Walt Ray grew up on a river in rural, northwest Pennsylvania — the Alleghany River, to be exact. When he wasn’t working on the family farm, Ray spent summers, evenings and weekends in and around the river, hiking, climbing, paddling and “getting lost,” he laughs.
“We worked hard all summer on the farm, so when hay season was over, our reward was an overnight trip down the Alleghany River with my dad,” Ray says. “He would be in the johnboat, and my brothers and I would be in canoes.”
Ray developed a passion for the outdoors in his childhood, and he also had an interest in design. Landscape architecture was the perfect marriage. After a spontaneous visit to Clemson during a spring break trip to the beach, Ray rescinded his acceptance to Penn State and enrolled in the University’s fledgling landscape architecture program.
“[Clemson] felt like an extension of sort of how I’d grown up, you know,” he says. “Small town, small size, very approachable — and lovely, of course.”
A member of the landscape architecture program’s third graduating class, Ray stayed in Clemson for another two years to earn his master’s in horticulture.
Eventually, he settled in Atlanta and launched his career in an urban design studio, where he fell in love with planning and designing the public realm: “I want to set the stage on which people are going to live and work and play. I learned how to engage the public — how to ask questions and learn about what communities need.”
Eleven years as the founding director of the Park Visioning program at the nonprofit Park Pride followed, a job in which Ray got to design 32 parks for communities in Atlanta. He was working for the City of Atlanta when he saw the job posting for director of the Chattahoochee Program for the Trust for Public Land, which entailed activating and preserving the Chattahoochee River and its valley from Helen to Columbus, Georgia — about 285 miles.
“If I could have ever written my own job description, this would be it,” Ray says.
One of the first things Ray did as director was convene the Chattahoochee Working Group, a loose organization of representatives from cities, counties and nonprofits in the region, in an effort to get conversations started about the development of the river, which is currently in recovery from heavy pollution in the ’60s.
Along with the Working Group and Scape, a landscape architecture firm out of New York City, Ray and many partner organizations drew up plans for what is called the Chattahoochee RiverLands, the 100-mile stretch of river that winds through metro Atlanta. The plans include a shared-path greenway; river amenities, like boat ramps, kayak launches and campsites; and tributary trails to help visitors reach the river.
The project is now moving into the implementation phase, which Ray knows will take a generation or more to fully realize. But it’s the scope and scale of the project that excite him, and he knows it will only be accomplished by working together, in tandem with each community impacted by the river.
“The RiverLands will really be the mark that I leave on the planet,” Ray says. “And I think it’s a wonderful legacy.”