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Chattahoochee RiverLands: A multi-generational effort to connect residents to the river

The Chattahoochee RiverLands would stretch from Buford Dam to the Chattahoochee Bend State Park. (Rendering courtesy of SCAPE Landscape Architecture.)

By Hannah E. Jones

Atlanta is known as the city in the forest, but we’re also a city with a river — the Chattahoochee. Regional leaders and experts feel the river is underutilized and underappreciated. How can we better stitch the aquatic resource into the fabric of our city and metro area?

That was the main topic of discussion on Tuesday, Oct. 4, a community seminar about the Chattahoochee RiverLands project, a multi-generational initiative along the river. The event was held as part of the Atlanta Design Festival, moderated by Museum of Design Atlanta Executive Director Laura Flusche and featuring four panelists involved in creating the RiverLands: 

  • Christine Hassell, TPL Chattahoochee Program project manager 
  • Gena Wirth, SCAPE design principal 
  • Keith Bowers, president and founder of Biohabitats 
  • Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance co-founder and executive director, and Spelman assistant professor

Spearheaded by The Trust for Public Land (TPL), the vision is to create 100 miles of an uninterrupted linear network of trails, parks and green spaces from the Buford Dam to the Chattahoochee Bend State Park. Once complete, the network will touch 19 cities and seven counties, reaching 1 million residents within three miles of the trail system.

A map of the RiverLands. (Courtesy of the Trust for Public Land.)

For a project so expansive and ambitious, it takes a lot of partners to pull it off. TPL has teamed up with nearby jurisdictions, local environmental organizations, community-based nonprofits and enlisted SCAPE Landscape Architecture to help craft the design. Some partners include the City of Atlanta, Fulton and Cobb Counties, Atlanta Regional Commission, Park Pride and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.   

Today, the river flows nearby but, despite its proximity, feels largely inaccessible. But a new blueway could change that — serving as a connector, uniting neighborhoods with the outdoors, recreation and each other. 

“We have one way of thinking about our city, which has to do with roads [being] the thing that connects us,” Flusche said. “The study promises or, at least, asks us to embrace a different paradigm for thinking about how we are connected. It’s a nature-first paradigm, which is something different for us in Atlanta.”

Wirth credits the Metropolitan River Protection Act (MRPA) for laying the groundwork for this project. The 1972 legislation created a 2,000-foot buffer along the river banks, protecting an 84-mile stretch of the river.

“[MRPA] was truly visionary. It has protected the river corridor for many generations, and while it allows for public access, it isn’t mandated,” Wirth said. “The RiverLands is like the next, more contemporary overlay to that legislation. It’s respecting that legislation but building upon it to make sure the river was not just protected from an ecological perspective, but also accessible for people.”

If done in full, the Camp and Paddle Trail will take four days and three nights. (Photo courtesy of the Trust for Public Land.)

As part of the RiverLands, TPL is creating a 48-mile Camp and Paddle Trail ​​from the Standing Peachtree Greenspace in Atlanta to McIntosh Reserve Park in Carroll County. Standing Peachtree Greenspace will receive a public kayak launch, the first in the City of Atlanta. The new trail and campsites are expected to debut in 2024.

While the 100-mile blueway will offer human connectivity, Bowers’ Biohabitats team was brought in to protect and improve the health of the river corridor. In decades past, the Chattahoochee was notorious for its unclean waters but in recent years — thanks to the hard work of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and other partners — the waters have improved.

“[We’ve] embraced this idea that not only can [the RiverLands] be a great way to move people, but it can be a great way to harbor species, provide migration routes, reconnect fragmented habitat and really enhance the ecological resilience of that corridor,” Bowers said. 

Hassell agreed, adding, “Protect and access is a fine line to walk but it’s not one we take lightly.”

The issue, Bowers explained, is that the RiverLands only applies to a narrow segment of the river and to truly improve its ecological health and resiliency, efforts to clean the connecting tributaries are needed. As residents become more connected and invested in the river, the hope is that more emphasis will be put on cleanup and maintenance. 

The RiverLands will include walking and biking trails. (Rendering courtesy of SCAPE Landscape Architecture.)

This is a massive undertaking, one that will be transformational but can’t be done overnight. The pilot section of the water trail — a 2.7-mile stretch from Mableton Parkway northwards to I-285 — is currently in the works, expected to be completed in 2026. 

The RiverLands project is a generational effort and will take many partners and dollars to pull off. But once it’s done, the results will likely reshape the region.

“This will be transformational for connectivity. An aha-moment for me was how many places [the project] would connect and how close it is already to many beloved places in the region,” Wirth said. “If you live [near] an amazing river, you should be able to access it.”

For additional resources and information about the Chattahoochee RiverLands initiative, click here

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Hannah E. Jones

Hannah Jones is an Atlanta native and Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for two newspapers. Hannah managed the Arts and Living section of The Signal, Georgia State’s independent award-winning newspaper. She has a passion for environmental issues, urban life and telling a good story. Hannah can be reached at hannah@saportareport.com.

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