Something to Think About the Next Time You Are Stuck in Traffic
By: Deron Davis, Executive Director, The Nature Conservancy in Georgia
Over the next several months, The Nature Conservancy will share our thoughts on the critical need for adequate, reliable funding for land and water conservation in Georgia. We hope the ideas we present will inform the dialogue about why investments to create and maintain parks, green spaces and conservation lands are critical for economic success and quality of life across our state.
It all started with the I-85 bridge collapse at the end of March. Then there were sinkholes in Midtown and Johns Creek, and a buckling section of I-20.
Misery loves company — Atlanta isn’t the only city struggling with roads overdue for repair. The American Society of Civil Engineers routinely gives our country’s transportation system a D grade. One in nine American bridges are considered structurally deficient. This neglect is true for other types of “grey” infrastructure as well — our water pipes are failing; our subways are breaking down and our electrical grid is aging. In total, there is a more than $3 trillion backlog of maintenance needed for American infrastructure of all types.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Georgia Department of Transportation spent up to $16.6 million on the I-85 bridge repair. Construction only took six weeks, and the contractor earned up to $3.1 million in incentives for finishing well ahead of the June 15 deadline.
Think about that for a minute. When this crisis happened, our local, state and national leaders found the money to get the job done, and fast. What if we could learn from this experience and apply the same thinking to “green” infrastructure?
Green infrastructure can mean many things. For example, parks, green spaces and conservation lands provide important services that people need, like trees that shade the sun and clean toxins from the air. Those trees and other vegetation slow the movement of rainwater downhill, filtering it as it passes by. These places provide aesthetic beauty that makes our lives better, recreation opportunities that make us healthier and happier, and economic benefits such as increased property values.
Green infrastructure projects can be large and small. The Nature Conservancy and many partners have ambitiously worked together for decades to protect land along the Altamaha River in southeast Georgia. Those more than 140,000 acres of land help slow and filter water before it reaches the river. Plus, no homes are built on land along the river that is more likely to flood. And the water that makes its way to the Atlantic Ocean is healthy – meaning our treasured coast and barrier islands are in good shape compared with others on the East Coast.
Green infrastructure tactics like living shorelines — engineered slopes planted with native vegetation — that shield our shore from storms and grow back some of the oyster reefs we have lost, are making our coast resilient to change. Local policies that enable such creative solutions are essential. And working together to make smarter decisions about how our communities should grow are all investments in today, tomorrow and farther down the road.
This kind of thinking also applies here in Atlanta. We are driving an initiative within the South River watershed to understand the needs of those communities and to identify specific ways we can work together on projects, programs and policy efforts to enhance the quality of life for the people who live there. By developing a shared vision for the area, much as we did in the Altamaha corridor downstream, The Nature Conservancy believes that there will be more green spaces open to the public and better water management to reduce pollution in the river.
Investing in that ounce of prevention is smart. But while it isn’t easy or inexpensive, the results are clear. It is more cost-effective to protect land and employ other forward-thinking strategies than it is to clean up after poor choices are made. However, to permanently protect and care for land and realize the many benefits it provides, our elected officials at the local, state and national level must make funding for these initiatives a priority.
Must we wait for our figurative bridge collapse — a natural crisis, to compel investments in green infrastructure and innovation? With the effects of climate change taking hold, city populations growing and the demands we place on our natural resources ever increasing, that time is now. It might not seem as urgent as the inconvenience of temporarily snarled traffic, but the effects can be even more intense.
Can we be nimble and find the resources now to make investments that will save our children and grandchildren untold struggles and funds? Just like we need highways to connect us with our homes and businesses, we need natural connectors too. Our city has made great strides in this work — from the connectivity of communities along the PATH and the BeltLine to the water retention and flood control benefits of the Historic Old Fourth Ward Park and the new Rodney Cook Sr. Park being built on Atlanta’s west side. Can we concentrate our efforts in areas with vulnerable populations and unique natural features?
I believe we can. We found the resources to build a bridge in six weeks — surely, we can prioritize funding for investments in nature that will provide even greater benefits to our lives and our economy far into the future.
Photo Above: Mouth of the Altamaha River. ©Blake Gordon Photography