The Atlanta BeltLine all started with a master's thesis written in 1999 by then-Georgia Tech architecture and city planning student Ryan Gravel. Fifteen years later, Gravel and I are walking along a section of the BeltLine's Westside Trail, which is scheduled to be completed in 2016 — a couple years ahead of schedule thanks to an $18 million federal TIGER grant. Behind the trailhead is an abandoned shell of a warehouse, which stands on the site of Atlanta's first car factory. Trains stopped running here three decades ago, and a few miles of right-of-way have been cleared as a hiking path. I ask Gravel if he walked the full 22-mile loop when researching his thesis. "I did — but in lots of small trips," he says. "There were places you had to use a machete." Gravel is self-deprecating for someone who is a rock star in urban planning circles. He speaks at conferences, gave a TEDx Talk, and is working on a book.
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