A national model for smart-growth cities

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has shined the national spotlight on Atlanta and the innovative work related to the Atlanta Beltline and the city as a whole for its leadership in sustainable development. On Wednesday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Beltline representatives received a prestigious award for smart-growth achievement. We are pleased to share that the Beltline was selected as the overall winner among 77 applicants from across the country.

EPA’s award recognizes two remarkable redevelopments along the Beltline: the 17-acre Historic Fourth Ward Park, and the Eastside Trail.

The park opened in 2011 and transformed a barren, contaminated site north of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace into a source of pride for the neighborhood. It is the culmination of years of work among a diverse group of partners — including the community, businesses, government agencies, philanthropic organizations and nonprofit groups. The final product is a park that reduces energy use, contributes to vital ecological processes, and is maintained in an environmentally responsible way. It incorporates an innovative stormwater retention feature that saved the city $15 million.

The Beltline is creating walkable neighborhoods – something denied by historic sprawl in decades past. The Eastside Trail, an eyesore that used to divide five neighborhoods, has been transformed into a 2.25-mile linear greenway and arboretum with a 14-foot-wide multi-use trail. It provides direct access to three major parks — including the Historic Fourth Ward Park — and connects to a 19-mile trail from downtown to the suburbs. This opens up new, safe, alternative commute options and will soon feature streetcar transit connecting neighborhoods throughout the city. Incorporating smart-growth features promote healthier, economically stronger and more socially diverse communities, and protects the environment by reversing historic trends of urban sprawl.

The Beltline is making a visible difference in Atlanta by creating a 22-mile greenway around the city that will connect 45 neighborhoods. It comprises four “belt lines” that were built as railroad bypass routes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Beltline has become a national model for smart growth by turning what was once an abandoned rail corridor into a vibrant community space where healthy living is encouraged, culture is cultivated, the environment is better protected and economic development is taking place.

It is no surprise the Atlanta Beltline has become a catalyst for economic development. Businesses are relocating to be close to the Beltline. To date, more than $400 million in new private real estate development has been invested within a block of the Historic Fourth Ward Park, and $775 million in new development has been invested within a half-mile of the Eastside Trail. This brings more jobs to the community, with the opportunity to live and work in close proximity.

Heather McTeer Toney is Southeast Region administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.