Opinion: Gravel: The coming revolution will not be motorized

People along Atlanta’s Beltline. Its founding visionary recently offered thoughts on its success for coastal Georgians seeking to improve Brunswick’s economic prospects and mobility. Ryan Gravel/handout

People along Atlanta’s Beltline. Its founding visionary recently offered thoughts on its success for coastal Georgians seeking to improve Brunswick’s economic prospects and mobility. Ryan Gravel/handout

For Ryan Gravel, one photo says it all.

He snapped it a few years ago while on a bike ride with his family on the Atlanta Beltline.

The photo shows a bright autumn day. People ride bikes and stroll on the tree-lined path.

Up ahead, a woman with red hair lugs a heavy plastic bag in each hand.

The photo was part of a slideshow Gravel presented a couple of weeks ago to about 260 local folks gathered at the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick, a town longing for what a Beltline could do.

“She’s carrying her groceries,” he tells the hushed crowd. “In the process she’s validating everything that we always said the Beltline would do – that it’s making a way of life possible that wasn’t possible before.”

Gravel portrays this scene as part of a revolution, one as significant as the change triggered by the post war-boom that shaped a world around suburbs and cars. People want more than a lonely commute, and that desire will reshape our cities, he predicts.

“I grew up driving on 285 going to the mall. My kids are growing up riding bikes on the Beltline,” he said. “That’s their expectation for Atlanta, and that’s their expectation for their lives.”

This revolution also can make money. The $500 million spent on the Beltline so far has produced more than $4 billion in private investment with another $4 billion in the pipeline, he said.

You know Gravel’s story: As a grad student at Georgia Tech in 1999 he produced a thesis that outlined what became the Beltline. “I never imagined that we would build it,” he said. “I just wanted to graduate – which I did.”

The Coastal College of Georgia invited Gravel to tell his story and just maybe inspire a fresh vision for Brunswick.

While the Golden Isles – which include St. Simons, Jekyll and Sea islands – are well known, the small county seat of Glynn County is less familiar.

The roads from Interstate 95 whisk you past the old town en route to the beaches. You could live on St. Simons a lifetime and never venture to downtown Brunswick – unless you were arrested or had some other county business.

This is a shame.

Like many small towns across America, Brunswick feels more past than present. It was founded in Colonial times and boomed as a port during World War II. Like Savannah, it has an old system of squares, massive live oaks and handsome old buildings in various states of repair. Its historic district features some elegant Victorians that have been lovingly restored.

Yet, Brunswick is also painfully poor. Just 11 miles from the billionaire acres of Sea Island, it is Third World. Streets are lined with dilapidated houses and shuttered business; too many are unfit for human habitation.

In one Census tract about a mile from the auditorium where Gravel was speaking, nearly 80 percent of children live in poverty. Predictably, almost all are African Americans.

In Brunswick you also see women walking with heavy grocery bags – but these women are on foot because there isn’t a bus and they can’t afford a car.

People here believe the best - and, maybe, only - solution is adding decent jobs. Breathing fresh economic life into Brunswick is part of that.

This is why the conversation hosted by the college is so important. (Full disclosure: I’m on the college’s board of trustees and hounded Gravel into speaking.)

While the scale is obviously different, the reality that confronted Beltline dreamers wasn’t so different from the reality in Brunswick. The old rail lines snaked through and divided Atlanta neighborhoods of very different races and economic realities. The poor black neighborhoods south of Ponce de Leon seemed as distant from the wealthy white neighborhoods around Piedmont Park as Brunswick slums are from Sea Island.

The Beltline succeeded because its backers in the early days embraced this reality. “The community had a sense of ownership and authorship,” Gravel said.

Its supporters included people from both sides of the tracks - literally. The Beltline became their idea.

“While these neighborhoods are very different in their demographics, they were fairly much aligned and saw themselves as part of a shared future,” he said.

“Diversity is important,” Gravel told the crowd. “Having a great idea is great, but it has to resonate with all people and have the economic opportunity and it all has to come together at the same time.”

He expressed some concern that the Beltline could lose its way in delivering on this shared future – particularly when it comes to transit and affordable housing.

“We’re not going to be able to all it a success if it’s not a success for everybody,” he said.

Another key ingredient – perhaps the ingredient in Gravel's mind – is a set of core values to ensure development is an authentic expression of a place's identity. "You can't really grow into the best version of yourself unless you know who you are," he said.

To get at this question, Gravel worked on a project with Tim Keane, Atlanta’s planning commissioner. This work is urgent, Gravel said. The Atlanta region is expected grow 2.5 million in next 20 years – tripling the central city’s population.

“That’s like moving Charlotte to Atlanta in 20 years without doing anything about regional transportation,” he said. “What that will do is place an enormous economic pressure on the urban core to grow – the places that are walkable, with access to MARTA today. These places are already at the frontlines of gentrification.

“The challenges around equity, inclusion and affordability will be even more.”

So, what – or who - is Atlanta?

“We kept coming back to this idea that Atlanta’s contribution of the world is the legacy of the civil rights movement,” Gravel said. “Literally, the prosperity of the region stands on the shoulders of that movement.”

He worked with Keane to produce a report: “The Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community.”

The “beloved community” was Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for the world once the work of the civil rights movement is completed. (As if.)

“It was not an abstract place but a real place where everybody could live and live in harmony together,” Gravel said. “That was supposed to be a real place.”

Of course it isn’t real in Atlanta – yet. But maybe it will be one day.

It isn’t real in Brunswick yet either.

But we’ll be closer when women in Brunswick carry their grocery bags only because they want the exercise.