Beltline as social engine

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Still in its early stages, the Atlanta Beltline is already a success as a recreational destination. But its real power may be as a vehicle for social connection. Today, my column focuses on a lecture delivered by Beltline CEO Paul Morris at the Georgia State University School of Public Health, in which he detailed the impact of the Beltline on environmental rehabilitation, business and society. A GSU dean also writes about the project’s influence on Atlanta’s social capital.

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Beltline’s public health benefits

By Tom Sabulis

At a recent lecture, Atlanta Beltline CEO Paul Morris took no small glee asking women in the audience the following question: When looking for a wedding site, how many of you would put “stormwater retention facility” on your list of potential candidates?

Hands? Anyone?

Morris explained that one of the perks of his job is authorizing weddings to take place at Historic Fourth Ward Park, a 17-acre, multi-tiered urban oasis south of Ponce City Market (the old Sears building) that includes terraced lawns, curved walkways, brick plazas and fountains. It all cleverly masks a functioning stormwater reservoir, reinvented as the tranquil centerpiece of a welcoming public space.

Morris used the anecdote to illustrate the Beltline’s creative knack for rehabilitating rundown areas and innovating around needed infrastructure, goals that save money — in this case, the cost of underground stormwater tunnels (about $15 million) — and open up investment opportunities at the same time. (For the record, parts of the park are owned by the city; Atlanta Beltline Inc. controls others.)

As the weddings confirm, nice parks tend to attract people in their sunniest, most meditative moods. They also appeal to businesses seeking healthy options for employees. Athenahealth, an IT company, just relocated its regional headquarters from Alpharetta to Ponce City Market, bringing with it 100 jobs and plans to add hundreds more.

One request Athenahealth had of its new landlord, Jamestown Properties, was to have direct access to the Beltline trail from the building.

“What’s so extraordinary” about the Historic Fourth Ward Park, Morris told his audience at the Georgia State University School of Public Health, “is recognizing what it’s doing in terms of community. It’s recognizing that in every part of what we’re doing, we have the opportunity, the obligation, to rethink the assumptions of how we heal the urban environment from a hundred years of blow-and-go, build-and-move-on mentality. And instead say we can do it better. And, more importantly, we can do it cheaper.”

While the Beltline is seen as exercise trail by many, art-and-nature loop by others and transit opportunity by some, its role as facilitator in the public health of greater Atlanta may be its real star turn.

“We believe that for our community to be healthy (and) vibrant, we have to fill in the gaps and put in the missing pieces,” Morris said. “We have to do it in a way that looks at every one of the unique 45 neighborhoods (the Beltline) touches, and bring forward the interests and cultural identity of those neighborhoods and give a sense of ownership to the people who live there.

“If we really believe in the anatomy of a community, then you have to have healthy people. They have to be able to live and work and play and shop and learn in places that are within the community. It needs the infrastructure to support all those activities. That’s what the Beltline seeks to do, making it possible for people who live there to stay there.”

Unlike governments, which sometimes aspire to these things, Morris points out that the Beltline has “a legal obligation to produce 1,300 acres of new parks, 5,600 new affordable housing units, 22 miles of transit (and) 33 miles of trails.

“The very foundational aspect of what we are doing to reclaim this landscape is to clean up over 1,000 acres of contaminated real estate. We have brownfields on the Beltline. We pretty much assume any property we touch is dirty. Our job is to not only create something that is good, but to fix something that is broken — by restoring the landscape, cleaning up contaminated properties and putting property back into productive use, whether it’s jobs, housing, greenspace, the trails (or) transit. All of which are essential components to creating a healthy environment for everybody to live.”

In May, the International Real Estate Federation named the Beltline the best environmental rehabilitation project in the world. The Eastside Trail, a two mile-plus stretch, will receive about 1 million visitors this year — putting its visitation rate in the same neighborhood as the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola.

“On the face of it, it just looks like a 14-foot-wide two-mile-long piece of concrete,” Morris said. “But when you’re out on it, you recognize that there’s something else going on.”

That “something else” is a city rebounding through a place that is healthy, accessible and connective.

Civic identity, social connection

By Michael Eriksen

Fifteen years ago, a graduate student at Georgia Tech submitted his master’s thesis, which served as the inspiration of today’s Beltline. Ryan Gravel’s “Belt Line – Atlanta: Design of Infrastructure as a Reflection of Public Policy” proposed a plan for Atlanta that could “reduce dependence on automobiles, re-use valuable urban land, create economic growth for the city, improve mobility in traffic-congested Atlanta, and make evident historic special boundaries and settlement patterns, contributing to civic identity.”

Gravel’s vision focused on transit infrastructure and redevelopment of the central city. But this evolving network of trails, parks and future transit could have an even stronger benefit to public health.

When we think about the Beltline and public health, our thoughts turn immediately to the obvious: the opportunities for physical activity such as walking, biking, rollerblading or running. The trail has already proven to be a popular venue for Atlantans seeking to be more active. Atlanta Beltline Inc., which manages all aspects of the trail and its development, actively promotes healthy lifestyles through its running series, yoga and aerobics classes and activities such as “Walk With a Doc,” which offers an opportunity to discuss health topics while strolling with a medical professional.

Environmentalists can point to the health benefits of the Beltline: cleaning up polluted soil along the trail, and developing a stormwater runoff system at the Historic Fourth Ward Park to ease the burden on the city’s sewer system.

But the intangible, social capital benefits of the Beltline may offer the biggest long-term boost to public health.

Social capital can be thought of as the web of relationships in a community — the goodwill and sense of shared purpose between people and organizations coming together to pursue common goals that build trust and improve general well-being.

Over the years, some symbols of progress in Atlanta — the Downtown Connector, for example — have had the unfortunate result of diminishing social capital, dividing the city geographically and socially, and cutting people off from their neighbors and services. The Beltline offers the promise of reconnecting the city and its neighborhoods, healing divisions and creating public trust.

“Social determinants” such as housing, employment, community involvement and feelings of connectedness are increasingly recognized for their essential role in promoting good health. We are seeking greater balance in our lives and want to improve our quality of life by reducing commute time, taking the time to care about our neighbors’ well-being, and being civically engaged.

The Beltline makes a substantial contribution in nearly all of these areas. Giving more people the opportunity to live closer to work and play – and spend less time commuting – allows more people to spend time being physically active, and to be involved in their children’s schools and their neighborhoods.

The Beltline also provides the green spaces that can bring people together and rebuild a sense of community. A scene on a typical day on the Beltline trail includes a racially and economically diverse mix of walkers, bicyclists, parents with children, and older citizens. When people participate in the Beltline’s community engagement sessions — and later realize their input is taken into consideration when features are built — they realize they can work together for a better, healthier community.

As Paul Morris, CEO of Atlanta Beltline Inc., noted at the recent Urban Health Lecture at Georgia State University: “By providing and activating parks, trails, transit and affordable intown living, the Atlanta Beltline creates unique opportunities for healthier, more sustainable living in Atlanta.”

Because of visionaries like Ryan Gravel and others, we have rediscovered the link between urban planning and public health. It’s not just about providing a convenient place where people can burn some extra calories. It’s about building community. Going forward, let’s look at the Beltline not only as one of the most innovative public transit and transportation efforts in the world, but also as one of the boldest public health experiments.

Michael Eriksen is dean of the School of Public Health at Georgia State University.



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