Trees Are Our Harbor: Celebrating Atlanta’s Natural Identity
By Joe Thomas, Events & Donor Relations Coordinator, Trees Atlanta
Atlanta BeltLine visionary Ryan Gravel is fond of saying that while Atlanta lacks the river, coastal, or mountain features of many major American cities, we do have a natural feature that defines us – our trees. My mom tells a story that many of us have heard before. Her best friend from high school, now a resident of the Dallas area (a city often unfairly equated with Atlanta), exclaimed upon flying into Hartsfield-Jackson “it’s so GREEN from above!” As many times as I’ve heard visitors say this, it will never get old. It fills me with pride, not as a tree advocate, but as an Atlantan. It’s the same as when I go to Denver and marvel over the Rockies, or Chicago and have to remind myself that Lake Michigan is a lake, not an ocean.
What we are talking about is the natural identity of our city. Boston has its harbor (or HAH-bah), San Francisco has the bay, and Pittsburgh has three rivers. Atlanta is in a forest. If we begin to think of our canopy in this way, it becomes less a collection of individual trees, and more a unit of civic pride. We truly become the” city in the forest”
For years Atlanta struggled with its identity – Henry Grady deemed the city the “Capital of the New South.” We were “The City Too Busy to Hate” for the Olympics, and then we were the gold standard of suburban sprawl. We are the hip-hop capital of the universe, for one more year “the home of the Braves,” and will always be recognizable by the first letter of our name, “the A.” From day one we have been a transportation hub, and the railroads that served as the spine on which our city was built have given way to the world’s busiest airport.
Some will tell you that this identity is under attack, that developers are wantonly removing trees to cash in on the current in-town real estate boom. While we have seen an alarming increase in the loss of some of our oldest trees due to construction, I see the influx of new planners, architects, and design firms as a real opportunity. We now have such a rich population of creative minds working on the built environment that it would be a waste of resources, frankly, to close out those folks and deem them the enemy. We have a real opportunity to engage with the development community, from concept to completion, to make Atlanta the vanguard in intelligent, forward-thinking building design that truly takes tree preservation into consideration and places an emphasis on creative use of space. Atlanta is such a great place to study the intersection of the natural and built environment; this should be no different.
The one constant through Atlanta’s evolution and growth has been our forest. The next time you’re out enjoying a festival, or walking the Atlanta BeltLine Arboretum, or hiking to the top of Arabia or Panola, imagine Atlanta without trees. Don’t spend too long doing it, you’ll make yourself sad. Trees are what make us… us. It’s what differentiates Atlanta from cities of the same size, and putting aside for a moment all of the great and not-so-great things about having a rapidly growing urban space, we have to be careful that we don’t lose that which makes us unique.
This is not an attempt to scare people – it’s a PR pitch, a rallying cry. We have something in Atlanta that everyone can latch on to, whether you’ve been here for three years or thirty. However, we have to promote it, nurture it, and keep it from disappearing. Atlanta’s identity is our forest – it is our harbor, our bay, our “three rivers.” It’s time that we celebrate it.