How much has the conversation on the Atlanta BeltLine evolved over the past eight years? One need only look to the upcoming race for Atlanta’s next mayor.

This point was made clear at a recent dinner event in Sandy Springs, a city in the suburbs just north of Atlanta. The featured speaker was Ryan Gravel, the originator of the Atlanta BeltLine concept.

In his remarks to a packed room, Ryan Gravel reflected on where the BeltLine was eight years ago when Atlanta’s current Mayor Kasim Reed was still a candidate. Ryan made the point that, during the campaign, ALL of the mayoral candidates went on record in support of the Atlanta BeltLine. At that time, he noted, “you couldn’t get elected as mayor in City of Atlanta without supporting the BeltLine.” He went on to say, “That’s pretty incredible, particularly because the project didn’t exist at the time.”

Fast forward eight years. The first segment of the BeltLine, the Eastside Trail has opened and is hugely popular. People are flocking to the trail and the neighborhoods and businesses that surround it. The reality of the BeltLine has changed the conversation in a very real way.

I asked Ryan how the next mayor might leave his mark in defining the next phase of the BeltLine. His response focused on the urgent need to address affordability and the complex range of issues that go beyond the continued construction of the trail. Simply put, next time around it will not be enough to simply be “for” the BeltLine.

As we head into the mayor’s race and an important election season, I can think of no better place to understand the interplay of the issues raised by the story of the Atlanta BeltLine than in City on the Verge.  Mark Pendergrast is masterful at using the BeltLine as a lens for viewing and understanding the city as a whole. I hope that each of our mayoral candidates will read this book and will take to heart both the concerns and the issues that are raised, along with the opportunity that lies before us. As Mark articulates so well, Atlanta is a city that is on the verge of something great. Whether Atlanta will live up to its great promise is the challenge facing the next mayor.

Ryan’s talk about the Atlanta BeltLine was inspired. He made the point that the Atlanta BeltLine isn’t just about Atlanta, it is about places like Sandy Springs and about cities across the United States. He talked not just about a trail, but about a change in mindset. He closed with a slide that stated: “It is more than infrastructure. It’s a new way of life.”

Then came a real-life parable. Following Ryan’s talk, Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul announced that a fire had erupted on the Interstate and that a major section of I-85 had collapsed. The experience returning by car to my home near downtown underscored the fragility of the way we live now. Several people posted online that “this” was Atlanta’s defining moment. This is the time to dust off your bike, to ride transit, to make a change in how you get from Point A to Point B.

As I think of the infrastructure around us, I find myself taking a longer view. This is about more than the dreaded Atlanta commute. This is about how we live and where we live.   The Atlanta BeltLine and our emerging network of trails and greenspaces are offering more than a transportation solution. They are offering a different way of life.

By Michael Halicki, Executive Director, Park Pride

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