By Guest Columnist RYAN GRAVEL, AICP, founder of Sixpitch, Inc.
The latest tale in the slow destruction of Atlanta’s iconic tree canopy might seem like a bizarre aberration. When you see it in context of generational disinvestment in the South River watershed, however, suddenly it’s not so surprising. As it turns out, this tale is not an anomaly, but if you look closely, an elegant and aspirational solution to the larger narrative is hiding in plain sight.
According to reports last month, thousands of trees have been illegally cleared on the banks of the South River in southwest DeKalb County. The 80-acre site where they once stood is owned by Crown Enterprises, which also owns an adjacent 15-acre trucking facility.
Residents called attention to the cut trees, which are not visible from the gate along Moreland Avenue. DeKalb County slapped a stop work order on the site, but neighbors say the post was ignored. Carol Hayes, the district supervisor for DeKalb Soil and Water Conservation, responded with a letter to county officials. “The egregious illegal destruction of trees and vast and severe soil erosion were not what was most shocking to me,” she said. “The developers involved had an arrogant disregard for the offenses they have committed and pretended to be obtuse to the laws which they have been breaking.”
Michigan-based Crown Enterprises has a high-profile and mixed reputation in Detroit, where it engages controversial land swaps and development of environmentally contaminated sites – often in areas that also suffer economic stagnation and disinvestment. DeKalb County has reportedly taken Crown Enterprises to State Court over the incident.
The Crown site sits smack in the middle of Atlanta’s last chance for a massive urban forest inside I-285. It could be part of a transformative narrative around ecological restoration, economic and social revitalization, and climate resiliency. Right now, however, the Crown site – along with several other large tracts of land in the area – is yet another example of generational disinvestment and flagrant violations of environmental justice.
Within a mile in any direction from Crown, several similar tracts of tree canopy are also under siege. A few failed subdivisions are already cleared. Less than a mile away, DeKalb County’s Intrenchment Creek Park is embroiled in a controversial land swap proposed by Blackhall Studios, which would bulldoze 50 acres of the public park in a trade for nearby land that a DeKalb County study this past Spring acknowledged is of lesser ecological value. Next door to that, the City of Atlanta’s Old Prison Farm – or Honor Farm – property is said to be the site of a proposed police training facility, the construction of which would likely clear two-thirds of its reforested 300-acres.
Meanwhile, the South River Watershed Alliance, which has been fighting for the environmental integrity of this area for decades, recently gave notice of its intent to sue DeKalb County over violation of its 2010 consent decree. “DeKalb County must stop using the South River and neighborhood streams as sewage dumps,” said SRWA board president Jacqueline Echols in a statement, “and the fact that it rains in Georgia is not an acceptable excuse.”
On one hand, whether it is tree clearing, erosion, sewage spills, toxic land uses, or general economic neglect, the ongoing degradation of the South River watershed should come as no surprise. It’s been Atlanta’s dumping ground for ages. This pocket of the region is home to at least five landfills (all closed), several correctional facilities, obsolete commercial strips and truckyards, noxious industrial sites, demolished public housing complexes, and isolated dead-end roads. On the other hand, this watershed is also home to several communities – and the people who have been living in these conditions deserve better treatment than this.
What’s most striking to me about this situation is that the threat to the watershed, including its people, is not gentrification – not yet, anyway. Rather, it’s the area’s invisibility and the compounding nature of each issue. Many people seem focused on individual threats without seeing the larger picture. The result is a dynamic web of negative impacts that is worse than the mere sum of challenges.
Fortunately, the South River itself may come to the rescue. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms recently addressed the US Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. Among other things, she described the proposed 280-acre Westside Park currently being built in northwest Atlanta as a mitigation measure for climate adaptation and resiliency. She said that flooding, heat, and air quality challenges from climate change often create the highest burdens for the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. These are low–income communities of color that have endured both environmental degradation and economic disinvestment for generations – terms that also describe the South River watershed.
Taking the mayor’s lead, imagine the opportunities for the South River – a much larger landscape with far greater capacity for climate mitigation and other benefits. Building on earlier concepts from the community, the Atlanta City Design envisioned a park on this land – stretching from Southside Park on Jonesboro Road eastward across the city limits at Moreland Avenue into unincorporated DeKalb County to include the Crown site, Honor Farm, and Intrenchment Creek Park, and connecting as far north as Custer Avenue. Such a vast regional park – which could be as large as 3,500 acres inside I-285 – could become a nationally-significant model for climate and community resiliency.
Whether or not such a park is possible, the Crown incident makes it clear that more attention to this area is needed. The South River can become its own answer to the damage done to its watershed – if only we can see the big story and then follow through on the vision.
Note to readers: Ryan Gravel is an urban thinker, designer, author, and builder – an entrepreneur working on ideas about the future of cities. His master’s thesis in 1999 was the original vision for the Atlanta Beltline. Through his urban design consulting firm, Sixpitch, Gravel is helping The Nature Conservancy advance its vision for the South River watershed.