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A growing chorus: Atlanta must be proactive to preserve its unique tree canopy

Ormewood forest trees Atlanta skyline

Atlanta is literally a city in a forest, but that could change if we don't protect our tree canopy. This is a screen shot from a video posted by the Save Ormewood Forest effort (Source: Save Ormewood Forest)

By Maria Saporta

This is the third column in a series about Atlanta’s trees

A groundswell of community leaders are doing all they can to make sure Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi” doesn’t become Atlanta’s reality.

The song’s chorus feels all too familiar:

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Atlanta is uniquely positioned as a city in a forest, and there is a movement afoot to make sure it stays that way.

“It’s clear to me there is more concern today about tree loss than I’ve seen in 20 years,” said Greg Levine, Trees Atlanta’s co-executive director and chief program officer. “It could be a paradigm shift.”

Kathryn Kolb, an expert on Atlanta’s old growth forests and director of Eco-Addendum, said this could be our city’s defining moment.

tree on moreland

A photo of Moreland Avenue in the morning with the sun showing the majestic beauty of an old growth tree (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

“The opportunity is here to turn the tide on how we develop our city,” Kolb said. “If we turn the tide, Atlanta will be an international model on how to have dense development and retain the natural landscape and our green amenities.

“If we don’t, Atlanta will not be a pleasant place to live.”

Levine and Kolb and their organizations are doing all they can to make sure Atlantans realize that our trees make an Atlanta an amazingly unique and special city.

About 48 percent of Atlanta’s land is covered with trees. At least that’s what satellite images showed in 2007. Because of all the development that has been underway in Atlanta since 2007 – especially in the last three to four years, Levine is concerned that our city’s tree canopy has shrunk.

“Our goal at Trees Atlanta is to keep our tree canopy at 48 percent,” Levine said. “There is power with people. There are solutions to growing our city without losing our tree canopy. We need to have a plan and be strategic in how we implement that plan.”

And that’s exactly what’s happening.

On June 19, the Atlanta City Council unanimously approved an ordinance by Councilmember Natalyn Archibong to impose a 180-day moratorium on the acceptance of any application to remove more than 10 trees on residentially-zoned land of five acres or larger.

During the moratorium period, the city will examine the impact development is having on the city’s tree canopy, and it will provide the city an opportunity to develop strategies for increasing and preserving the city’s tree canopy, according to a release from the Atlanta City Council.

Ormewood forest trees Atlanta skyline

Atlanta is literally a city in a forest, but that could change if we don’t protect our tree canopy. This is a screen shot from a video posted by the Save Ormewood Forest effort (Source: Save Ormewood Forest)

Meanwhile, there’s also a grassroots effort to save the Ormewood Forest in East Atlanta. According to Change.org petition, Ormewood Forest represents over 6 acres of land, upon which century-old trees provide habitat for abundant wildlife and essential protection for a first-order headwater stream.

The petition says Heritage Capitol Partners and Heritage Homes are seeking to develop Ormewood Forest into high density, multi-family residential development – a plan that would lead to a significant loss in tree cover.

The petition stated that the surrounding community would like to preserve the land, its trees and the stream to preserve Atlanta’s shrinking tree canopy and to protect the watershed. The property also serves as a significant wildlife habitat, and it provides “esthetic values that enrich the quality of life for our community.”

Ideally, the community would love for the land to end up in public hands so the forest could be protected forever.

From experience, Levine said that “when you start fighting about one particular piece of property, it’s probably too late.”

The goal would be to move from being reactive to development to being proactive – preserving our trees and old growth forests from the outset.

Piedmont Hospital trees

An areal view of how the trees used to soften the Peachtree front of Piedmont Hospital (Photo courtesy of Google Maps)

The City of Atlanta’s Department of City Planning – through the Atlanta Design Studio – is looking to concentrate development along major commercial corridors while creating conservation areas that would protect the city’s tree cover in neighborhoods and undeveloped land.

The city has contracted with Biohabitats to develop an Urban Ecology Framework for Atlanta – and then the hope will be to translate the big picture into new legislation and development requirements.

“If we are going to retain a 48 percent tree canopy, we really need to fix the tree ordinance and the zoning ordinance,” said Levine, who added that part of the challenge will be to coordinate the different regulations, including the preservation of our built environment. “Historic preservation is great for trees.”

Kolb also said the tree and zoning ordinance need to be in sync with the Department of Watershed, which can lead developers to cut down trees in an effort to create storm water retention ponds. Such moves are totally counter-intuitive because trees help reduce the need for manmade retention ponds.

