Hyperbole about the Atlanta BeltLine is a balloon that keeps rising. The public-private partnership funding the construction of miles of trails and parks while fueling a real-estate boom (at least along the Eastside Trail) has become a cultural juggernaut. Atlanta’s national cachet, self-confidence, and the mystique of the BeltLine are now tightly braided. Despite incisive criticism of the funding mechanism which has shafted the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and of the gentrification of neighborhoods along the BeltLine, there remains an aura of infallibility. The BeltLine, we hear, is the game changer.
“We don’t have a river, we don’t have a beachfront, we don’t have a hill that everybody climbs, some kind of geographic marker where you go to run into people,” Shipman says. “This is in essence becoming our beachfront without a beach. It’s our boardwalk.”
That tribute to Atlanta’s “High Line” is from Doug Shipman, CEO of the Center for Civil and Human Rights. He is, of course, hardly alone in depicting the BeltLine as the city’s definitive, unifying public space.
Another museum — one more intimately tied to the BeltLine — is currently turning over much of its exhibition space to a sedulous homage. The BeltLine, it turns out, is both high art as well as a civic and life savior. In an exhibition that began in April and continues through August 9, the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) extols the BeltLine’s aesthetic and practical blessings. MODA’s relatively recent relocation across the street from the High Museum has certainly been a boon to Midtown, and they often unveil thoughtful, edifying exhibitions. “Design for Healthy Living,” however, makes dubious claims and is uncomfortably close to a paid advertisement or design-y propaganda.
The Atlanta BeltLine Museum?
The exhibit “explores the impact of the built environment on human health and presents specific design strategies that are used to promote routine physical activity and healthy living.”
“Design for Healthy Living” features examples of smart growth buildings and design strategies that have been constructed or are in the works in Chattanooga, Denver, Summerville, Massachusetts, and Atlanta. Mostly featuring texts and images that neatly delineate the design strategies that have purportedly promoted a more active lifestyle, particularly biking, the exhibit is exceptionally interactive. The dark visual backdrop for the heart of the exhibit features the essential keywords:
The centerpiece of this exhibit is the BeltLine. Effusively, this project is presented as a success story that is slaying the dragons of sprawl, traffic nightmares and excessive dependence on car culture, and spawning healthful green spaces. In the future “Design for Healthy Living” foresees, there will be Atlanta Streetcar stops all over the BeltLine, ferrying weary joggers home or back to work (but will it still be free?).
The blue-sky optimism of “Design for Healthy Living” is underscored by its presentation of the approaching moment of renewal in the downtown area around Turner Field, soon to be abandoned by the Cobb County Braves. Clipboards on the wall hold patrons’ written suggestions for how the area can be redesigned.
When I visited, most of the answers involved more green space. However, one wry dissent read:
National monument for short lived experiments in urban renewal
As Michael Kahn notes in a review for ArtsATL, “the exhibition is more a platform for advocacy than a realistic reckoning of the needs and the complexities of realizing such projects.” Touting walkability, for example, elides “the highly divisive issues of cost and political tensions that arise when Atlantans are threatened with a loss of lane space.” Kahn also questions the uncomplicated presentation of the Atlanta Streetcar, “highlighting solely the merits of the system while omitting mention of cost overruns and the protracted construction timeline.” (A lurid recitation of these and other possible shortcomings of the Streetcar has recently appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution)
However wholesome “Design for Healthy Living”‘s openness to civic participation, it strains credulity to think our comments on a museum wall will influence politicians, developers and designers of multi-million-dollar projects. As Kahn puts it, “Without acknowledgement of the effort, planning and politics that are part of the process, urban planning seems effortless. This makes the show appear naïve or overly idealistic.”
The exhibit’s insistence that biking, walking, jogging, or taking yoga classes in the parks along the BeltLine will produce a measurable drop in Atlanta’s obesity overlooks two basic things. First, Americans grow fat mostly due to the processed foods and sugary beverages we consume (you’ll spend a whole day on the BeltLine walking off that bottle of Coke). Second, Atlanta is already abundantly endowed with parks, paths and trails of all sorts (as demonstrated in Jonah McDonald’s new book). The BeltLine certainly augments that bounty, but it is hardly the only option for those who want to “get moving.”
Tallying the number of bikers on the BeltLine does not measure how much Atlanta embraces healthy living. How many people are eating and drinking without discipline at the patio bars and on condo balconies sprouting all along the BeltLine? How many peruse the artisanal offerings at Xocolatl Small Batch Chocolate at Krog Street Market and select the small bag priced at $9.50 labeled, “Trail mix for your Beltline stroll?”
Moreover, focusing on how we can get people moving distracts attention both from the pressing problem of Atlanta’s food deserts and the persistence of poverty, racism, and wealth inequality. As for the environmental benefits of the BeltLine, sustainable design is admirable, but until mixed-use projects are more fully connected to transit development, our car culture remains dominant.
“Design for Healthy Living” raises excessive expectations of the BeltLine and fails to question its peculiar sponsors, such as Coca-Cola and Porsche. We have little difficulty imagining why the soda barons donate money to get kids moving in BeltLine parks, as such philanthropy burnishes the corporate brand while concealing the true source of childhood obesity. Perhaps a more bemusing detail appeared recently on the BeltLine’s Facebook page, which proudly announced the hefty donation from Porsche. This good news quickly garnered over 500 “Likes” and a number of grateful comments. Only a few naysayers noted that APS would love some of that cheddar, and that, as one put it, “it’s odd to accept money from a car company for a project designed to get us out of our cars.”
Such insights will have to come from spaces beyond the walls of MODA and its neighbor, Perkins+Will, headquarters of BeltLine Corridor Design.