(work.) This post first ran under the headline “Future Earth Days Will Be Different” in the Saporta Report’s leadership blog. I wrote about the City of Atlanta’s acquisition of a 220-acre forest called Lake Charlotte. It’s a huge investment in a larger opportunity that was first proposed as part of my work on the Atlanta City Design. Now, the South River Forest is the focus of my work with The Nature Conservancy. Here’s the post.
April 22 marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which began as a college teach-in and grew to become the most visible conservation and environmental awareness day in the world. Due to COVID-19, however, most Earth Day 2020 events were cancelled. We missed hundreds of celebrations of this milestone anniversary, including The Nature Conservancy’s Wild for Georgia event, which my wife and I were co-hosting. That said, the global pandemic also made the meaning behind Earth Day more relevant than ever before. Our inability to gather transformed Earth Day from an annual celebration into a call to action. More urgently than ever, we need nature in our lives. We need more parks and public spaces so that our cities remain livable and resilient as we enter an increasingly uncertain future.
Atlanta boasts the highest percentage of urban tree canopy coverage among large U.S. cities, but it is a rapidly growing metropolis. As the metro area’s population continues to expand, so will the need for healthy urban forests, accessible public greenspace, and sustainable commercial and residential development. I worked with the Department of City Planning to articulate such a vision in the Atlanta City Design – a design response to the dramatic changes coming to the City of Atlanta over the next twenty years. We crafted an aspiration for the city centered around connections between people and nature.
One of those connections, naturally, is the preservation of Atlanta’s verdant tree canopy and related protection of watersheds and open spaces. And last week, just in time for Earth Day, the Atlanta City Council made that connection quite real by acquiring a 220-acre tract formerly known as the Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve. This parcel was the largest tract of privately-owned forest in the city limits when the City Design included it as part of the proposed South River Park. Combined with Atlanta’s existing Southside Park, Honor Farm, and other tracts of land nearby, this forest will contribute significantly toward the equitable and ecological vision outlined in the City Design.
Preservation of Lake Charlotte was made possible by The Conservation Fund, which purchased the land in 2019 to ensure its eventual permanent protection by the City. Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottom’s support for acquisition and the City Council’s action was possible because updated rules for the use of tree recompense funds were updated to allow the acquisition of forested land. This forward-thinking partnership, which also includes the Department of Parks & Recreation, has resulted in the permanent protection of Lake Charlotte’s 60,000 trees – a stunningly beautiful and predominately native forest within the South River watershed.
Building on Lake Charlotte’s momentum, a diverse coalition of conservation groups, environmental planners, and community-based organizations continue working to advance larger visions for the South River. This includes The Nature Conservancy, which has conceptualized the South River Forest as a 3,500-acre assemblage of public and private land in southeast Atlanta and unincorporated southwest DeKalb County. By engaging community-based stakeholders and organizations, articulating the proposed forest’s ecological benefits, and embedding commitments to housing and jobs in its vision, the South River Forest offers a monumental opportunity to invest in regional resilience and sustainable economic development.
Like cities around the world, Atlanta is at a crossroads and the acquisition of Lake Charlotte proves the city can make significant and strategic investments toward its best future. COVID-19, however, also illustrates how challenging the road ahead will be, and our need to continually adapt, expand, and manage the investments we make. In light of that, let’s consider Earth Day 2020 as an urgent call to action. Let’s get to work on real and tangible investments this year that deliver on long standing plans and commitments. And on the 51st anniversary of Earth Day next year, let’s celebrate all the accomplishments we made and recommit to another year of action to protect our beautiful and ever-changing world. >> Ryan Gravel