Atlanta’s Future Depends on Greenspace
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 vital for economic success and quality of life across our state.
I live near Constitution Lakes Park in the South River watershed. It’s where I walk to relieve stress and where I take my kids to see native wildlife up close – deer, turtles and water birds on sunny fall days.
The trees in that park – all parks – do so much more than offer us places to relax and play. They provide habitat and food for animals. They absorb rainwater, slowing it down and reducing erosion. Trees create the oxygen we breathe, and they filter water so that it is cleaner and healthier when it reaches our waterways. Urban trees offer public health benefits as well, including reducing incidence of asthma and heart disease. In fact, a recent report by The Nature Conservancy with input from The Trust for Public Land and Analysis Group, identifies urban trees as one of the most overlooked strategies for improving public health in our cities.
With decades of vision and commitment, organizations like Trees Atlanta have worked to help Atlanta live up to its reputation of being a “city in the forest.” And the city’s population is expected to triple to 1.2 million by 2040, and the entire 20-county Metro Atlanta region will likely grow to more than 8 million residents in the same timeframe. Our city is losing its tree canopy at the rate of nearly 50 acres – or 50 football fields – each day. Our reputation is at risk.
Greenspace initiatives like the BeltLine, Proctor Creek Greenway and Cook Park demonstrate the power of collaboration and our city’s genuine desire to create vibrant, livable communities. With the release of the Atlanta City Design, we now have a vision that helps answer the question: how can our “city in the forest” keep pace with growth? Among other endeavors, the City Design calls for the creation of a 1,200+ acre South River Park.
Balancing economic development and quality of life is a familiar goal for those of us who work in conservation. Whether we travel on city streets or country roads, live in skyscrapers or subdivisions, people and nature are inextricably connected. That’s why The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with Trees Atlanta and Park Pride, has launched the South River Neighborhood Network. The Network provides a forum for City of Atlanta and DeKalb County residents to make South River Park a reality.
This envisioned greenspace would connect several existing natural areas along and around the South River, a historically neglected freshwater system in an underserved part of Atlanta. This urban river system plays a critical role in stormwater and wastewater management, and the largely unprotected forests that surround it provide a home for abundant wildlife. The City Design proposes to link communities together through biking and walking trails from the South River, connecting north to the BeltLine, west to proposed airport-area trails, and east as far as Arabia Mountain.
This ambitious plan will require a significant commitment, political will and a great deal of funding. It is, however, possible – and Georgia voters may have an opportunity soon to help make this plan a reality.
The Nature Conservancy and several partners have worked for years to develop the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act (HB 332), which would dedicate a portion of the sales and use tax collected on outdoor recreation equipment to land conservation – an estimated $40 million annually. Funding for land conservation is currently allocated in the state budget each year; changing the model from appropriated to dedicated funding would allow the state to more effectively manage land acquisition and to leverage additional private and philanthropic investments for sites including the South River Park.
The Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act is making its way through the legislative process, and the goal is to call for voter approval by referendum in November 2018. Time matters – with each year that goes by, land becomes more expensive. Growth happens in an uncoordinated manner. And more and more people are left out of the conversation, deepening the divides our city is struggling to bridge.
Although the organization I lead is known for buying and caring for hidden forests and quiet islands, we have helped protect iconic areas in Metro Atlanta including Sweetwater Creek State Park, Panola Mountain State Park and Arabia Mountain. As the city spreads ever outward, our scientists see the critical need to bring our historic expertise in land and water conservation to the opportunities that still exist for communities and nature to thrive together.
If approved, the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act will make your community healthier, more resilient and a better place to live – whether it’s Decatur or Dawsonville, Buckhead or Brunswick. Atlanta is the economic engine for our state, and investing in realizing the Atlanta City Design vision for the South River Park will have benefits for all Georgians.
Get out and enjoy Atlanta’s parks and natural areas this fall. And as you see sunlight filtering through the vibrant leaves, think about your role in making those moments possible and the responsibility we all share to ensure that all Atlantans, all Georgians, and future generations will have the same opportunity to benefit from the hard-fought but beloved reputation of being the “city in the trees.”