Last modified on Thu 25 Oct 2018
Look out across Atlanta from the top of the bald granite hump of Stone Mountain and the skyscrapers of the city’s three separate business districts – Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead – poke up through what looks like a carpet of treetops stretching to the horizon.
But beneath this green canopy lie hundreds of squares miles of quintessential American suburbia, of strip malls and cul-de-sacs. With no mountains or coastline to limit the city during the postwar boom, it just kept growing. A few years ago, “the city in a forest” and its surrounds ranked as the most sprawling large metropolitan area in the country.
Many of the 5.5 million people in metropolitan Atlanta live in low-density single family houses “outside the perimeter”, the eight-lane concrete ring of Interstate 285. With few sidewalks and virtually no public transit, living in this vast sprawl means driving to work or school, driving to get dinner or meet friends, driving to shops and healthcare – if you can afford a car, that is. Another 2.5 million people are projected to move to the metropolitan area over the next 20 years.
The BeltLine is changing how people think about the city
Atlanta, though, has an opportunity to change. The BeltLine – a 22-mile ring of abandoned and active freight rail lines that is being slowly transformed into a transit and trails loop – offers the city a different possible future. Parts of it have already been turned into walking and cycling paths, with new restaurants, bars and homes popping up along it. Just last month, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) agreed $570m funding for light rail along 15 miles of the route.
The vast scale and coverage of the BeltLine – it takes in 45 neighborhoods, from some of the richest to some of the poorest – means it has the potential to shape the city in a far more profound way than similar schemes such as New York’s High Line. Get it right and a large part of Atlanta can look forward to a future of high-density housing and walkable neighbourhoods, of cycling and public transit – and other American cities could have a new 21st century model to follow.
But the chances of getting it wrong are high. People who have lived in poorer, traditionally black areas to the south and west are being forced out as speculation drives prices beyond their reach. The visionary urban designer who came up with the original idea has already resigned in protest. All eyes are on what happens right now.