Climate change requires people and governments to make decisions on scales that they’re not really good at dealing with. It’s frightening: We’ve known for decades that climate change was coming, but after 333 months of above-average temperatures across the surface of the globe and ever-stranger and more destructive weather events, we’ve only begun to deal with that reality.
Decisions we’re making right now will have impacts decades into the future, which is a problem if we’re deciding to dump carbon into atmosphere. But if we make the right choices—about how to get our power, how to build our buildings, and how to get from place to place—there’s a chance to start moving in the right direction.
Last week, for instance, the Sierra Club released a report looking at the opportunities available across the country to either build a transportation system that will keep the country on its current path or move it towards a better one. “Because transportation infrastructure lasts for decades, the impacts of transportation investments are felt for many years to come, with huge consequences for America’s ability to move beyond oil,” the group wrote. Cities and towns are deciding today whether in the next few decades the country will have a transportation system that lets us get around quickly and easily, without sending reams of greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the atmosphere, or whether even those of us who prefer public transportation will be stuck driving around in carbon-belching cars.
Atlanta’s Beltline project is a great example of this. The Sierra Club listed in it in last week’s report as one of the best transportation projects in the country, and Kaid Benfield, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s sustainable communities program, once called the Beltline “the country’s best smart growth project.” It's hugely ambitious, has taken years to even start creating, and will not be finished for another decade or two.
The idea for the Beltline started in a master’s thesis written in 1999. Ryan Gravel, an architect who studied at Georgia Tech, proposed that the historic railroad corridors that wound around Atlanta’s downtown core be put to better use. He envisioned repurposing the corridor a green loop that would connect neighborhoods and parks with walking paths, biking trails and public transit. A couple years later, friends pushed him to share the idea with officials in the city government, and over the next few years, with the support of groups like the local Sierra Club chapter, politicians in city council, and other boosters, the city decided to take on the challenge.
When the Beltline is finished, it’ll have brought 22 miles of light rail, 33 miles of multi-use trails for biking and walking, and 1,300 acres of park to the city.
The idea is to concentrate growth around this system, so that people can take advantage of the transit and the biking and walking routes to get around. The master plan includes affordable housing investments and strategies for spurring private investment around the Beltline.
The first trails opened in 2008, and last year, three of the first parks built as part of the project opened to the public. There are regular tours that showcase the project and exhibits of local art along the corridor. The timeline for finishing the whole project, though, stretches out another two decades.
One of the next big projects that locals are excited about is the transformation of an abandoned quarry into drinking water reservoir and a park. “There's a reason AMC's "The Walking Dead" filmed several episodes of the zombie-apocalypse series in northwest Atlanta's now-closed Bellwood Quarry,“ wrote editor Thomas Wheatly in the city’s alt-weekly. “It's really freakin' cool.”
The Beltline’s a gigantic project, but if it’s built as planned, it should provide new ways for people to live and move around the city without sucking as much oil out of the ground and spitting it back out as carbon pollution. The more projects like this that start up now, the better off we’ll be in twenty years.
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Sarah Laskow has covered sustainability and the environment for Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications. She lives in New York City.