Atlanta – Turning Brownfields to Greenfields

Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail dedication after renovation. Christopher T. Martin

A major effort is afoot in Atlanta to bring greenery to abandoned industrial sites, or brownfields. The centerpiece of that effort is the Atlanta Beltline, a project that involves building a 22-mile ring of parks, trails, public transportation, educational signs and other features along an old railroad track that rings the city. As described on the project’s website, “the Atlanta BeltLine is transforming the city with a combination of rail, trail, greenspace, housing and art.” The project, which will be constructed over the next 20 years, will connect 45 in-town neighborhoods and greatly expand the city’s greenspace and trail network.

The goal of the Atlanta Beltline is to create an integrated approach to transportation, land use, greenspace and sustainable growth. The project will create 22 miles of pedestrian-friendly rail transit, 33 miles of multi-use trails, 1,300 acres of parks, 5,600 units of affordable housing and 1,100 acres of remediated brownfields.[1] Its implementation is being overseen by Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (ABI) formed in 2006 by Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, for the purpose of managing the development of the project. Partnering with ABI on the project is a diversity of organizations, including the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and other city departments, the Georgia Department of Transportation, Trees Atlanta, the Trust for Public Land and others.[2]

One of the components of the project is the BeltLine Arboretum, which involves the reforestation of the 22-mile beltline corridor. The BeltLine Arboretum will create “an elaborately curated, city-scale mix of existing and cultivated tree species that is at once an urban forest, an ecological connector, a corridor for scientific research and a collection of remarkable public spaces.” Work on the project will include creek restoration, urban forest rehabilitation and brownfield reclamation. The arboretum will also feature a variety of “natural neighborhoods” that are each designed with a specific theme — such as The Gap, which will symbolize the city’s connection with railroads by featuring species used for railroad materials, wood products and wood manufacturing, or Clear Creek, which will be a refuge for birds and wildlife with water gardens and rainwater management in place. When completed, the Atlanta BeltLine will be the world’s longest arboretum and will educate residents and visitors about the health, economic and ecological benefits of urban trees.[3]

Trees Atlanta’s Levine relates how the Atlanta BeltLine is an important tool in defragmenting the city’s urban forest. “Fragmentation allows for invasive species to take over and degrade the health of our remaining urban forests. This destroys wildlife habitat and reduces the quality of our water and air. The Atlanta BeltLine Arboretum is an opportunity to reconnect the forest,” he says.

Overall, Atlanta is making good progress in expanding and improving its urban forest through its strong ordinance and programs like NeighborWoods, organizations like Trees Atlanta and Park Pride and its many arboreta, but “it’s an ongoing process,” says Parks Director Voss. “I think we have a pretty healthy tree canopy, and we need to just keep it going.”


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[1] Atlanta BeltLine. About. Atlanta BeltLine Overview. (accessed Sept. 27, 2012).

[2] Atlanta BeltLine. About. Atlanta BeltLine Partners. (accessed Sept. 13, 2012).

[3] Atlanta BeltLine. Programs. Atlanta BeltLine Arboretum. (accessed Sept. 27, 2012).