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Atlanta striving to restore our natural amenities – our trees and our waterways


Biohabitats working on 'urban ecology framework' for the City of Atlanta

By Maria Saporta

East Lake. Lake Claire. Vine City. Parkway Drive. Lakeview  Avenue. Ponce de Leon Avenue.

Atlanta is full of streets and neighborhoods with names that hark back to a different time – when the city’s natural environment defined communities before they became built up, paved over or tunneled under.

Now a comprehensive effort is underway to bring back Atlanta’s natural amenities and make them part of our city’s future.

“We are not really restoring the past; we are restoring the future,” explained Keith Bowers, president of Charleston-based Biohabitats. “We are trying to figure out how we can bring back the attributes of that past.”


Biohabitats working on ‘urban ecology framework’ for the City of Atlanta

Biohabitats has been selected by the Atlanta planning department to develop an “urban ecology framework” that will guide how the city will develop.

It is part of the Atlanta City Design process that is preparing for a potential doubling of the city’s population in the next 25 years. The goal of the planning process is to create an even more livable city despite, or even because of, the anticipated growth in population.

One of the core ideas behind the City Design is to begin with Atlanta’s natural assets, and Biohabitats is beginning an 18-month process to provide a framework on how we can create a more ecologically-friendly city.

Bowers presented the challenges and opportunities of the “urban ecology framework” at Park Pride’s Corporate Champion Roundtable, which was held at the Atlanta Botanical Garden on October 19 in a talk titled: Seeing the Forest from the Trees.

“We often think of cities as buildings, parking lots, apartments and roads,” Bowers said. But before the cities were built, the land was covered with rivers, streams and forests “teeming with birds and wildlife.”

Take Ponce de Leon Avenue, for example. The street got its name from Ponce de Leon Springs – Atlanta’s own fountain of youth. The area now covered up by a strip shopping center with a Whole Foods and a Home Depot with lots of surface parking used to be a park with natural fountains, a creek and a lake. The only clue that there used to be a lake there is that the small street to the west of the shopping center is called Lakeview Drive.

Keith Bowers Michael Halicki

Keith Bowers of Biohabitats with Michael Halicki of Park Pride (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Bowers said the task of Biohabitats will be to provide a framework “to bring nature back into the city” – to bring biodiversity back to the built environment.

“We like to think about blurring the boundaries between parks and the city,” Bowers said. “Trees are what really defines Atlanta – trees and its watersheds.”

Atlanta already has efforts underway to restore some of its waterways – such as Proctor Creek on the northwest side.

But there are a host of other creeks and rivers throughout Atlanta that have been ignored, buried and overgrown. Instead of being ribbons of blue ways and greenways crisscrossing our city, they often are receptacles of trash, weeds and murky water.

“We are anchored by two great attributes – the Chattahoochee River and the South River,” Bowers said. He can envision a citywide trail network (using the BeltLine as a foundation) – designing connections between Atlanta’s green and blue amenities.

Atlanta’s streets also can become greener corridors by planting trees of different varieties to create a healthy ecosystem that reinforces our unique geography as a city in a forest.

“We are going to do something here that’s never been done,” said Tim Keane, Atlanta’s planning commissioner. “The idea from the beginning is to study the condition of the natural world that exists, what can be restored, and what of the urban  Atlanta can promote the natural ecology.

“The point is to put Atlanta into a position where nature is a parameter around which we design things,” Keane added.

Keith Bowers

Keith Bowers at Park Pride’s Corporate Champion Roundtable on Oct. 19 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Bowers said Atlanta could set itself apart from other cities, if it designs and implements the urban ecology framework.

“Like all cities, it’s taken decades – hundreds of years – for cities to be where they are today,” Bowers said.. “There’s no other city that we have been involved with that has looked at this so deeply.”

During the 18 month design process, Bowers and Keane expect the effort to lead to a new tree ordinance and to a revision of the zoning ordinance. The idea will be to use both carrots and sticks to encourage development to occur in commercial corridors while conserving as much of the city’s tree-covered neighborhoods as possible.

“We are providing a natural context for Atlanta’s growth and development,” Bowers said, acknowledging that “so much of the green space is on private land.”

Bowers and Keane both hope Atlantans will embrace the idea of preserving, restoring and improving our natural qualities – especially the city’s trees and waterways.

“Everything we do should be exceptional,” Keane said. “Atlanta is an amazing place where the near future and the longer future present so many wonderful opportunities for us. We need to do better than any other city – let’s combine nature and urban better than anywhere.”

