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Ryan Gravel knows where we want to live

A decade after work on the Beltline began, the project's visionary issues a call to action

In 1999, a young Georgia Tech graduate student named Ryan Gravel dropped off his thesis at the school's library for posterity. The paper described turning a group of largely abandoned railroads circling Atlanta's urban core into a transit network called the Beltine.

Unlike so many other ideas in Atlanta, dust did not have a chance to settle on Gravel's concept. Today his idea has grown to include a wildly popular bike-path system, a park plan that stands to increase the city's greenspace portfolio by 40 percent, and programs aimed at public art, affordable housing, and economic development.

The project, Gravel says while sitting on the deck of Ladybird Grove and Mess Hall near his home along the project, has changed his life. Gravel has gone from daydreaming about the freight train tracks behind his student apartment becoming a transit line to traveling as far as Singapore to talk about the project's construction. He's gone from designing suburban office parks after graduation to a top design firm to opening his own consulting shop. On March 15, Gravel marked another milestone: the publication of his first book, Where We Want to Live.

The 256-page read is part Beltline history and part how-to on creating purposeful, people-focused public spaces, all under the umbrella of a manifesto on the possibilities cities have at their disposal if they choose to wield the transformational power of infrastructure. It's well-written and personal. A suburban childhood in Chamblee and semester abroad in Paris, where Gravel reveled in dérives, or unplanned journeys, opened his eyes to the spread of and damage caused by sprawl. The experiences inspired his graduate thesis. (A scrapped idea would have reimagined Downtown's Gulch, he writes.)

Gravel never imagined the idea he dropped off at the library would get off the ground. After years of selling the project to neighborhood groups, he was waiting to speak publicly at an Atlanta Regional Commission meeting to urge members to support the Beltline. Standing in front of him were people he'd never met who were there to do the same. The idea had caught on.

"At that moment it crystallized the role that the public ownership would play in the project," Gravel says. "Up until that time I thought we were having an interesting conversation. I didn't really believe we were going to do it. But at that point I was like, 'Oh, wow, you can see the power of the public to implement their vision.'"

There are too few books written about Atlanta's pivotal moments — the demolition of public housing and the freeway revolts come to mind — so Gravel's work is a welcome one. His motivations for writing it are twofold. One, he wanted to "lay the groundwork" about the project's history and inform people that it began as an idea that took off because the public wanted it and required a lot of heavy lifting. Second, he says, his travels have shown him that everywhere he goes he finds similar projects and the Beltline is part of a larger movement and a leader in that movement. People are choosing to invest in their inner cities and connect with each other in a way you can't while sitting behind the wheel of a car.

"It's easy now to see the Beltline as a big municipal project," Gravel says. "But the essence of the project is grassroots driven. I believe the best implementation of the project is where the public continues that sort of ownership and authorship of what the project is and holds the city leadership accountable as it changes over time."

Atlantans who sat in NPUs listening to Gravel pitch a transit line alongside then-Atlanta City Council president (and current mayoral candidate) Cathy Woolard, an early champion of the project, might be familiar with some of the story. But they might not know Gravel's larger views on the suburbs' future, the role of civic participation, and the importance of equity, something he's championed as the unofficial conscience of the project since the idea started becoming a reality overseen by Atlanta Beltline Inc.

Last year, Gravel launched the design consulting firm Sixpitch. He now lives in Inman Park and pedals to work at Ponce City Market, where he has an office. He recently wrapped up brainstorming ideas for Chattahoochee NOW, a nonprofit working to finally connect Atlanta with its only waterfront. Earlier this year, Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane tapped Gravel to help lead the City Design Project, an 18-month exercise looking at Atlanta and listening to Atlantans about how the city should evolve. Gravel says the project will "go where people are" through a series of studios. The first will be stationed at PCM and then move to another location.

"My ulterior motive has always just been to create the kind of place I want to live in," he says. "I'm loving it. No complaints."

Where We Want to Live by Ryan Gravel. St. Martin's Press. $26.99. 256 pp.