Linking Water, Forests, & People in Atlanta: Part 1, Urban Forest Assessment

U.S. Forest Service projects link forest cover with community vitality and human health

Sign along Proctor Creek, which flows through northwest Atlanta. Over 127,000 people live in the Proctor Creek urban watershed. Photo by Mary Silver/Epoch Times used with permission.
Sign along Proctor Creek, which flows through northwest Atlanta. Over 127,000 people live in the Proctor Creek urban watershed. Photo by Mary Silver/Epoch Times used with permission.

Projects led by Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) researchers support a wide partnership to clean up an urban Atlanta river and revitalize the communities in its watershed.

Proctor Creek snakes through downtown Atlanta and eventually works its way north to the Chattahoochee River. Along the way it passes through both middle and lower income neighborhoods, including areas of the city with high rates of poverty and crime. The waterway is plagued with illegal dumping, pollution, erosion, and high bacteria levels from regular stormwater flooding and sewage overflows.

In 2013, Proctor Creek was named one of 11 new projects of the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, an innovative union of 13 federal agencies that focus on both natural resources and economic development. The partnership works to improve coordination among member agencies on problems in project watersheds and to promote community-led efforts at economic, social, and ecological revitalization.

As a part of the partnership, the SRS Integrating Human and Natural Systems unit is conducting three interconnected studies that will provide valuable information on the links between urban greenspace, ecosystem services, environmental justice, and human health.

Dudley Hartel, the center manager for Urban Forestry South, one of two of the SRS unit’s science delivery centers, leads the Forest Service project that’s using i-Tree tools to better understand the current state of the urban forest in the Proctor Creek watershed and to develop management strategies to support efforts to restore the creek and revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods.

While conducting the urban tree canopy survey throughout Proctor Creek and elsewhere in the city of Atlanta, Hartel saw the full range of conditions, challenges, and benefits of the urban forest, as well as the range of social and economic conditions in which the urban forest exists. The forest plots he and his team searched out and surveyed were found in people’s yards, in parks, at schools, along highways, and beside railroad tracks. They surveyed plots in upper middle-class neighborhoods with old trees and green lawns and depressed neighborhoods with few trees and a great deal of concrete, asphalt, and abandoned buildings.

As part of this project, Eric Kuehler, Urban Forestry South technology transfer specialist, used remote sensing technology and i-Tree Canopy to assess the urban forest’s tree and shrub canopy, impervious surface, herbaceous ground cover, bare soil, and water cover. He then used field data collection through i-Tree Eco to describe the urban forest structure and tree canopy volume in order to estimate forest-related ecosystem services such as water quality provisioning, cooling, and carbon sequestration.

Kuehler also used i-Tree Hydro to examine some of the stormwater runoff and sewage overflow problems in Proctor Creek and propose potential mitigation strategies to reduce impervious surface and increase forest cover in targeted areas.

Data and analysis from this project are already providing important information on the role of impervious surface in polluting Proctor Creek. Analysis found that pollution could be reduced by 20 percent by disconnecting storm drains from impervious surfaces that lead directly to Proctor Creek, and estimates from i-Tree Hydro show that an expanded urban tree canopy could reduce pollution loading even further.

The next step will be to link what’s being learned about the value and extent of ecosystem services in Proctor Creek to a survey of residents throughout the city of Atlanta about trees and the urban forest, access to greenspace, and the ability to influence policy decisions made regarding urban forests and the ecosystem services they provide.

This is the first part of a three-part series on SRS research projects in Atlanta. These articles are adapted from the August 2015 Issue 19 of Leaves of Change, the bulletin of the SRS Centers for Urban and Interface Forestry.

For more information, email Annie Hermansen-Báez at

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