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Imagining the Future of the Chattahoochee River

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By Walt Ray, Chattahoochee Program Director, The Trust for Public Land in Georgia

I grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania, where the Allegheny River serves as the backdrop for daily life. It is ever-present, ever-flowing. Everyone talks about the river. How high is the water level? What did you catch on your last fishing trip? How about that ice flow! Exploring the Allegheny with my family and friends, I developed a healthy respect for, and love of, the river.

That connection translated to a professional interest in how communities engage with and value natural systems. In my role with the Trust for Public Land, I wake up every day thinking about the Chattahoochee River. The Chattahoochee provides drinking water for millions of people, fuels economic growth and provides habitat for beloved and rare wildlife. But few of us interact with the river on a daily basis. Many have never seen or even thought of the river. This critical regional resource has too often been misused, misunderstood, and even forgotten. It remains difficult to find and largely inaccessible throughout much of its course. With the population of our region growing and demands on the river increasing, it is clear that collaborative leadership is necessary to ensure that this vital waterway serves evolving needs.

Decades of dedication and hard work by many people and organizations have resulted in incredible gains in water quality and other measures, yet misconceptions and apathy persists. We are all grateful to the original Friends of the River, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Chattahoochee Nature Center, and others for their tireless work. In more recent years, discussions by dozens of entities, such as the Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy, Chattahoochee NOW and many more about how to activate the Chattahoochee River and its valley have resulted in promising ideas and ambitious plans. It is time for these efforts and ideas to culminate in a comprehensive vision for creating a public realm along the river.

The Trust for Public Land has worked to protect and provide access to the river for many years, playing a leadership role in protecting land for public use along its banks, such as the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. We seek now to increase public engagement with the river and bring stakeholders together to develop one, comprehensive plan that supports the many ways people can live, work and play along the river. 

As we do so, important questions continue to rise to the forefront: How can access be improved for everybody? What amenities will facilitate stronger use and programming? Can the corridor serve as a regional spine for non-motorized transportation? How might this spine link to regional transit, bicycle, and pedestrian systems? Are there areas that people may want to live and work within the corridor? How are all these considerations woven into one seamless experience?

In this master planning process, we aspire to serve as a convener and facilitator to ensure that all perspectives are appropriately reflected in a plan aimed at activating a 100-mile stretch of the Chattahoochee River and its valley from Buford Dam to Chattahoochee Bend State Park. We seek to collaborate with partners and leverage the strength of our national organization to bring together the broad range of perspectives needed to successfully focus the important work currently underway. The community’s collective vision will culminate in an aspirational plan that will outline proposals to design and construct Georgia’s new public realm.

While it is impossible to predict the outcome of this process, many anticipate that a bold vision for a 100-mile long linear park will include options for excellent public access, define opportunities for improved visibility, support transportation alternatives, and propose amenities that will encourage activation of programming throughout the Chattahoochee River corridor. In addition, the plan may identify opportunities for redevelopment that provide a built-in user group and stewardship base for this new place.

Our aspirations are to:

  • Drive engagement – We want a diverse group of people to encounter the river so that each can understand the opportunities and challenges.
  • Create an inclusive and inviting public realm – We want all members of the public to experience the river positively and to view it as a delightfully fun place to live, work and play.
  • Generate interest and recognition – We want to position the Chattahoochee River as a beloved national asset.

As we begin our work to advance this vision, we hope to leave a legacy that spans generations. We dream of a seamless, fully functional public realm along the Chattahoochee that entices a diverse population to want to live, work, and play along its length.


Walt Ray

Walt Ray is a landscape architect and planner who recognizes the value of public dialogue and consensus building in developing the public realm. Walt works with the Trust for Public Land to activate and preserve the Chattahoochee River and its valley through planning, capital projects, programming, and marketing.

Featured Photo (top) Credit: Tammy Bates with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper

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