Linking Water, Forests, & Communities in Atlanta: Part 2

U.S. Forest Service projects link forest cover with community engagement and environmental justice

Residents of west Atlanta neighborhoods learn more about the benefits of urban forests and greenspaces. Photo courtesy of West Atlanta Watershed Alliance.
Residents of west Atlanta neighborhoods learn more about the benefits of urban forests and greenspaces. Photo courtesy of West Atlanta Watershed Alliance.

Projects led by Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) researchers support a wide partnership effort 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 the watershed 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 in Atlanta. Part 1 of this CompassLive series highlighted SRS urban forest assessments in the Proctor Creek watershed. The next step will be to link what’s learned from those assessments about the value and extent of ecosystem services in Proctor Creek to a survey of residents throughout the city of Atlanta — not just those in the environs of Proctor Creek – 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.

Cassandra Johnson Gaither, project leader of the SRS Integrating Human and Natural Systems unit and research social scientist, is working with researchers and students from Morehouse College to complete the survey, which will contain questions about residents’ attitudes and engagement with Atlanta’s urban forest, including their support for tree planting by the city or by private residents, and residents’ involvement in community organizations that promote tree preservation and planting.

“What makes this project innovative is the link between actual measures of local environmental services and people’s participation in the production of those services,” says Johnson Gaither. “We’re broadening environmental justice research by empirically looking at people’s perceptions of how they may or may not co-create the urban forest with resource professionals rather than only looking at residents as passive recipients of what others provide.”

The study includes measures of human engagement and advocacy for Atlanta’s urban forest as a way of gauging environmental justice. The researchers will analyze environmental justice according to three indicators:

1) Community proximity to hazardous waste sites and refineries, as well as estimated air pollution exposure;

2) Community access to environmental services provided by the urban forest (e.g., cooling, carbon sequestration, and energy savings); and

3) Residents’ perceptions of, engagement with, and advocacy for trees in the city.

“This study focuses on residents within the city limits of Atlanta, not the surrounding suburbs,” says Johnson Gaither. “There have been a lot of demographic shifts in recent decades in some of Atlanta’s downtown-proximate communities. Places that 20 years ago were considered ‘inner-city’ have suddenly transformed into hip, urban ‘in-town’ neighborhoods, and with this change in people likely come changes in how people engage with nearby nature and the amount of energy they expend on keeping it intact.”

“We want to see how this attention to the urban forest may vary across neighborhoods — those that are still lower income and mostly African American, some that are middle/upper income and predominantly African American, and those that are either majority white or mixed and middle/upper income — and importantly, attempt to understand this attention to the urban forest in terms of the broader issues and concerns people have about community integrity.”

Read more about the urban forest assessment in Part 1.

This is the second 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 published through InterfaceSouth.

For more information, email Annie Hermansen-Báez at

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