The Future Begins Now: An Update on the Chattahoochee River Master Planning Process
Walt Ray, Director, Chattahoochee River Program
The Trust for Public Land
Byron Rushing, Bicycling & Walking Program Manager
Atlanta Regional Commission
The Trust for Public Land, Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), Cobb County and City of Atlanta Commission recently announced the launch of a comprehensive planning process to develop a vision and plan for a 100-mile long public realm along the Chattahoochee River.
Working with nationally renowned landscape architecture and urban design studio SCAPE, Walt Ray with The Trust for Public Land and Byron Rushing with the ARC are managing the effort day-to-day and strategically. Now underway, the study presents a landmark opportunity to redefine the river as a beloved local, regional and national asset.
Since the announcement of the partnership, Ray and Rushing have received a number of great questions about the effort, and they are excited to share some answers and updates.
What is the vision/goal of the master planning process?
Byron: The goal of this study is to make the river a focal point of the entire region, while building on metro Atlanta’s legacy of stewardship of this vital natural resource. The master plan will focus on researching and understanding what it will take to connect trails and communities along a 100-mile stretch of the river, from Buford Dam on the north to Chattahoochee Bend State Park in Coweta County on the south, with the aim of identifying existing trails, potential new trails, sensitive areas for conservation, and new opportunities to increase public access.
The project now has a name — Chattahoochee RiverLands. What does the name mean, and why does this effort need a name?
\Walt: This effort will need to stitch together a multitude of lands such as city and county parks, state conservation lands, trails developed and maintained by a variety of entities, federal property and others. We want people to stay focused on the big concept: a seamless public realm along the Chattahoochee River. The name is designed to get people excited about that transformative idea.
Why does this effort matter to the people of Atlanta — and beyond?
Byron: Decades of hard work by countless people and organizations have resulted in a variety of ways to explore and enjoy the river, most often with a focus on recreational use. This planning process will suggest how to improve access and amenities for activities such as mountain-biking and paddling, as well as transportation options and the kind of public amenities that allow people to utilize and enjoy the Chattahoochee in their daily lives. Imagine connecting Chattahoochee RiverLands to the Silver Comet Trail, or being able to bike and walk from suburban communities to MARTA stations along connected greenways.
What will the planning process look like?
Walt: The planning process will start with listening. The planning team is hosting three rounds of stakeholder meetings to begin to understand the river’s existing conditions. The first round, in December 2018, gave the SCAPE team a chance to learn about the character of the river, the communities it goes through, its rich cultural and historic assets, its challenges, and what people hope this study will accomplish. SCAPE is also reviewing existing public planning resources and ecological and historical research. An additional series of driving and floating meetings and community conversations will inform the region’s new vision for the river corridor.
Who will be involved in the Chattahoochee RiverLands process?
Walt: There will be multiple opportunities for public input and engagement. To help to inform and guide the planning process, the Trust for Public Land has formed the Chattahoochee Working Group as a coalition of stakeholders which includes city and county government representatives, civic leaders, and colleagues from local and regional nonprofits.
I’m excited about the Chattahoochee RiverLands – how can I get involved?
Walt: SCAPE will facilitate opportunities for people to gather and discuss the project. Find out about those events and keep up with the project by following Chattahoochee RiverLands on Facebook. A website that will feature plan updates, personal stories from the river and a forum for people to share ideas and feedback will launch in 2019.
Why now? Why is this the moment in time for this initiative?
Byron: The immediate prompts were several visionary local efforts. In 2016, the ARC adopted a regional trails plan. In 2017, the City of Atlanta adopted the Atlanta City Design and Cobb County adopted a county trails plan. These three forward-looking documents support the Trust for Public Land’s long history of conservation and stewardship. Each of these pieces were developed during a time when many of our peer regions have shown great success looking to their rivers as regional assets. So, we came together to talk about linking initiatives into a comprehensive corridor vision.
Walt: Metro Atlanta is starving for the types of places and experiences that unify us. Just take a stroll along Roswell’s Riverwalk and notice all the people outside enjoying the Chattahoochee. Visit the Cochran Shoals unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area to encounter a similar experience in a more natural setting. People crave experiences in a public realm, and our region’s population is growing. To continue to be a vibrant community with strong economic development, we must plan ahead.
What does this effort have to do with transportation?
Byron: People are tired of sitting alone in their cars. Connecting existing trails and adding new ones as part of the Chattahoochee RiverLands can support the growing demand for alternative commute options in our city. The growing number of trails and bike lanes throughout our region are enabling more and more Atlantans to get around on foot or bikes. Chattahoochee RiverLands is part of the answer to fulfilling our community’s need for more connected and safer options for bike commuting.
What is the biggest challenge to accomplishing the vision for the master planning process?
Walt: The biggest challenge is also the strength of the Atlanta region – geographic and community diversity. Over several counties and many cities, people see and use the river differently. That, combined with different histories of political engagement and environmental or ecological stewardship, will require a great deal of technical and personal understanding, which is why we have assembled a diverse planning team and emphasized the need for robust public input. Balance between ecological restoration and inviting human presence will need to be struck. Active uses versus passive uses will need to be weighed. Finding these and other delicate balances is critical, and always a challenge when representing so many different groups and individuals with varied priorities.
How will the development and implementation of the plan be funded?
Walt: A combination of both public and private funding will be imperative. The Trust for Public Land and the Atlanta Regional Commission, with the support of the City of Atlanta and Cobb County, are funding this $1.5 million study. The partners will pursue a combination of private and public funding to implement the vision outlined in the plan. Governments at all levels, Community Improvement Districts, national and local non-profits, chambers of commerce and a host of other organizations will be needed to provide the type of grassroots support that a plan of this magnitude will take to implement.
What will success look like?
Walt: The Chattahoochee RiverLands should be a fully functional public realm. In addition to being safe, easy to navigate, and accessible to people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds, the RiverLands must attract people, build community, enhance regional identity, and become a beacon of community ownership and civic pride — as well as serve as a driver for economic development. People should want to live, work, and play along the corridor. If successful, the Chattahoochee RiverLands will redefine how the world thinks about Atlanta and how those living in the region think about their community.
Byron: Success in the short term will be demonstrated by small steps: community engagement in river clean ups; events to and along the river; people supporting and investing in the planning process; new access points being built along the river; and many more. No plan is magic and no document makes changes happen automatically. If communities, elected officials, and people see the benefits of the plan’s vision and begin to make small steps locally, the corridor plan will come together in the coming years.
Walt Ray is Program Director for The Trust for Public Land. He is a landscape architect and planner committed to improving the community in which he lives.
Byron Rushing is the bicycling and pedestrian program manager for the Atlanta Regional Commission, and serves as president of the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals.