The Inspire Speakers Series returns this Thursday, March 30th at the Hillman Auditorium! Ryan Gravel, Tiffany Taulton, and Ashley Cox will be speaking about how communities can leverage their strengths in a changing world to create a sustainable and equitable future.
Ryan Gravel is an urban designer, author, and civic entrepreneur best known for his master’s thesis and early work that launched the Atlanta Beltline. He speaks with GBA about what inspires him, how to incorporate more natural elements into the built environment, and more.
Who or what has inspired your work?
Originally, I was inspired by Paris. I studied architecture there for a year in college and it changed my perspective on cities. I began to see public space and infrastructure as contributing to my quality of life. I saw how it makes things possible – or not possible – for our lives. That’s where the idea for the Atlanta Beltline came from. Today, I’m most inspired by the people who make big changes possible – the ordinary people in community groups who stand up and work toward a better, shared future. They made the Beltline possible. They brought this big crazy idea to life.
“ Today, I’m most inspired by the people who make big changes possible – the ordinary people in community groups who stand up and work toward a better, shared future. ”
Is there any knowledge or experience you have acquired throughout your recent projects that you would go back and apply to past projects?
My work is ultimately about changing our cultural expectations about the places we live. That’s a long arc of change that doesn’t come overnight, so I don’t usually second guess the past. I just try to apply the lessons we learn to the future. Several of these are in my book, Where We Want to Live – Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities, but if we want the future to include everyone, the short and simple answer is to base our decisions about the future city on questions like: Who is it for? Who makes the decisions? Who benefits? And then make sure those people have the resources they need to build the future they want, knowing that all of our lives will be made richer in the process.
What insights can Pittsburgh apply from projects like the Beltline?
Projects like the Atlanta Beltline can’t solve all our problems, but because they are tangible things with timelines and budgets that we can work on together, they offer an incredible opportunity to engage the complex, expensive, and interconnected nature of city building. And as we learn how to best address issues like housing affordability, economic opportunity, and climate resiliency, we can then begin to apply those lessons more comprehensively to the city at large.
“ The systems that support our cities – transportation, greenspace, public space, energy, water, waste – should be designed as part of our natural systems. ”
Nature as a concept is often seen as distant from the built environment. How can we challenge this perception to create more projects that synthesize natural and human-built environments?
I like to think of humans as an integral part of nature – as essential and active partners within an urban ecology. The systems that support our cities – transportation, greenspace, public space, energy, water, waste – should be designed as part of our natural systems. Not only will this make our communities more sustainable and resilient, but by engaging our local climate, topography, and other aspects of nature, the systems we build will also make our cities more beautiful and interesting because they will reflect the uniqueness of our place on the planet.
With cities facing growing population rates, what steps can community leaders take to ensure that the needs of all present and future residents are considered equitably?
The first step is to listen to people already working on the issues that matter most to that future city – typically housing and economic policy decisions and investments around affordability and inclusion. The second step is to bring the general public along on these issues so that when it is time to make decisions, leaders have the political cover to do make the best choice. And it is important to make progress, even baby steps, because as much as people may not want their city to change, not changing is not an option.
What are some unexpected ways you have seen individuals or communities positively transform their city?
Everywhere I go, I find people doing the hard work of organizing for a better, shared future. I’m always inspired by people who are willing to stick through the messy and unglamorous work of protecting the people and places that matter. I’m especially inspired by people who get behind big, transformative ideas that are commensurate with the scale of our challenges. That said, this kind of work requires hundreds, if not thousands of people. The Beltline may have begun as an individual’s idea, but it was the people and communities of Atlanta who brought it to life.