The New Normal. Connecting Across Boundaries.
By Judy Yi, Director of Education, Trees Atlanta
“This is not normal. This sort of collaboration amongst jurisdictions. This is unique.” Dr. Shawn Gillen, City Manager of Doraville, added, “I want to tip my hat to the mayors.” Dr. Gillen acknowledged the panel of mayors who launched the Peachtree Gateway Partnership, an innovative coalition among Metro Atlanta municipalities for strategic planning and development for their cities. The partnership demonstrates how smaller metro-area cities can work together for the mutual benefit of their region, resulting in more comprehensive greenspace projects.
Mayors John Ernst (Brookhaven), Eric Clarkson (Chamblee), and Denis Shortal (Dunwoody), along with Dr. Gillen representing Mayor Donna Pitman (Doraville), discussed the benefits of their formal partnership at the 2017 Mayors Symposium and Statewide Arbor Day Celebration hosted by Trees Atlanta, Georgia Forestry Commission, and the Georgia Urban Forest Council.
Using tree planting to improve storm water management, mitigate pollution, and lower urban heat island effect can be an effective (and cost-saving) tool for cities, but it requires collective effort. These issues do not stop at city boundaries. What if this collaborative model across city borders could be the new norm?
The first project of the Peachtree Gateway Partnership is a connected trail system through their four cities. Mayor Clarkson, who currently serves as the Chair of the group, reflected upon his inspiration to create the partnership. He said, “[I wanted to] not compete with other entities in the area, but look at the things that unite and bring us together.”
The mayors understood that their interests do not necessarily stop at city limits. Streets nor forests stop at city boundaries. Watersheds and air cross jurisdictions. People are mobile and experience the space around them regardless of city lines.
Mayor Ernst pointed out that cities are in competition for new people and economic development, but through the partnership the “planning helps all of us, and because we tell each other what we’re doing, it challenges us.” The mayors agreed that amenities which enhance connectivity within and across their cities, including connecting to the Atlanta BeltLine and to green spaces and forested areas, increase the desirability of their cities to current and new residents.
The panel of city leaders were pragmatic and included in their comments that the partnership not only improved the quality and effectiveness of various city projects, but it is improving their access to public and private funding, as well as helping to gain community buy-in.
It may seem obvious that a trail system that connects beyond each city’s limits would deliver improved overall benefits, but there are real challenges in coordinating and communicating across jurisdictions. The effort to build a connected trail system lays a foundation for other positive collaborations for the area, including initiatives that work toward protecting our cities’ trees.
Dr. Gillen described the inclusion of greenspace infrastructure in Doraville’s massive redevelopment of the former GM plant along I-285 as an example of ways that development can improve environmental issues by helping to manage storm water and provide shade with tree canopies. Mayor Clarkson noted Chamblee is similarly transitioning from industrial to mixed-used communities. They are planning to leverage trails to connect neighborhoods and improve quality of life. Brookhaven recently announced the purchase of 30 acres of forested land from DeKalb-Peachtree Airport that may be the second largest forested area inside I-285 (second only to Fernbank Forest), according to Mayor Ernst. The popularity of Dunwoody’s tree-filled Brookrun Park is inspiring Mayor Shortal to envision greater “connectivity beyond Dunwoody” to its neighbors. Recently, as part of Trees Atlanta’s Georgia Arbor Day events on February 17, 2017, Trees Atlanta planted trees in each of their cities making it one of our largest single day plantings.
According to the panel, future partnership initiatives could also include coordinating planning and zoning rules, including updating each city’s tree ordinance. Differences in rules or regulations when crossing city limits can add to the confusion for compliance, but regional understanding of policy best-practices could improve our ability to comply or enforce them. Mayor Clarkson pointed out how new rules can help improve tree infrastructure, such as Chamblee’s requirement that top level of parking decks meet the same landscape requirements as surface lots. Other policies can hinder canopy growth, such as existing billboard rules that prevent trees from being planted near the signs. The panel indicated that the partnership provides a platform for cities to discuss matters like this, as well as an arena for collaboration to better plan and maximize their economic and environmental investments. Dr. Gillen expressed his hope that “instead of making landscape and trees secondary in design, we make it a primary consideration.”
Mayor Shortal’s motivation for joining the partnership reflects our own support for all cities working across borders: “It is to our benefit to get together. We can share our amenities with each other for the enhancement of all our citizens and neighbors. We’re all in this together.”
We thank Mayors Ernst, Clarkson, and Shortal, and Dr. Gillen for sharing their insightful comments and setting a higher bar for working together to better protect our urban forests for the benefit of our cities and citizens. Additional appreciation to Mayor Ted Terry (Clarkston) who introduced the Mayors Panel, and to John McFarland, Principal at WorkingBuildings, for moderating the panel session. For more discussions such as this, please save the date for Trees Atlanta’s annual Atlanta Canopy Conference, Fri., Sept. 22, 2017.