Trees in Atlanta: City plans to plant 1,200 big trees within two years

By David Pendered

Atlanta is seeking proposals for the planting of 1,200 large trees throughout the city by April 2018. Varieties range from the beloved dogwood and magnolia to stately elm, beech and black walnut.

Tree canopy, piedmont lake

Atlanta plans to plant 1,200 trees by 2018, most of them in areas that now have few trees. Credit:

The tree-planting program is part of the city’s decade-old reforestation effort. This particular project addresses large, technical tree installations that are beyond the scope of community volunteers, according to the request for proposals.

For example, this project is in addition to the city’s contract with Trees Atlanta, signed last autumn, to plant about 4,000 trees around the city. The program relies on volunteers and targets areas where the tree canopy is less than 48 percent, which is the average tree coverage rate for the entire city according to a recent analysis.

The RFP envisions planting trees that are up to 14 feet high. The Trees Atlanta program plants trees about eight feet high. The RFP also calls for stump grinding services are maintenance through 2020.

Greg Levine, Trees Atlanta’s co-executive director and chief program officer, on Monday outlined the value of Atlanta’s tree canopy.

“It is the identity of the city,” Levine said. “Having a diverse and large forest canopy is much of what the country identifies with Atlanta being, ‘a city in a forest.’ We don’t have identity with mountains, or beach, or a river running through the city. We do grow some of the most beautiful specimens and diverse specimens in the country.”

Atlanta is known as "a city in a forest." But many neighborhoods have less than a 48 percent tree canopy. File/Credit:

Atlanta is known as “a city in a forest.” But many neighborhoods have less than a 48 percent tree canopy. File/Credit:

The environmental benefits of a thriving forest include cleaning the air and stormwater runoff, as well as reducing the heat-island effect that results from paved and hard surfaces, Levine said.

Atlanta funds these tree-planting programs through its Tree Trust Fund.

The fund gets its money from fees paid for the removal of trees, both permitted and illegal removals. The notion is that people who destroy trees should pay recompense.

A twist in this year’s urban forestry contract is that companies interested in the job must submit a tree design plan for a park along the Atlanta BeltLine.

D.H. Stanton Park has been selected as a demonstration site. This is the park that was renovated at a cost of $4.5 and besieged by vandals soon after it was opened, in 2011. The park is in the Peoplestown neighborhood, a few blocks south of the half-way point between Turner Field and Zoo Atlanta.

At Stanton Park, proponents are to locate prospective sites for trees, determine if utilities could be damaged by a new tree, provide a two-year maintenance plan, and provide methods to track the trees’ health and report to the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

Atlanta's heat island

This satellite image of metro Atlanta, taken Sept. 28, 2000, shows developed areas as grey and wooded suburbs and fields as green. File/Credit:

The chosen vendor is to distribute the trees across the city. Each council district is to receive no less than 30 trees. That means 360 of the 1,200 trees are to be allocated to meet the minimum planting requirement, according to the RFP.

The remaining 840 trees are to be planted in areas that have less than 48 percent tree canopy.

Another requirement is that 120 trees, of the 1,200 trees, are to be planted on private property abutting public rights of way. Trees are to be planted no farther than 20 feet from public property.

Finally, in a nod to the city’s effort to work in concert with residents, the RFP notes:

  • “The Proponent will be expected to work with community members, political leadership, and City agencies in the delivery of services. As a public entity, City of Atlanta expects customer service excellence in engagement with citizens, business owners, and visitors.”



David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

6 replies
  1. MelaniePollard says:

    While the article is encouraging that the city recognizes the “City in a Forest” and the importance of retaining the green oasis that so many seek out, is misleading to ATL citizens to suggest this will fix the problem of our disappearing canopy. Trees are valuable not only culturally, but for the air quality, stormwater management, water filtering, oxygen producing, heat index lowering, wildlife feeding benefits that our “mature specimen trees” offer. We cannot replant or replace the centuries-old trees being clear cut throughout the metro area by high-impact development. One drive around the city illustrates this well enough by observing the destroyed soils and densification that leaves little, if any, room for overstory trees to grow. Ever. Our trees roots have much shallower top soil to utilize and therefore must grow further and together to survive. And they have done this well for millennia.

    Trees are a keystone to our environment and without them, the future of Atlanta’s environment is questionable. We have no ocean breeze and are land-locked for a future carbon sink effect. Without realizing it, we rely on the mature, overstory trees- measuring anywhere between 70-100 feet- that do a tremendous job for our southern urban city. The 14 feet, understory trees are also important to a healthy canopy but do not offer the long-range benefits that the mature canopies provide. These canopies are often found in or near old-growth soils which are part of the reason the trees are as large and majestic as they are. Old-growth soils that house a multitude of chemical compounds – found in many of our antibiotics common today-  are found in patches throughout the metro area since the Creek Indians transferred their lands to the state back in the 1820’s. Atlanta had already started to urbanize so the trees were never cut for agriculture and allowed to remain with the ample space needed for the modest-sized parcels. Old-growth, pre-European soils, rich with mycorrhizae fungii, were left undisturbed for centuries enabling the “grandfather” oaks, hickories and tulip trees to grow to full maturity. A healthy White Oak, can live to 600 years or more in the right conditions.

    Yet they must make-do with only 3-4 inches of top soil on top of Georgia clay. Large trees share their root systems with others to help strengthen their hold in the shallow top soil during heavy storms and transfer nutrients to one another when in stress or to leave for other trees as they decline and die. In other words, a tree alone is not as healthy as a tree in a small grove or forest. Planting back what we have destroyed and expecting the mature trees we have today to grow to the same size with less healthy soil to feed from and fewer trees to stand next to is wishful thinking. Plus, it took 150+ years for many of these older trees to grow to this size. What amount of canopy do we need till then? The answer is that 70-80% is needed for a healthy urban environment. Yet, the city of Atlanta only owns 5% parks and 2.5 is recreational. Combine that with the 70% that exists on private property, you are left with the mind-jolting reality that the City of Atlanta only protects 2.5% of their canopy. That can be validated by the GIS engineering study of the COA tree canopy conducted by Tony Giarrusso, senior scientist at Georgia Tech, last year. Other metro cities are conducting similar studies with the USDA satellite imagery release in February and free to municipalities who are vested in preserving their canopies. This technology affords planners, engineers, architects, and decision makers the opportunity to strategically develop according to what is needed for a healthy, urban environment- one that includes greenspace infrastructure, landscape designs for wildlife, and a realistic look at the failure of recompense system which has become simply, a “cost of doing business” for the turn-key real estate development pattern prevalent today.

    Planting 14 foot trees is not preserving our “City in a Forest” for the future, it is only only beautifying the landscape. It is misleading to think we can plant beautiful trees into densified areas and expect them to grow healthy and tall. Since the Beltline has approximately 20% canopy and since we are losing canopy rapidly – Brookhaven lost over 3% between 2010-2013 before the economy recovered – the metro area must collectively take a more stringent outlook on what we are going to do about our trees. We must do something to preserve what we have now before it is too late.

    Atlanta Protects Trees, a citizen’s coalition formed last year to address the disappearing specimen trees, and meets regularly to address this issue along with many other issues related to the low percentage parks, inadequate protection for specimen trees, and much-needed greenspace infrastructure throughout the region. APT is examining new ways to codify, engage with the community, educate municipalities, citizens and developers, and measure the true value of trees in our unique Georgia environment. We believe that mature, specimen trees are and should protected – like water and air –  as a necessary public and wildlife resource.Report


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