Every aspect of the Atlanta BeltLine project is carefully considered, discussed, reviewed, and designed to optimize its ability to provide equitable access and opportunity for all. As the Director of Design, Kevin Burke coordinates and oversees design and construction of all public spaces along the corridor, so he has a hand in virtually every phase of the project. In this month’s staff spotlight, we learn more about Kevin and his important work for the BeltLine.
Kevin Burke grew up in a small town in New Jersey and recalls living in a house on a hill with a view of the distant Empire State Building. His father operated a lumber and hardware business where Kevin worked summers. His mom was an artist and flew freight cargo for Flying Tiger. His parents divorced one another twice, and he is the youngest of their four children.
After struggling through boarding school, he found it difficult to get into college. He ultimately enrolled at Utah State and decided to also take advantage of the surroundings. Kevin says, “my priority was finding as many opportunities to ski as I could. I registered for an early class that allowed me to wrap up and be at the resort before the lifts opened.” That class turned out to be landscape architecture and contributed to him completing his degree in ornamental horticulture.
He spent the following decade working for a Long Island landscape architecture firm. In 1990, he started his own high-end residential landscape design firm, but an economic downturn limited his prospects. Struggling to make the business succeed and now married with twins on the way, Kevin joined a Boston firm and worked on numerous projects at Harvard and was involved in landscape work related to the massive Boston infrastructure project known as “the Big Dig.” He continued working on other large-scale projects, including landscape management for the Mass Turnpike and helping with quality control for its surface parks.
By 2008, Kevin’s former Mass Turnpike colleague, Fred Yalouris, had moved to Atlanta to serve as Director of Design for the Atlanta BeltLine and he reached out to Kevin to gauge his interest in working with him. Kevin and his wife had discussed leaving New England and “going somewhere you don’t have to shovel snow and freeze your behind off,” so Atlanta had great appeal. Kevin was hired as an Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. Landscape Architect in January 2009.
BeltLine team members often seek out meaningful ways to connect with the community so, together with Meghan Injaychock, Kevin established an organic landcare symposium to show community members better ways to manage their own personal yards and appreciate such efforts in public spaces. Kevin says, “Most people spread chemicals on their landscape, which basically kills everything in the soil. Then you must continuously add fertilizer on top of fertilizer. If you skip the chemicals and build up the microbiology in the soil, you can achieve ‘nutrient cycling’ which becomes a closed-loop system that feeds on itself and you don’t need fertilizer at all.”
In 2011, Kevin submitted the Historic Fourth Ward Park (H4WP) for consideration by the newly formed Sustainable Sites Initiative (SSI), which certifies outdoor spaces and streetscapes similar to LEED designations for buildings. Because the park’s development plans predated SSI’s program requirements, grasses used for the project made it ineligible for SSI approval. The park met all other criteria, so Kevin was disappointed but undeterred. By 2018, the program had been renamed SITES, and Kevin was able to establish a requirement for all future BeltLine greenspace projects to be designed to SITES certification standards, including Enota Park and Boulevard Crossing Park.
One SITES requirement is the use of an integrated design team, meaning everyone working on a park’s development is involved from the very start. Kevin points to Enota Park on the Westside Trail as an example of why this can be so critical. “Because the arborist was involved as we were planning this trail through the trees, he identified two specimen trees that needed to be preserved. It resulted in a realignment of the layout of the trail. Without an integrated design process, those trees may have been lost.” Kevin says this also produces better designs with fewer change orders, and that can reduce delays and cost overruns. SITES certification also greatly increases the chances of qualifying for federal funding assistance.
Kevin was promoted to Director of Design in 2019 after Fred Yalouris retired. He says it is “a unique opportunity as a landscape architect to lead a process like this and I love what I do. Almost 13 years in, I am still as passionate for this project as I was when I started.” He recalls showing H4WP to a neighborhood leader upon its completion and having her say it was so much more than expected. “Having a member of the community say that about the work you’ve done – that’s what it’s all about.”
Kevin already has his sights set on another important SITES distinction. Design work on the Westside Trail extension is in line to become the first multi-use trail segment in the country to achieve SITES certification. Kevin points out that landscape architecture is geared for long-term impact. “We are doing a legacy project. It’s not about what things look like today. It’s all about what it will look like 10, 20, 50 or 100 years from now.” He notes the evolution of the landscape work on the Westside Trail near the Lee + White development in just the last five years and says that and other BeltLine plantings will mature exponentially over time.
Kevin says the beauty of the BeltLine is that it continues to evolve, and he feels “this project is fundamentally changing the urban fabric of a major American city in a way that I don’t think even Ryan Gravel truly envisioned as far as its impact.” When Kevin is not reshaping the BeltLine, he enjoys working in his yard where he tends to over 100 different plants. He has grown twin daughters and lives in Kirkwood with his wife of 45 years.