Atlanta’s Proctor Creek Greenway delivers multiple co-benefits from a single intervention

As one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the U.S., Atlanta is a major hub for transportation and industry. The Georgia state capital is home to the headquarters of such companies as Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, and UPS, and has a prominent entertainment scene—especially hip-hop music, film, and television.

A cradle of the American civil rights movement, with a historically enfranchised African-American population who today make up over 50% of the population, Atlanta is nevertheless geographically divided along racial lines, and has the highest income inequality of any city in the United States. These two stresses overlap, as poverty in Atlanta is suffered most strongly by the city’s minorities.

Residents of color are also more likely to face local environmental justice issues. Atlanta’s abundance of trees has given it the nickname “city in a forest,” but in 2017 only 41% of its residents could safely walk to a green space, such as a park, with low-income and/or minority communities lacking access at higher rates than the city overall.

The trail snakes over Proctor Creek, west of Midtown. Photos: Jonathan Phillips, Curbed Atlanta

Wholly contained with the city’s borders, Proctor Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River, originates in downtown Atlanta and snakes through the economically depressed Westside neighborhoods five miles from city center, where more than 90% of residents are minorities. Within the 16 square miles of the Proctor Creek Watershed, over 50,000 people face poverty-related urban challenges like food deserts, health issues due to frequent flooding of sewage-contaminated water, and a high number of vacant and blighted properties.

The creek and surrounding lands have also been plagued for decades with environmental degradation including erosion, pollution from illegal dumping, and high bacteria levels from storm water runoff and sewer overflows; in 2013 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated Proctor Creek one of nineteen priority Urban Waters locations in the country.

To build upon the work being done to improve water and soil quality and shore up sewer infrastructure, one of the initiatives of Atlanta’s Resilience Strategy was to construct the first segment of the new Proctor Creek Greenway trail. This will contribute to the Resilience Strategy’s wider goals of creating 500 new acres of publicly-accessible greenspace across the city by 2022.

Complete with biking and pedestrian trails, the Proctor Creek Greenway offers multiple co-benefits from a single intervention, as it will facilitate exercise and healthy living, enhance Atlanta’s natural assets, and foster economic development in an area of the city which faces considerable environmental and economic challenges. The resilient Greenway project will leverage green infrastructure to curb flooding and runoff, while providing local residents with increased connectivity to other areas of Atlanta and an overall more cohesive community.

On May 7, 2018, that first segment of the Greenway—three out of the eventual seven total miles—officially opened to the public. In a ribbon-cutting ceremony, former Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) Stephanie Stuckey said she is “proud to see this project come to fruition and connect an under-served part of Atlanta to areas seeing progressive growth and development.”

The trail was funded through a $160,000 investment from the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management and a $3.6 million investment from a transportation-oriented special-purpose sales tax (TSPLOST) endorsed by voters in 2016. This first three miles of the Proctor Creek Greenway are an impressive model of thoughtful, resilient trail infrastructure. It serves as the kickoff segment to a grander inter-connected trail system.

At the inauguration of the new Greenway, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms stated that, thanks to this initiative, “a once overwhelmingly polluted waterway has been revitalized to provide historically isolated neighborhoods greater access to nearby parks, schools, and restaurants.”

The vision for the Proctor Creek Greenway Trail is to expand from three to seven miles. On the southern end, the Greenway will connect the Westside Beltline Trail to Quarry Park (the largest park in the City of Atlanta) and on the northern end, the Trail will continue running alongside Proctor Creek to create a critical access point to the Chattahoochee River. The continuous greenway, when complete, will feature 400 acres of green space and 50 acres of linear park and connect scores of isolated neighborhoods in West and Northwest Atlanta to schools, restaurants, and transit. Moreover, when Cobb County and Fulton County build their respective riverwalks that traverse the Chattahoochee, the Proctor Creek Greenway will eventually link downtown Atlanta to the Silver Comet Trail that runs all the way out to Alabama.