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book review

In this Nov. 20, 2012 photo, a couple walks along the Atlanta BeltLine as the midtown skyline stands in the background in Atlanta.David Goldman/The Associated Press

Ryan Gravel had a dream: to turn 22 miles of railway tracks into a new park.

And not just a park, looping around the city of Atlanta, but also a corridor for light-rail transit, an engine for new development and a symbol that could redefine the sprawling, car-choked city region for the 21st century.

This is the sort of vision that architecture and planning students – as Gravel was in the late 1990s – cook up all the time. "It had the advantage," he writes in his new book, "of being unfettered by reality." But remarkably, Gravel's dream is largely coming true: The Atlanta BeltLine is becoming the largest revitalization project in the city's history.

This is a local story, but it echoes one of the grand themes in contemporary city-building: the transformation of industrial relics into new public amenities. Projects such as the BeltLine are taking sites such as port land and rail corridors and converting them to amenities to serve the populations that are moving back into central cities. "People everywhere are reclaiming infrastructure as renewed conduits of urban life," Gravel writes.

In Where We Want to Live, Gravel, an urban designer who speaks and consults on this theme across North America, explains why that matters. His book is part memoir, partly an argument about what's wrong with suburban sprawl and partly an argument about how infrastructure shapes our society and how – from roads to rivers – it can be thoughtfully repurposed.

These ideas are interconnected. When Gravel talks about "infrastructure," he is using one of the great catch-all terms in city-building. It refers to rails, yes, and highways, and also transit and bike and walking paths. These physical systems "breathe life into streets and public spaces and give each district or place its identity," Gravel says. This is true equally of the boulevards of Haussmann's Paris and the highways of Ontario's 905 region.

Gravel was born in 1972, and he grew up in an outer-Atlanta district slightly older than he was. He and his family "were settled comfortably in the marriage between suburban life and automobiles," he says. He was, in short, like tens of millions of Americans – and Canadians – of his generation. Roads shaped his life, nobody took the bus and the city was foreign territory.

When he left for Atlanta as a student, he writes, "I had no idea where I was." He had to discover the history of that city, and also what living in a metropolis could mean. A year in Paris helped, giving him the theatre of the street and of the Métro: "There were kids gossiping about friends, men in suits reading Le Monde, women with small dogs and dark hair, artists, couriers, salespeople and tourists."

An American goes to Paris and discovers the sophistication of urban life. It's a cliché, but the next part of the tale is not: Gravel returned home determined to make Atlanta a little bit more Parisian.

He had good timing. The dawn of the 2000s found Atlanta, like many North American cities, poised for a rebirth. And the BeltLine, the idea that he had developed in graduate school, quickly caught on. Why? It became a magnet for all sorts of public-policy initiatives, aligned to a new vision of urban life.

The catchphrase is "the livable city," and it refers to a city that is scaled for people, not cars; where buildings and blocks hold a mixture of workplaces and residences; where there are generous and robust public spaces that encourage people to gather, just as they do on a Paris boulevard. In a nutshell, it means building cities as people did before the era of the car.

Gravel makes a case – as cogent as any I've seen – for why governments need to favour this form of development and stop subsidizing sprawl.

But he is eager to present his solution. The BeltLine builds on history to restore a city fabric that was cut up by highways and wide streets – by an agenda of "urban renewal" that saw neighbourhoods, especially those that were home to people of colour, as disposable. "I knew the neighbourhoods," Gravel writes, "and I liked the idea of linking them together both physically and conceptually in ways that they had not been connected before." This is a powerful idea.

And it is not, as Gravel himself acknowledges, a new one. His thesis was built on at least two preceding schemes in Atlanta; and "rails-to-trails" projects happened elsewhere in the 1980s in the United States and Canada. But the time was ripe; such schemes are complete or under way in the centres of several cities.

Including New York. There, the High Line, a park along an elevated rail line in Manhattan, has become one of the city's most popular attractions. It is a fine (and pricey) piece of landscape architecture, bringing a dash of wild flora into the urban grid. It's also beautiful; there is a reason it is on the cover of Gravel's book.

But most of the new infrastructure projects ahead of us will be bigger, slower and less camera-ready – like the Atlanta BeltLine. Its first transit line is behind schedule, and the whole scheme will take decades to finish. It took 60 years for cars to reshape the way we live; building new routes into the future will be slow, but the work will reshape us too.

Alex Bozikovic is The Globe and Mail's architecture critic.

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