Linking Water, Forests, & Communities in Atlanta: Part 3

U.S. Forest Service project links forest cover and socioeconomics with human health

West Nile virus was first isolated in the West Nile sub-region of Uganda in 1937. The virus first appeared in the U.S. in 1999 in New York City. Photo by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
West Nile virus was first isolated in the West Nile sub-region of Uganda in 1937. The virus first appeared in the U.S. in 1999 in New York City. Photo by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Proctor Creek snakes through downtown Atlanta and eventually works its way north to the Chattahoochee River. 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.

As a part of the partnership, the SRS Integrating Human and Natural Systems unit is conducting two interconnected studies in 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 linked to a community survey covered in Part 2.

In a related study funded by the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council and led by Auburn University’s Graeme Lockaby, Wayne Zipperer, research ecologist with the SRS unit, and other researchers are looking into the connections between forest cover, socioeconomic status, and the transmission of West Nile virus in metropolitan Atlanta.

West Nile virus is the most widespread arboviral pathogen (a virus transmitted by arthropods such as ticks and mosquitoes) in the U.S., and is commonly associated with urban environments in the South. The virus cycles between mosquitoes and birds. Mosquitoes with West Nile virus also bite and infect people and other mammals.

The risk of West Nile virus infecting people increases in areas with suitable habitat for the development and survival of mosquitoes (specifically Culex species) and sufficient habitat for the bird species that make up part of the West Nile virus cycle. Zipperer and Lockaby are examining the links between clusters of West Nile virus infections in metropolitan Atlanta and land cover and environmental characteristics such as water quality indicators of mosquito larvae habitat and forest structure and composition characteristics of bird habitat.   09.03.CDC.USE. Lifecycle13_240124_west_nile_lifecycle_birds_plainlanguage_508

The study is also taking into account data on West Nile virus infection rates and socioeconomic indicators to help explain the spatial variation in West Nile virus transmission risk across Atlanta. Preliminary results show that virus risk is clustered according to land cover and socioeconomic factors. This research could have broad implications for mitigating transmission risk in Atlanta and other metropolitan areas in the South.

Taken together the integrative studies covered this week in CompassLive will provide a unique look at the direct and indirect connections between healthy ecosystems and communities. While we have long known of the relationship between urban greenspace and factors such as stormwater mitigation, water quality, cooling, and carbon sequestration, these studies expand our notion of ecosystem services by linking urban greenspace to environmental justice and human health.

Read more about the urban forest assessment in Part 1 and the community survey in Part 2.

This is the third 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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