By Guest Columnist LEIGH BURTON FINLAYSON, a resident of Grant Park
According to a report distributed by the Atlanta City Planning Department at an Atlanta City Council tree ordinance work session last autumn, 48,306 healthy trees were cut or cleared in the last six years within the city limits of Atlanta (Fiscal Year 2014 to 2019). The City blessed the cutting of these trees, issuing the necessary permits for their removal.
With the steady removal of thousands of healthy trees each year, Atlanta, “the City in a Forest,” soon will become a far less livable place. We must act now because once again, promised policy changes and a tree ordinance update are behind schedule.
We are three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars into the latest study of how to plan for the city’s growth with an emphasis on protecting and enhancing the urban ecology. Meanwhile, we continue on an unsustainable path of larger and larger building sizes, unaffordable gentrifying neighborhoods, increased impervious surfaces, pay-as-you go tree removal, and mounting adverse environmental impact – with approximately the same number of residents as in 1970.
Our urban forest yields benefits that are expensive, if not impossible, to replace – protection against dangerously high summer temperatures, flooding, and climate change; cleaner air and water; greater biodiversity; more beautiful neighborhoods; a higher quality of life and healthier people. If we are not protecting our tree canopy, we are not protecting our ecosystem and the people who live in it.
Several current planning initiatives – the City Design Project, its offshoot the Urban Ecology Framework, and a pending update to the tree protection ordinance – are ostensibly framed around protecting the tree canopy and other environmental resources as we prepare for unprecedented growth and a population projected to double within 25 years. The staggering rate of tree loss, however, has occurred despite the fact that Atlanta’s population has only just now regained its previous peak of around half-million, first reached nearly 50 years ago.
In addition to the healthy trees permitted for removal, the city okayed approximately 7,500 unhealthy trees per year for removal (based on the two-year period for which data were reported). And another 2,268 trees were destroyed illegally during the reported 6-year period.
Unfortunately, these numbers do not include trees permitted for removal from our parks and public lands. Total losses therefore do not include the 800 trees cleared to reconfigure a “reversible course” at Bobby Jones Golf Course; the hundreds of trees cleared to expand Zoo Atlanta’s African Savanna exhibit and construct a 1000-space parking garage in historic Grant Park; or trees routinely cleared for road widening and construction, stormwater infrastructure maintenance, and other public works projects.
But we already know what we need to do. We need to design the built environment in harmony with the natural environment. We need to align our City codes to ensure that our growth does not compromise the natural systems we depend upon. According to the experts, it can be done. Former Georgia Tech professor Arthur C. Nelson, whose 2016 presentation kicked off the City Design Project, advised that the City of Atlanta can accommodate the expected population growth without compromising the tree canopy.
The simple secret, according to Nelson and others, is to concentrate growth in the city’s core and along corridors while protecting our residential neighborhoods. If we focus development along spines of density and reuse brownfields and aging strip centers, we can protect the leafy neighborhoods – where the majority of tree canopy is located – and still have plenty of room to accommodate growth. “Draw a line around the neighborhoods and protect the tree canopy,” advised Ryan Gravel, who was instrumental in creation of the Atlanta BeltLine and is one of the primary authors of the City Design plan.
Many property owners voluntarily build in a manner that respects the natural landscape, but others will not do so unless limits are in place. Atlanta’s average new home size has grown steadily over the years, even as the average number of people per household has shrunk. For decades, single-family homeowners chose to build well below the maximum allowable limits for each lot. More recently, driven by rising land values, the maximums have become the minimums. If the potential building envelope is 50 percent of the lot, a new single-family house will cover 50 percent of the lot. If the potential building envelope for a commercial or mixed-use development is 100 percent of the lot, up to 100 percent of the lot will be graded, paved, or built upon.
All the studies point to the same solutions: create greater density (more housing units per footprint), smaller footprints, less grading, fewer paved parking spaces, taller buildings surrounded by greenspace, site-specific rather than pre-packaged building plans, more careful construction practices, and a long-term strategy for funding and preserving greenspace.
Furthermore, we need to designate a class of urban trees that we will not touch — trees we will leave for future generations as previous generations left them for us. It is not complicated but those who see our neighborhoods and parks as commodities, not communities, want us to think that it is too complicated to live in harmony with nature.
The adjusted schedule envisioned an updated tree protection ordinance projects a new ordinance draft in November 2019 – a timeframe that has already elapsed. The revised timeline, released in January, envisions a month-long public comment to begin in mid February on a new tree protection ordinance. Atlanta’s NPUs are to review and vote on the final recommendation in August.
If a new, more protective ordinance is not ready for implementation in very short order, the Atlanta City Council should enact immediate measures to stop the ongoing and overwhelming loss of trees. Further delay means irreparable damage to our urban forest – the hallmark natural feature of our City in the Forest.