Overcoming Our Fear of the Environmental Unknown
By Lee Harrop, P.E., President of Resurgens Development Consulting LLC and Park Pride Board Member
Anyone who has lived in Atlanta for a few years is familiar with the city’s origins: founded as Terminus in 1837, rebranded as Atlanta in 1845, and by 1854 it had established itself as the rail hub of the south. But did you ever wonder what happened after that? In my experience as the Program Director for Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (ABI) over the past decade (2008 – early 2018), I’ve managed to piece together a pretty plausible theory.
Thriving industries sprang up along the railroads, and the 45 historic neighborhoods around the rail corridors that would eventually be the BeltLine grew. As part of that growth, large sections of creeks were channeled in pipes underground to maximize developable land. For the most part, the city flourished.
Then, in 1956 the National Interstate and Defense Act was signed by President Dwight Eisenhower. This catalyzed urban sprawl. Sprawl was pervasive and wasn’t limited to people leaving the city—industries also left to be more proximate to the burgeoning highway system.
And then in 1970, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, followed two years later by the creation of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) by Governor Jimmy Carter.
Think about that. From 1837 to 1970—during Atlanta’s unprecedented growth and subsequent slide into sprawl—there were no (or very few) environmental regulations. A veritable 130-year environmental free-for-all. Given this fact, it’s no wonder that so many of the sites along the Atlanta BeltLine sat vacant and fallow for decades. No one wanted to put a shovel in the ground out of fear of what they’d find.
When the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and ABI finished the land assemblage for Historic Fourth Ward Park, only two parcels (less than 1.5 acres) warranted enrollment into the State Brownfield Program. However, by the time the park’s development was complete, some form of remediation had taken place on 14 out of the 17 acres. Through this process, project leaders discovered that contamination wasn’t limited to former industrial land uses. The soil used to backfill the piped creeks nearly always had some degree of lead contamination.
This led to a change in strategy. From that point forward, every parcel acquired for any Atlanta BeltLine program (parks, trails, housing, transit) would be enrolled into the Brownfield Program. It was no longer a question of “if” a site was contaminated but “to what degree.” This change in perspective moved from an uncertainty to an anticipated cost.
The issue of piped creeks, combined with Atlanta’s growth and resulting increase in paved surfaces, was one of the driving factors that led to Park Pride’s Proctor North Avenue Study (PNA Study) that laid out a plan for a series of parks (including the recently completed Vine City Park Expansion and Lindsay Street Park) with green infrastructure elements to mitigate some of the chronic flooding in English Avenue and Vine City. Cook Park and Boone Park West (both of which were identified in the PNA Study and sit along the piped portion of Proctor Creek) were found to have lead-impacted soil which required remediation. And both TPL and Park Pride, the two driving forces behind these parks, have successfully found cost-effective ways to address these concerns and protect public health.
We can now say that we’ve learned from history. The fear of being the first to place a shovel in the ground has passed. We’ve created a growing coalition of partners including ABI, Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, Park Pride, The Trust for Public Land, The Conservation Fund, and Groundwork Atlanta who are working to transform sites that were once overlooked into public amenities. Community groups like West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, ECO-Action, and Community Improvement Association are helping to lead advocacy efforts. We have the best State Brownfield Program in the southeast, if not the nation, eager to assist. The City of Atlanta’s Departments of Watershed Management and Parks & Recreation are collaborating in ways that have broken down internal silos. Organizations like Westside Future Fund and Invest Atlanta and a long list of corporate and foundation supporters recognize the value of the work and are providing funding for these transformational projects to move forward. But most importantly, we have seen the positive impacts created for neighborhoods and residents by the thoughtful redevelopment of sites that were once considered to be off-limits.
Lee Harrop, PE, LEED AP is a Park Pride Board Member and has worked for over 20 years as a civil engineer and environmental professional in the metro Atlanta region. He holds an MBA from Georgia State University and is President of Resurgens Development Consulting, LLC.