Gravel > Aspiration and the Atlanta Prison Farm

(ideas. work)  It’s been a tough few years for aspirational city-building. With all the intolerance and polarization in our country, combined with COVID-19, many of us are in survival mode and don’t have the time or energy to imagine how we might live our best lives if we could. Aspiration is a big part of my professional life, and in my work on the South River Forest, it seems like every corner of its largely unprotected landscape is under siege. The current proposal to destroy the now-reforested Atlanta Prison Farm under a false sense of urgency is utterly depressing. The negative energy is debilitating.

The recent opening of Atlanta’s new Westside Park, however, reminds me that it’s possible to accomplish aspirational ideas for the city’s future in ways that satisfy multiple goals. Even in these boggy days of rapid and callous change, I believe that when we invest a few minutes to listen to each other and understand what’s at stake, we can still accomplish big ideas. I’ll get back to that, but first, a little backstory on Westside Park.

In 2003, the Trust for Public Land, (TPL), a national nonprofit land conservation organization, started looking at the potential of the Atlanta Beltline. At the time, we were still a fledgling grassroots movement of community activists pitching a crazy idea. It was ambitious and aspirational, and it was compelling other people and organizations like TPL to get involved. Jim Langford was the director of the Georgia chapter, and his idea would make our vision even bigger – and better. The next year, TPL hired Alex Garvin, a planner from New York, to craft a proposal for a string of new parks along the loop and Garvin hired me to work as part of his on-the-ground team. Rather than merely connecting the 700 acres of existing parks along the Beltline, we proposed carving 1,400 acres out of its industrial belt and reshaping them into a new public realm.

My favorite part of that job – and my most thrilling trip around the Beltline to date – was the day our team toured the 22-mile loop in a police helicopter. It is amazing from the air, and the city became remarkably small. Overgrown with kudzu and long before it was flanked by new apartments and breweries, the Beltline cut an amazing, free-flowing corridor between Atlanta’s neighborhoods, slicing easily through its maze of city streets. And lost in the mix of the vast industrial tracts and residential pockets that make northwest Atlanta, we saw a large quarry, still in operation, nestled in the trees just half a mile off the route. Garvin was enamored. He said it should be a park – the largest gem on Atlanta’s “emerald necklace.” Back on the ground, we went to visit the quarry and the scale of the city returned. With skyscrapers visible in the distance, sheer rock walls cut a hole deep into Atlanta’s granite foundation. It was breathtaking.

Our work culminated with a glossy 140-page deliverable that included “Bellwood Lake Park” as its headline proposal. And while several people in leadership positions did not want the quarry park included because it would raise the public’s expectations too high, TPL insisted. We even featured an aerial view of the 45-acre, 350-foot pit on the back cover of the book. That move made a difference. Big ideas need to inspire, and they need to attract champions, and the quarry park could do both. Vulcan Materials, which leased the quarry from Fulton County, was about to spend a lot of money to upgrade their machinery. Inspired, they offered to instead be bought out of their lease. Meanwhile, the Department of Watershed Management recognized the potential for the quarry as a reservoir to hold thirty days’ worth of emergency drinking water for a city that at the time could only hold three. The stars had aligned. The County bought Vulcan out of their lease and the City of Atlanta bought the land from the County. That was way back in 2006. Over fifteen years in the making, today, Westside Park is a signature greenspace, but it’s much more than that. It is a 280-acre built, bold, big idea that accomplishes multiple goals – and it’s beautiful.

Inspired by bold ideas like the Atlanta Beltline and Westside Park, the Atlanta City Design begins with the premise “…that the city is going to change; that not changing is not an option; that our change will involve significant growth; and that if properly designed, growth can be a powerful tool for shaping the Atlanta we want to become.” It was completed in 2017 and adopted into the city charter, and the South River Forest is one of its signature proposals. A few months after completing the City Design, I began working with The Nature Conservancy to flesh out this aspirational idea. This wild, unprotected landscape is metro Atlanta’s last chance for a big, bold, forested greenspace inside the perimeter highway. It’s a big idea designed to accomplish multiple goals – and it’s beautiful.

The essential centerpiece of the South River Forest is the Atlanta Prison Farm – a 340-acre tract of land owned by the city and outside the city limits. It is thirty years into a natural process of forest restoration and has been proposed as a park for over two decades. The unwillingness of Atlanta’s civic leadership to see its potential is depressing – especially as they celebrate bold ideas in other parts of town. Instead, they’re in a full-court press to build a splashy new Public Safety Training Center on 85-acres of the farm. By ignoring the impacts of noise and smoke from its shooting range, bomb detonation field, car chase training track, and burn building, they are turning a blind eye to the downsides for adjacent communities. I wish they would slow down enough to understand what’s at stake. I’m convinced there’s an answer that accommodates their desire for new training facilities and also the city’s longstanding and clearly stated goals for equity, economic opportunity, community engagement, quality of life, climate resiliency, public health, recreation, and nature.

Crafting such a vision will take time, but because we were just told about the proposed site for the training center in May, it’s reasonable to imagine we are at the beginning of a public process, not the end. There are good alternative sites like Atlanta Metropolitan State College and Fulton Industrial that deserve equal attention. On September 7, however, Atlanta City Council will be asked to approve a ground lease to the Atlanta Police Foundation before they’ve even identified the public funding required to build the facility. If Council approves, they’ll be literally giving away the farm – paying too big a price and rushing a risky decision in an election year. It’s nuts. Instead, I wish they would join the community in drafting a vision that 1) Preserves this irreplaceable natural resource for our aspirational future; 2) Respects the voice of surrounding communities who will live with whatever decision is made; and 3) Envisions a public safety training center that includes the public in its vision, and one that prepares emergency responders to respond to community needs – even in the location of their training facility.  

I’ve been told more than once it’s too late for the farm, but I’ve seen the stars align for big, compelling ideas like the Atlanta Beltline and Westside Park. This is possible. We need the South River Forest. And what’s at stake with the Atlanta Prison Farm is not just the trees – although the ecological and mental health benefits of this greenspace are immeasurable. It’s not just the community – although there has been zero engagement, and the predominately low-income communities of color that surround the farm deserve to be heard. It’s also not the urgency of public safety – because these buildings won’t be open for years and they could be built almost anywhere else. What’s really at stake is our lives. We need to ask ourselves if we want an aspirational Atlanta, or if we are willing to settle for less.  >> Ryan Gravel

MORE > See more photos of the South River Forest in this PHOTO ESSAY.

MORE > Take a journey into the Atlanta Prison Farm. READ.

MORE > What should the community engagement process look like? READ.

MORE > The South River watershed is a regional dumping ground. READ.

5 replies

  1. Inspiring about the Westside park. Depressing about the farm. So proud of you for fighting the fight. I wish I could just wave a wand and shift city planning minds.

    Love you, Love your work.


  2. We deserve better, or even world-class, political leadership. This city will grow tremendously but seems to be taking on characteristics of bad behavior and, to your point, limited vision. Keep up the good fight!

    • If you live in the city limits, definitely call your councilmember. If you live in this part of unincorporated DeKalb Couty, call Commissioner Larry Johnson, but also call Atlanta City Council. There’s also a growing coalition of advocates that you can connect with. The South River Forest Coalition is a great place to start.

      • If you live in the city limits, definitely call your councilmember. If you live in this part of unincorporated DeKalb Couty, call Commissioner Larry Johnson, but also call Atlanta City Council. There’s also a growing coalition of advocates that you can connect with. The South River Forest Coalition is a great place to start.

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