Meaningful Work – The BeltLine Story

We talk a lot about meaningful work at The New School. On Sunday we had a chance to experience a living example.

On a perfect fall afternoon we set out with our daughter’s 3rd grade Girl Scout troop to bike a two-mile stretch of the Atlanta BeltLine Trail, from Krog Street to Piedmont Park. Our guide for the excursion was Ryan Gravel, father of one of those Girl Scouts and the person who, as a Georgia Tech student, came up with the idea of the BeltLine.

Like many great ideas, the concept of the BeltLine evolved over a period of years. As an undergraduate architecture student, Ryan was interested in transportation issues. During a year he spent studying in Paris, Ryan lived near some old train tracks that the city had repurposed into green space and retail space. The idea for the BeltLine began to percolate when he returned to Atlanta, ultimately becoming Ryan’s master’s thesis at Tech.

At this point, the work that Ryan had done on the idea of the BeltLine was meaningful to him. But it didn’t become meaningful to a larger audience for a couple of years, when Ryan took his thesis and pitched it to Atlanta city government officials. Cathy Woolard, soon to become City Council President, liked the idea, as did then-mayor Shirley Franklin.

It’s tempting to say, “and the rest is history.” But the history of the BeltLine has only just begun. That 2-mile stretch we biked with the Girl Scouts is less than 10% of the old rail line that encircles central Atlanta. Ryan works at the design firm Perkins+Will where he’s helping to oversee the BeltLine’s design, complete with light rail, access to MARTA and other regional transit options, retail shops, restaurants, and more. Ryan is quick to point out how others have taken up his original idea and taken it in directions he never imagined.

Out riding on the BeltLine on a beautiful fall afternoon, it was easy to forget that it was all the idea of some college kid. Some college kid following his passion and doing meaningful work.

The good news is that kids don’t have to wait to do meaningful work. The first class of freshmen at The New School will engage in an extended project examining the evolution of transportation in Atlanta and its impact on our political and cultural life, as well as our environment. Working with partners at the BeltLine, CSX and Hartsfield Jackson (among others), students will complete original research and present their work to an audience of experts in the city. As teachers, we will help students identify and pursue their particular interests within the scope of the project. Who knows? New School students may hatch the next great transportation innovation in Atlanta.