, (9) Gateway to the Eastside Trail at 10 street and Monroe Drive, (10) Adopt the Beltline / Atlanta Beltline