Most of Atlanta’s dense tree cover on the northern part of the city – and most of it is privately=owned (Special: Biohabitats presentation)

Atlanta City Design

An approach to development – conserve our green neighborhoods, develop along our commercial corridors (Special: Atlanta City Design)


Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. Wormser Hats October 24, 2017 9:47 am

    Irony here is that our visionary planning commissioner’s-own planning department and the Zoning Review Board do not exactly walk-the-talk. Until they all “drink-the-Kool-Aid,” I’m afraid these high ideals will continue being mitigated by bureaucratic intransigence and the cronyism that binds some officials to less-enlightened land speculators and opportunists.

    So, while at the same time the Urban Ecology Framework and City Design are cued-up for showcasing, the fate of places like Ormewood Forest hang on the city’s [outgoing and incumbent] leadership.Report

  2. Grammar Nerd October 24, 2017 11:18 am

    That would be “teeming” with birds and wildlife…Report

    1. Maria Saporta October 24, 2017 2:17 pm

      Thanks for letting me know. It has been fixed. Love readers like you. You help make us a better website.Report

  3. Melanie Bass Pollard October 24, 2017 12:42 pm

    I concur with the irony here! The “Legacy for Mayor Reed” may very well be the end of the “City in the Forest”. Unless the canopy study includes Privet, Crape Myrtles, and Cryptomerias in their GIS study. It is the end of the era for Atlanta’s having specimen, native forested parks. Peachtree Hills Park has been recently denuded for private development gain- which Park “Pride” profited by (to the tune of $30,000). Future residents are saddled with the high cost of the development’s stormwater and water filtration due to pollutants released by Isakson Living (Johnny Isakson our elected official) and Ashton Woods. And the community must wait – again – for their Park and street trees to grow back. Again since some were recompense trees. Grant Park trees may also be denuded – for a parking lot no less! 250 SPECIMEN trees in exchange for understory trees and toxic grass which will contribute little to the habitat and community city services that the historic trees once did. First time in 134 years park trees are being destroyed & damaged. For the planned expansion of Zoo Atlanta’s 1,000 parking spaces… Where’s the city’s environmental pledge for clean air in that? Ormewood Park and Dearborn Park in city of Decatur are also at risk. https://www.wabe.org/grant-park-residents-launch-campaign-save-historic-trees-2/

    ALL during Mayor Reeds “careful watch” and example set by the Beltline which we all have witnessed little environmental concerns for protecting our existing trees – based on the destruction the Beltline has indirectly created to date throughout our metro area. The Beltline currently has approximately 20% canopy. The current administration and developer-driven-Beltline have shown little respect for the most canopied urban cities in the country including one of the highest number of old-growth urban remnant forests in the world: http://www.oldgrowthforest.net/

    You cannot plant these old forests back once the soil is destroyed. Anyone well-versed in tree health knows this. Plus, with our 3-4 inches of top soil, trees will never reach their before majestic size and health. Particularly with fewer community trees to hold each other up in storms. They will all be high-risk trees. The greenspace inequity of this is clearly evident.

    I grieve the loss of our beautiful deciduous specimen trees and forests of White Oak, Tulip Poplar, Hickory, Sycamore, Big Leaf Magnolia and the rare native plants and their habitats that lived in these soils, migrated through the trees, and created one of the most unique and prolific, bio-diverse ecosystems in the world. All for the “Built Environment”. One that presumes to channel and control without any alturistic effort to let Nature’s solution continue to thrive. We could have a City in the Forest TOGETHER with The City on the Beltline. If we would protect our native communities of trees.

    My favorite African Proverb, I often repeat is: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
    The same holds true for our trees.Report

  4. Barbara Antonoplos October 24, 2017 2:00 pm

    Wow. All of that sounds great, which makes it so odd that at this very moment the people of Atlanta are having to fight like mad to prevent the City from cutting 200 trees in Grant Park for a parking deck, while also watching hundreds of trees get clear-cut at Piedmont Hospital, in Peachtree Hills and other old, tree-covered neighborhoods.

    As far as the parking deck in Grant Park is concerned, it is in violation of the Grant Park Master Plan which was produced 19 years ago to guard against just that sort of ill-advised development, and formally adopted by the City then, but not consulted now. Preserving the invaluable, historic “ecology” which is supported by the marvelous variety of those 200 trees is not actually a priority, nor is the concept of “sustainability” that the City is also fond of talking about.

    When is the TALK going to be reflected in reality?Report


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