Atlanta strings a new 'emerald necklace'
Urban blight meets Victorian values and sylvan dreams in a sweeping plan for city parks.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."