The Future of Atlanta’s Urban Forest: Second in a Series

Atlanta is a city in a forest.

That’s more than a tagline. Among major U.S. cities, Atlanta — the city proper, that is, excluding  the suburbs for present purposes — has the most tree cover of all, at just under 50 percent.

Keep in mind, however, that not so very long ago, our urban forest was much, much larger and denser.  Below is a comparison of metro Atlanta’s tree cover over time, from 1974 to 1996. (The city limits appear in red.) It’s stunning, isn’t it?

Here’s another way of visualizing our city’s story. In the aerial photo below, the red, yellow, and green polygons represent greenspaces (most of them forested) that were identified by Georgia Tech in a 2003 study. Since then, in the intervening years, every single one of these greenspaces has been developed: 1,700 acres in total have been converted from trees, shrubs, and grass to a mix of buildings, paved lots, flower beds, etc.

Here are two close-up photos of a parcel located in East Atlanta. First, in 2003, we see a forested greenspace:

Today that same area in East Atlanta looks like this:

Development is welcome, of course. A new family moves into an old neighborhood. Mom and Dad pay property taxes that benefit the local schools, and they shop at the nearby supermarket. Their son or daughter attends those very same schools and finds seasonal work at the nearby supermarket, stocking shelves and bagging groceries.

The question is, how do we continue to develop without destroying an essential feature of what makes this wonderful city of ours both livable in the present moment and sustainable into the future.

Put differently, how do we keep from loving our city to death?

In the months ahead, a lot of smart, dedicated people will be attempting to answer that question. As I noted earlier, with the help of the consulting firm Biohabitats, Atlanta is undertaking to create an Urban Ecology Framework to transform Atlanta into a city of interconnected greenspaces, with a thoroughly revised tree ordinance that will be fully protective of our reputation as the City in a Forest.

What principles should guide that planning?

Here at Inman Park Tree Watch, we’re acutely sensitive to this matter of principles. Why? Because the history of our neighborhood — from Civil War battlefield, to garden suburb, to white flight, to “crime, poverty, and apathy,” to stop-the-road activism, to today’s boutiques and soaring property values — has taught us that no single generation, no one socioeconomic or demographic group, nor any individual “owns” a city.

We share it. Living cheek to jowl as we do, dependent as we are on air and water that respect no boundaries, bound to succeed or fail together, always subject to the vicissitudes of time, we share this city with each other and with residents who will take our place when we’re gone.

Which for us has an obvious consequence. The fact that we share this city means that fairness should be the most important principle of all, as we set out to envision and plan the future of Atlanta and its urban forest.

You may be thinking: what does the principle of fairness imply for the future of the City in a Forest? Tune in next time, and we’ll discuss.

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