is from my metro card
when I spent a year abroad in Paris in college in the mid-’90s.
My friend says I look like a French anarchist —
But this is still what I see
when I look in the mirror in the morning.
Within a month of living in Paris, I’d lost 15 pounds
and I was in the best shape of my life
because I was eating fresh food
and I was walking wherever I went.
Having grown up in suburban Atlanta,
a region built largely by highways and automobiles
and with a reputation as a poster child for sprawl,
Paris fundamentally changed the way I understood
the construction of the world around me,
and I got obsessed with the role of infrastructure —
that it’s not just the way to move people from point A to point B,
it’s not just the way to convey water or sewage or energy,
but it’s the foundation for our economy.
It’s the foundation for our social life and for our culture,
and it really matters to the way that we live.
When I came home, I was instantly frustrated,
stuck in traffic as I crossed the top end of our perimeter highway.
Not only was I not moving a muscle,
I had no social interaction
with the hundreds of thousands of people that were hurtling past me,
like me, with their eyes faced forward and their music blaring.
I wondered if this was an inevitable outcome,
or could we do something about it.
Was it possible to transform this condition in Atlanta
into the kind of place that I wanted to live in?
I went back to grad school in architecture and city planning,
developed this interest in infrastructure,
and in 1999 came up with an idea
for my thesis project:
the adaptation of an obsolete loop of old railroad circling downtown
as a new infrastructure for urban revitalization.
It was just an idea.
I never thought we would actually build it.
But I went to work at an architecture firm,
and eventually talked to my coworkers about it,
and they loved the idea.
And as we started talking to more people about it,
more people wanted to hear about it.
In the summer of 2001,
we connected with Cathy Woolard,
who was soon elected city council president.
And we built a citywide vision around this idea:
the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile loop
of transit and trails and transformation.
I was doing two and three meetings a week for two and a half years,
and so was Cathy and her staff and a handful of volunteers.
Together, we built this amazing movement of people and ideas.
It included community advocates who were used to fighting against things,
but found the Atlanta BeltLine as something that they could fight for;
developers who saw the opportunity
to take advantage of a lot of new growth in the city;
and dozens of nonprofit partners who saw their mission
at least partly accomplished by the shared vision.
Now, usually these groups of people aren’t at the same table
wanting the same outcome.
But there we were, and it was kind of weird,
but it was really, really powerful.
The people of Atlanta fell in love with a vision
that was better than what they saw through their car windshields,
and the people of Atlanta made it happen,
我敢说 没有他们 我们根本做不到这些
and I guarantee you we would not be building it otherwise.
From the beginning, our coalition was diverse.
People of all stripes were part of our story.
People on the lower end of the economic spectrum loved it, too.
They were just afraid they weren’t going to be able to be there
when it got built, that they’d be priced out.
And we’ve all heard that kind of story before, right?
But we promised that the Atlanta BeltLine would be different,
and people took ownership of the idea,
and they made it better than anything we ever imagined
in the beginning,
including significant subsidies for housing,
new parks, art, an arboretum — a list that continues to grow.
And we put in place
the organizations and agencies that were required to make it happen.
And importantly, it is.
Now we’re in the early stages of implementation, and it’s working.
The first mainline section of trail was opened in 2012,
and it’s already generated over three billion dollars
of private-sector investment.
But it’s not only changing the physical form of the city,
it’s changing the way we think about the city,
and what our expectations are for living there.
About a month ago,
I had to take my kids with me to the grocery store
and they were complaining about it,
because they didn’t want to get in the car.
他们说 “爸爸 要是我们必须去
They were saying, “Dad, if we have to go,
can we at least ride our bikes?”
然后我回答 “当然可以 ”
And I said, “Of course we can.
That’s what people in Atlanta do.
We ride our bikes to the grocery store.”
Thank you, yeah.
Now, they don’t know how ridiculous that is,
but I do.
And I also understand that their expectations for Atlanta
are really powerful.
This kind of transformation is exactly like sprawl
in the last century,
the movement where our investment in highways and automobiles
fundamentally changed American life.
That wasn’t some grand conspiracy.
There were conspiracies within it, of course.
But it was a cultural momentum.
