Atlanta strings a new 'emerald necklace'

Urban blight meets Victorian values and sylvan dreams in a sweeping plan for city parks.

By , Staff writer

Caught between Atlanta's shimmering downtown and its endless magnolia-laced suburbs is a moat of rusting forges and quarries, neighborhoods with names like Cabbagetown and Peoplestown, and crawdad-filled creeks in concrete runnels.

For decades, Atlanta spread across cheap farmland in all directions. But in the past three years, developers have increasingly set their sights on urban blight, post-industrial parcels inside Perimeter Road, in a move that has sparked planners' imaginations, but also concerns that in a city already short on parks, there will soon be nowhere to toss a Frisbee or lounge in the grass.

As a result, the city is embarking on a bold urban experiment: the creation of a 2,544 acre park-and-trail loop loosely based on Frederick Law Olmsted's interconnected park system in Boston. Looping for 22 miles around downtown and midtown, a dozen parks would be created or expanded around a rail-and-trail transit system, all while turning old quarries into swimming holes and connecting the city's 26 neighborhoods with a continuous trail banked by woods and wildlife. A big bonus: Experts say that uncovering the city's "ecological infrastructure" will even help cool the city in the summer, countering the asphalt's heat.

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Atlanta isn't the first city to set aside urban "greenways" - Boston, after all, was a 19th-century pioneer with Olmsted's Emerald Necklace, and cities such as Raleigh, N.C., and Seattle, have built winding bike-trail corridors. But the extent of this project - which grew out of an idea from former Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel and is pending approval by the city council - shows not only the promise of what planners call a "new public realm," but promises to test the public's druthers over the costs, both human and economic, of such sylvan endeavors.

"There's really no other city in the country that has this opportunity to build a brand-new park system out of an underutilized infrastructure," says Jim Langford, Georgia state director of the Trust for Public Land, which is leading the charge for a verdant "Beltline."

Amid a new golden age of American parks, young Sunbelt cities like Atlanta, Austin, Phoenix, and Scottsdale are launching bond issues and grass-roots plans to buy land and let it go green. But even cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, and Boston are carving new green space out of old industrial areas and waterfronts. Bolstered by modern environmental values, many of the projects are also rooted in the Victorian era, when America's emerging middle class demanded a respite from sewers and smoke. Yet those behind the projects are cognizant, too, that today's urbanites may need more from their parks than did the umbrella-toting Victorian dandies.

"You start to see a collection of environmental values - from water quality to natural beauty to climate modification - that, combined with recreational values, make these projects pretty persuasive," says Frederick Steiner, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin and author of "The Living Landscape."

Atlanta is no stranger to great parks. Its Piedmont Park is a national jewel, where lounging denizens catch a hilltop breeze amid jasmine and the sound of jazz. But as with many "newer" American cities, Atlanta's post-World War II growth spurt was mostly a matter of hammers, copper, and steel. Today it ranks among the bottom five American cities on open public space, with only 3.4 percent of its land devoted to parks. (New York City, in contrast, allocates 19 percent).

"Atlanta is green all right, but it's green in people's backyards," says Yale architecture professor Alexander Garvin, who designed Atlanta's new Beltline blueprint. "Many of the cities in the Middle West and East developed in the late 19th century, when the parks movement was at its peak. Atlanta really grew after the Second World War, and at that point, our local governments were spending money on other things than parks."

But while much of the past decade's industrial reclamation has been around waterfront development - as in Baltimore and Chattanooga, Tenn. - Atlanta is landlocked. The plan, then, is to take over railroad beds, uncover neglected creeks, tear down chain-link fences around reservoirs, and perhaps even turn the Fulton County Quarry into a lake for swimming. Some areas would become "mixed-use" greenways, with affordable housing near bike trails and a Seattle-style light-rail line.

Mr. Garvin expects the project to cost about $20 million, much of it funded by special tax districts from which surplus money will be used as collateral to purchase bonds.

But some experts worry about expensive toxic cleanups and other unexpected costs. In fact, a smaller gambit in Boston to cover the completed "Big Dig" with a series of new parks may cost twice as much as originally expected, a fact that has some of Boston's park committee members wondering if there are better ways to spend the money. And since part of the scheme involves rehabilitating burned-out neighborhoods, questions of where the poor, including minority populations, will live are bound to rankle in class-conscious Atlanta.

"Building new parks on previously used sites is not an easy undertaking," says William Honachefsky, an environmental scientist and author of "Ecologically Based Municipal Land Use." "At the same time, everybody's running out of prime land and people want to protect the ecological infrastructure that makes a city sustainable in the long term. We can't continue to pave over everything and spread the suburbs out further and further."

Considering that the last big public project in Atlanta was a costly, less thrilling sewer renovation, many city residents, like Rob Turner, a lawyer who lives in the Brookhaven neighborhood, are eagerly embracing the new vision.

Mr. Turner sees two Atlantas: one inside the Perimeter that is hip, young, single, and ecologically aware; and one outside the Perimeter in the vast suburbs, a population of retirees and families with a focus on roads and malls. But he's confident the two groups will come together over new park benches and a fresh expanse of grass.

"Without parks, you'll go stir crazy in the concrete jungle," he says. "I'll get out and trim the bushes and cut the trails, if that's what it takes."

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