Champ Tulip Tree, Kathryn Kolb

This Tulip Poplar, in the Lullwater Conservation Garden, is an Atlanta champion. (Photo by Kathryn Kolb)

When it comes to preserving our tree canopy, Kolb boiled it down to two changes.
“We simply have to require that more of our existing trees and urban forests are saved,” she said. “And we have to put planning for existing trees and urban forests at the beginning of the planning process.” She also said the zoning ordinance and the tree ordinance “need to be revised so they are all agreeing with each other.”

Currently, the tree ordinance charges developers when they cut down trees, but the cost is not significant enough to change behavior – to get developers to design their projects around signature trees – using them as an attractive feature of their developments.

Levine also said Atlanta needs to increase its tree canopy in its commercial corridors.

“Our downtown only has 3 percent tree coverage,” he said. “We are going to have to figure out how to add trees, and we enough room for to grow back, especially shade trees.”

Both Levine and Kolb said educating Atlantans about the value of trees to our environment will help enact constructive change.

“Atlanta is unique because we have a viable forest,” Kolb said. “Our challenge is to make sure we don’t destroy what we have. Many people don’t realize what we have. We have a viable native forest in our city. No other major city in the country has that.”

Note to readers:

The previous two columns in this series were:

Part 1: Trees in Peachtree Hills on chopping block while developer gets easement through park

Part 2: Atlanta’s urban tree canopy leads the nation; but most trees are not protected

Also, a coalition of Atlanta’s environmental, trees, parks and green space organizations will be holding an Atlanta mayoral forum on Thursday night. The event had to be moved from the Carter Center to Georgia State University because of the number of people who have registered was so great. The forum is free and open to the public.


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.


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  1. Kristi Eide July 12, 2017 9:03 am

    I wish this positive way of thinking about tree and soil preservation would extend to Brookhaven, where the developers and their tree destruction seem to get prioritized treatment. The development of a new elementary school in the same space as an existing park, the forest destruction and retention pond building is almost beyond logical thinking. http://www.reporternewspapers.net/2016/05/11/brookhaven-approves-controversial-4-7-million-sale-skyland-park-dekalbs-boe-new-elementary-school/Report

  2. Teresa Finlayson July 14, 2017 1:25 am

    Hi Maria.

    Thank you so much for this informative series.

    I’m pleased that our city council has taken an initiative to protect what is probably Atlanta’s greatest resource by implementing a moratorium on private developers clear cutting 5 or more acres of land.

    But really wish it also applied to public lands too as the city is allowing the Zoo to cut down 73 trees in about 6 acres of a city park to expand the Zoo and erect a 1,000-space parking deck. Many of these 73 trees are large hardwoods.

    These trees provide shade, reduce noise, and improve our air quality – but more importantly they define our city and neighborhood.

    Several trees marked for removal are not in the deck footprint, but are being removed for landscaping and grading purposes.

    If the deck was slightly smaller or erected in the south end of the Boulevard lot (where there’s considerably less trees) the impact to the tree canopy would be greatly reduced.

    Minimizing the deck makes sense. Piedmont Park, which has double the greenspace and event space plus a Botanical Gardens that hosts large concerts, has only a 765-space deck (and less spaces in surface lots to supplement). Also, just a few blocks south of this deck project on Boulevard is the undeveloped Beltline and large parcels of land with relatively few trees. In a few years, these parcels will house large density projects with parking structures that would further supplement Zoo parking.

    There is no tree replacement plan that will yield the same quality canopy on the Boulevard side of Grant Park in our lifetime.

    To prevent more catastrophic losses to our tree canopy, the city needs to work better at ensuring that healthy, smart development takes place on both public and private land.Report

  3. william f turcotte July 17, 2017 8:54 pm

    I live in Grant Park . The city is going build a huge parking lot with a green roof top . Sounds so environmentally friendly untill you hear over 50 large trees will come down . New large tree can never be planted here due do the concrete 4 inches under the grass . This 45 million parking deck will sit right off Boullevard . After the Zoo New snake house in which 40 large trees were lost , the new Elephant house and the new parking deck 50 plus tree’s are beloved Grand Park is Becoming a the song Big Yellow Taxi .Report

  4. Steve July 19, 2017 9:50 am

    Part of the problem is Arborist division is part of Office of Building, not interested in keeping trees. Approval to remove is almost a rubber stamp, proper signposting is rarely practiced and appeals are handled by a different organization (the Tree Commission) and cost $75 each.Report

  5. Mercy September 23, 2017 2:14 pm

    In the last five years, Tuxedo Park has lost 30 acres of tre canopy. Four and six acre lots are clear cut, with no consideration how this will impact neighbors’ properties (erosion, flooding, etc). No replacement trees are ever planted, just shrubs and “decorative” mini-trees. Fines are ridiculously low – $150,000 is nothing to a contractor or owner building an $8,000,000 palace.Report


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