It was millions of people making millions of decisions
over an extended period of time,
that fundamentally changed not only the way that we build cities,
but it changed our expectations
for our lives.
These changes were the foundations for urban sprawl.
We didn’t call it sprawl at that time.
We called it the future.
And it was.
我们得到了梦寐以求的高速公路 大型购物商场 和幽静巷尾
And we got all the highways and strip malls and cul-de-sacs we wanted.
It was a radical transformation,
but it was built by a cultural momentum.
So it’s important to not separate
the physical construction of the places we live
from other things that are happening at that time.
At that time,
in the second half of the last century,
science was curing disease
and lifting us to the moon,
and the sexual revolution was breaking down barriers,
and the Civil Rights Movement began its march
toward the fulfillment of our nation’s promise.
Television, entertainment, food, travel, business — everything was changing,
and both the public and private sectors were colluding
to give us the lives we wanted.
The Federal Highway Administration,
for example, didn’t exist before there were highways.
Think about it.
Of course, today it’s important to understand and acknowledge
that those benefits accrued to some groups of people
and not to others.
It was not an equitable cultural momentum.
But when we look today in wonder and disgust, maybe,
at the metropolis sprawl before us,
we wonder if we’re stuck.
Are we stuck with the legacy of that inequity?
Are we stuck with this dystopian traffic hellscape?
Are we stuck with rampant urban displacement
with environmental degradation?
Are we stuck with social isolation
or political polarization?
Are these the inevitable and permanent outcomes?
Or are they the result of our collective cultural decisions
that we’ve made for ourselves?
And if they are,
can’t we change them?
What I have learned from our experience in Atlanta
is not an anomaly.
Similar stories are playing out everywhere,
where people are reclaiming not only old railroads,
but also degraded urban waterways and obsolete roadways,
reinventing all of the infrastructure
in their lives.
Whether here in New York
or in Houston
Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore,
Toronto and Paris,
cities big and small all over the world are reclaiming and reinventing
this infrastructure for themselves,
including the mother of all catalyst infrastructure projects,
the Los Angeles River,
the revitalization effort for which similarly started
as a grassroots movement,
has developed into a cultural momentum,
and is now in the early stages of being transformed
into some kind of life-affirming infrastructure again,
this one with trails and parks and fishing and boating
and community revitalization,
and of course, water quality and flood control.
It’s already improving the lives of people.
It’s already changing the way the rest of us think about Los Angeles.
This is more than just infrastructure.
We’re building new lives for ourselves.
It’s a movement that includes local food, urban agriculture,
craft beer, the maker movement,
tech and design — all of these things, early indicators of a really radical shift
in the way we build cities.
We’re taking places like this
and transforming them into this.
And soon this.
And this is all exciting and good.
We’re changing the world for the better.
Good for us!
And it is awesome — I mean that.
But our history of sprawl,
and from what we can already see with these catalyst projects today,
we know and must remember
that big changes like this don’t usually benefit everyone.
The market forces unleashed by this cultural momentum
often include the seemingly unstoppable
and inevitable cycle of rising taxes, prices and rents.
This is urgent.
If we care, we have to stand up
and speak out.
This should be a call to action,
because the answer can’t be to not improve communities.
The answer can’t be to not build parks and transit and grocery stores.
The answer can’t be to hold communities down
just to keep them affordable.
But we do have to follow through and address the financial realities
that we’re facing.
This is hard, and it won’t happen on its own.
We can do it, and I’m committed to this goal in Atlanta,
to sticking up again for people who made it possible in the first place.
We can’t call it a success without them.
I certainly can’t,
because the people I made commitments to all those years
weren’t abstract populations.
They’re my friends and neighbors.
They’re people that I love.
So even though it started as my graduate thesis
and I’m working hard for 16 years with thousands of people
to help make this thing come to life,
I know and believe that who the BeltLine is being built for
is just as important as whether it’s built at all.
Not just in Atlanta,
but locally and globally,
we have to understand
this accountability to the people whose lives we are changing,
because this is us.
We are the lives we’re talking about.
These places aren’t inevitable.
The places we live aren’t inevitable,
and if we want something different, we just need to speak up.
We have to ensure that change comes on our terms.
And to do that,
we have to participate actively in the process of shaping change.