Greenprint Summit examines southern success stories

The Mid-South Regional Greenprint Summit examined success stories of building green infrastructures in Atlanta and Nashville, while looking at what’s working in the Bluff City.

Celebrating the region’s green accomplishments is focus of the Mid-South Regional Greenprint. But at this summer’s biannual Greenprint Summit, it was also a time to look at examples of greenways in Atlanta and Nashville to examine how those communities are connecting citizens and neighborhoods while growing green infrastructure.

The summit featured two keynote addresses before a panel discussion. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean gave the first keynote and was followed by Ryan Gravel, Sixpitch founding principal, visionary for Atlanta BeltLine and author of “Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities.” Former Shelby Farms Park Conservancy Executive Director Laura Morris joined Dean and Gravel on the panel that was moderated by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News Publishing Co. Inc.

Dean’s keynote looked at how his administration focused on the aspects of economic development that center on quality of life for citizens, including the addition of greenways and bike lanes.

“People want to live in cities that reflect their values, are good for their health and has things that they can do, get outdoors and exercise,” he said.

There wasn’t always a focus on green infrastructure in Nashville, much like Memphis. Morris opened the panel discussion talking about the lack of popularity at Shelby Farms Park 10 to 15 years ago and how it has grown by leaps and bounds through the years.

“In 2007, even then, the conversation was so different,” she said. “There was one bike lane. No Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. No Overton Park Conservancy. We were nowhere in terms of parks and greenways.”

It was also in 2007 when a convening of groups concerned with the greening of Memphis occurred. Forty-two advocacy groups were invited and they all showed up. It was a hint of things to come, from bike lanes to the Shelby Farms Greenline and the construction of the Wolf River Greenway.

For Dean and Nashville, getting stakeholders involved early was important. He appointed a green ribbon committee of about 40 people from various sectors in the community to work on an environmental plan. Out of that came an office of environment and sustainability that could work with various community nonprofits and the green ribbon committee. Also out of the green ribbon’s plan came the mayor’s bicycle and pedestrian advisory council.

Gravel’s understanding of how infrastructure impacts a community’s health came while studying abroad in Paris where he ate fresh food and walked a lot. He also observed the wide open boulevards that encouraged movement and community.

The idea of those grand boulevards and how they brought social benefits to Paris as public spaces wasn’t lost on Gravel when he returned to his home of Atlanta and continued his education at Georgia Tech. In looking for a thesis project, Gravel bridged design and planning with what he saw growing up in suburban Atlanta where massive road projects left urban communities behind.

The thesis idea took a loop of old railroads around the city and connected them to a transit line with a parallel greenway trail that connects to existing trails. Working at an architecture firm after he graduated in 1999, Gravel was involved in the adaptation of an industrial building into lofts. The building sat next to an old rail line.

The firm had to decide if it would jam a parking garage against the railroad, or possibly face the lofts to the rail line in hopes it one day would be something. From that development came discussions that ultimately led to a grassroots effort to support what would become known as the Atlanta BeltLine.

Once complete, the Atlanta BeltLine will touch 45 neighborhoods over its 22-mile stretch of those old rail lines around the city that Gravel once envisioned. Some 100,000 people live within walking distance of the path. The BeltLine opens up what at one time were barriers between communities in the old industrial lands along the abandoned rail lines.

Six miles have been built and another five miles are under construction.

“At the end of the day the east side BeltLine is just a two-mile slab of concrete but it demonstrates pent-up demand for cultural life in the city,” Gravel said. “That’s what infrastructure is supposed to do.”

In Nashville, developments now keep the 80 miles of greenways trails that follow the area’s many rivers in mind. For example, when the city’s Ascend Amphitheater opened last year on the Downtown banks of the Cumberland River the city’s greenway connected to it, giving concertgoers another transportation option instead of automobiles.

Efforts like that will only increase as the city’s population continues to grow.

“One of the things driving our interest in open space is the fact we’re growing,” Dean said. “It’s projected greater Nashville will grow by 1 million people by 2035. It’s important that if you don’t preserve open space now the opportunity could be lost forever.”

Nashville has 180 miles of bikeways and also has been focused on improving sidewalks throughout the city. The city also has the B Cycle bike share program, which now has 34 stations and is used by locals and visitors alike.

“One of the reasons we do these parks, greenways and why bike lanes are important is because they’re important for our health,” Dean said. “One thing I became interested in was our city’s health.”

Dean pointed to the city’s 37 percent obesity rate in children as reason enough to focus on greenways.

“I don’t ever want to minimize the issue of personal responsibility but at the same time a city can make a healthy choice the easy choice,” he said. “If you can’t walk anywhere or bike or be in greenspace you’re less likely to get exercise. One of the important things about infrastructure investment is that we need to be healthy.”

There are concerns about certain communities getting left out of the greenways movement. The Wolf River Greenway project actually will touch typically underserved communities in North Memphis, Frayser and Raleigh as it eventually makes its 23-mile journey along the river east toward Germantown from just north of Mud Island.

Dean said communities must be deliberate to make sure everyone in a city is reached. He said it’s important that everyone thinks on a regional scale with concern about more than just a specific city or neighborhood.

“The motivators behind the Greenway system in Nashville is that it does link up the city,” he said. “It goes to all areas of the county. It can be enormous but it will by its own definition include everyone. We work to make sure we’re accomplishing that.”

Gravel admitted that gentrification of neighborhoods and people getting priced out of communities that sit near the BeltLine is a threat, especially as Atlanta is still in the early stages of construction and people want to be near the line.

“It gets to equity that we want to make sure every community has access,” he said. “You’re not going to have a Shelby Farms Park in every community but you can have access and parks in every community.”

Morris was asked about criticisms that Shelby Farms Park is too far east in Shelby County. She pointed out that the park is in the geographic center of the county, with roughly half of the county’s population living east of it. And when the opportunity to develop the Shelby Farms Greenline came about, the park jumped at it.

“We knew that Shelby Farms only mattered if it mattered to everyone,” she said. “It’s now roughly 11 miles from Tillman (Street) to Cordova with Shelby Farms at the center. We jump at the chance every chance we get to connect Shelby Farms to more people.”

Cities that develop a strong green infrastructure impact how its youth see the world, Gravel said.

“My world view growing up was the (Interstate) 25 Beltway,” he said, referring to the highway loop around Atlanta. “This is now her expectation, not only for Atlanta but for her life.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler.