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People, Places & Parks Thought Leadership

Voices of the South River Forest

In May, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) joined together to launch the South River Forest Consensus Building and Stakeholder Engagement process. As the largest untapped natural resource in metro Atlanta surrounded by historically disinvested neighborhoods, protecting and preserving the South River Forest has the potential to change thousands of lives with improved water quality, access to greenspace, and a strong tree canopy. 

The 3,500 acre forest stretches from Southeast Atlanta to Southwest DeKalb County, touching communities whose voices have often been lost in conversations around city planning and environmental protection. As the future of the South River Forest is shaped, there is no better time than to listen to some of those residents who can speak to the needs of their communities and how this process should continue to move forward. 

The future of the forest is now in the hands of local communities. If you would like to make your voice heard too, make sure to fill out the survey here. 

Shirley Nichols, South River Gardens

What is your connection to the South River Forest?

I have been living in the South River Forest for 46 years. I can walk down the street and be in the forest, the Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve. My community is encompassed and surrounded by the forest, making it an extension of my home.

Our community has been fighting battles to protect the forest since before we even knew what we were protecting. All we knew is that we were trying to keep hold of the one green space that we had, an area where people were always trying to put things like landfills and truckyards. We’ve always known that we had something special and that we couldn’t let it go. 

Now that the community engagement process is happening, we have this new concept of what the whole forest could look like. I’m glad that others are starting to see what makes it so special, now. too.

What would you like the area to look like in 10 years?

I want to see healthy, green trees, a clean South River flowing through the forest, managed paths that connect us to all of the other greenspaces around, recreational areas for kids and adults, and for all of the natural features to be preserved for future generations. This can be a place where all kinds of creatures grow and thrive and where kids can develop a passion for nature and ecology. 

I also expect to see a lot more people coming into the neighborhood once they recognize what we have.  We are accustomed to a quiet serene lifestyle hidden from most of Atlanta, including our elected officials.  The forest really is a jewel of this city and I look forward to more people discovering it. 

Why is community engagement so important in this process?

Having the communities come together and shape the future of the South River Forest creates a sense of ownership and empowerment and gives life to a concept that will continue with future generations. This isn’t a dream that we wake up from, this is a major opportunity for Atlanta and Dekalb, comprised of a lot of people working together with real focus, energy, and resources behind them to make this possible and build something sustainable. This project has the potential to be a great connector for all of Southeast Atlanta and Southwest DeKalb, providing us with amenities that we have never seen in our part of town. 

Final thoughts?

If we don’t seize this opportunity now, we’ll miss it. This is our last chance to do something with the South River Forest. We have momentum right now and we can’t slow down. 

Joe Santifer, Glen Emerald Park

What is your connection to the South River Forest?

I’m a recent transplant to the area, I moved to the DeKalb part of the forest a few years ago after living in Buckhead for 12 years. I have a set of triplets and I knew that they needed a community like this to grow up in – I’d been looking for an opportunity to move here for the 25 years that I’ve been in Atlanta. This is a special forest that our community is lucky to have. 

There’s a misconception that Atlanta is a “city in the forest,” which makes people think we have a lot of parks and green spaces but the truth is that we don’t. Only 6% of the land in Atlanta is dedicated to parks, most cities have double or even triple that. We certainly didn’t have a space like the South River Forest in Buckhead. 

We know that the connection between people and greenspace is important for many reasons. Look no further than the Beltline and its walkable connections between developments and greenspace to see how much demand there is. We have an opportunity to create something just as remarkable here while also making sure that we don’t run into the same gentrification issues we’ve seen come with the Beltline. 

What would you like the area to look like in 10 years?

I want to see it become a connected series of parks, forest, and greenspace, with some of it developed and a lot of it left in a wilder state. We can make improvements to the area while also maintaining its natural appeal and beauty. We saw similar efforts done to preserve natural areas around the Chattahoochee which now attract new visitors and investments every year. We can have that too.  

Most importantly, we need to preserve this area with the people of the community at the forefront of everything. In 10 years, we should see a lot of the same residents and their families in these neighborhoods. Decisions should be made with the goal to protect legacy residents with guarantees on keeping housing affordable and thoughtful development. It’s not something we can do after the fact – it has to be woven into the entire process. This cannot be considered a success otherwise. 

Why is community engagement so important in this process?

A lot of people, both inside and outside of this area, don’t know the potential or the threats to the South River Forest. We can create one of the most beautiful nature preserves in the state or we can end up with concrete lots and facilities that do nothing to benefit our communities. By fostering this vision, we get more people involved, more people invested, and we make it clear that we don’t just want this preserved, we’re demanding it. 

Final thoughts?

Any investments in the South River Forest should be for the benefit of the community and the environment. If a plan or idea can’t meet both of those qualifications, much less one of them, then it should not be a part of the vision or our future.


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