We thought this piece would be of interest to our audience because of how it ties together the real impacts of designers, builders, and their patrons on neighborhoods and local ecologies.
What do you see when you look at a forest? When you’re standing there on the edge looking in, do you see it as a group mostly composed of a certain tree? Do you see it as a setting for animals to live and nest? Do you see it as a background for your morning commute on the highway? Do you see it as something that you walk through like a park but leave when you go back to your house down the street? Or is your house in that same forest, just in a section where most trees line the street and a couple are dispersed in your backyard? Of course, you think, Madison Avenue in New York isn’t part of a forest. The forest was cleared, straight streets were paved, and now some street trees and flowers are what makes up some kind of nature in the neighborhood. This isn’t really nature, you think, these are more decorations that grow; real nature is what lies right outside the city in designated parks.Those earlier questions might also seem silly if you look at a forest and see it as one undeveloped parcel. You see it as a singular piece of land, regardless of any creeks, wetlands, or groves present, because right now one person or company has the deed to it. Its boundaries don’t consist of cliffs or valleys, but instead of imaginary lines clearly shown on a map. You see it as undeveloped, or yet-to-be-developed, because there are no obvious money-making human-built structures present. You see it as a parcel because the county government gave it a parcel ID to make sure someone is paying taxes to them in the name of that land. Once someone like you invests in it and builds a shopping center, apartment complex, or film sound stage, the parcel becomes developed and is now worth something. This worth is sometimes measured in property tax revenue from the new improvements, when this isn’t given away by the county in the form of tax abatements, or by the number of people employed there.
One of the largest urban forests in the U.S. is at risk of destruction right now because of many powerful companies, politicians, and foundations that look at land in exactly this way: the South River forest on the fringe of Atlanta, Georgia. Two current developments stand out as imminent threats with the most dire consequences: Cop City and the Blackhall Studios expansion. Cop City is what locals call the Atlanta Police Department’s potential giant new training facility, which includes firing ranges and a mock city for practicing urban warfare techniques. This complex would be built in the middle of a neighborhood on the site of the old Atlanta City Prison Farm. The Blackhall Studios expansion is the effort to build the largest soundstage complex in the western hemisphere on public land at Intrenchment Creek Park. We could look at situations like this as inevitable, as if the projects’ first public announcement meant that it was as good as built. Or we can follow the lead of hundreds of people that are fighting for their community. The details are specific to this particular place, but there are forests and living communities where you are too. The forces that threaten the South River forest will threaten the land you’re on too, if they haven’t already. The projects mentioned below show how police brutality, anti-Blackness, ecological health, and land ownership are all linked together. We hope that you can recognize the struggle where you are and defend your forest against those that want to destroy it.
Modern day Atlanta exists on ancestral Muscogee (Creek) land that was seized by the U.S. in 1821 through the illegitimate Treaty of Indian Creek. Euro-Americans eventually settled the area as a new railroad terminus in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Since then the city has acquired many nicknames, among them “the city of a hundred hills” and “the city in the forest”. These two nicknames touch on how Atlanta’s ecology would be affected by the current threats to the South River forest. The “hundred hills” radiate from the Eastern Continental Divide, where the center of the city lies. On one side of the divide, rivers drain to the Gulf of Mexico and on the other side the Atlantic Ocean. The Divide sits high and dry, a natural route for ancient roads and modern railroads. Many creeks begin along this Divide under paved streets and flow directly into large pipes. These pipes run routes similar to the original creeks, collecting water from tributaries along their length until they open up to the air in less dense residential neighborhoods. After this point, the creeks usually follow a somewhat natural course to the Chattahoochee, Flint, or South Rivers.
Paved streets, parking lots, and slab foundations prevent much of rainwater runoff from being absorbed by the ground where it falls. Instead, the runoff combines with the existing creek sources and whatever oil, fertilizer, or trash is on the pavement, before being channeled into supercharged underground creeks. When the creeks leave the pipes and reach open air, this higher flow erodes the banks faster than the surrounding plant life can rebuild or adapt. As swamps are paved over, there is less land that can calm and absorb the higher flow from swollen creeks. The creeks then back up and flood the neighborhoods with smaller outdated flood infrastructure [Ed: This effect is especially visible in the Peoplestown neighborhood of Atlanta]. When these creeks are also heavily polluted from sewer overflows, these backups can be even more disruptive to life in these neighborhoods. The damage from increasingly severe storms caused by climate change is only exacerbated by these methods of controlling regional water drainage. The Chattahoochee and its tributaries, which run south towards the Gulf through wealthier neighborhoods, have been protected and largely rehabilitated for decades; but the South River and its tributaries, which run east towards the Atlantic and through poorer neighborhoods, face powerful interests that maintain the degradation described above.
Atlanta from above showing the forests in danger
Atlanta has the densest tree canopy of any major city in the U.S. (48% of its area). While the core of the city was built out steadily from the late 1800s through the 1940s, rapid development came as spaced out neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s. Parts of old-growth forest are still scattered throughout, a rarity in the urban U.S. If you stand on a hill on the edge of town, you might get the impression that the highrises of Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead are the only spots the forest has surrendered. Walking through parts of the city can feel like walking through a forest, alongside small creeks in unnamed parks or under a hundred year old canopy. These views don’t reveal how Atlanta is also losing urban trees at the fifth-highest rate in the U.S. Most of the canopy exists on privately-owned land and is only protected from developers by flimsy, easily-ignored tree protection ordinances. The benefits of trees throughout a city are countless, some include: holding soil to prevent erosion, providing habitat for wildlife of all scales, and cooling the area. This last effect comes through a combination of shading the ground from sunlight and the evapo-transpiration of water into the air. Trees are a huge influence on local microclimates: they keep shaded areas cooler and more humid. Remove large sections of trees and the microclimate will shift to be more arid.
So what do Cop City and Blackhall Studios’ expansion have to do with any of this? They are both proposed to be built within the South River forest. This section of the Atlanta forest has remained intact largely because the southern neighborhoods of the city have been neglected and seen as a dumping ground. Factories, trucking yards, illegal tire dumps, landfills, and prisons were placed there, in poorer and predominantly Black neighborhoods. The river itself was the first sanitary sewer for the city, and to this day sewage overflow and contamination remain some of the biggest pollutants. The current informal firing range and tear gas testing area along Intrenchment Creek directly taints the water quality for all downstream. The plans for Cop City and Blackhall’s massive new sound stage complex are the latest schemes that treat the area as ripe for profitable, toxic development.
Intrenchment Creek is one of the main tributaries of the South River. It begins under the Georgia state capitol building downtown where it joins the work of stormwater drainage pipes until coming to open air in south Atlanta. From there it snakes through neighborhoods, trucking yards, strip malls, capped landfills and alongside the old Atlanta City Prison Farm. This is where the Atlanta Police Foundation intends to build “Cop City”, a training facility with firing ranges and a mock city for practicing urban warfare.
The old prison was run by the city government uninterrupted from 1920 to the late 1980s. Incarcerated people worked on the farm in overcrowded, slavelike conditions, as consistently documented by newspapers, nurses, and legislators, despite constant promises of reform. Reports and investigations across its history reveal gruesome treatment and conditions, and the not unlikely presence of unmarked graves on the site. Even though this documentation exists in newspaper and local archives, the “official” history presented by the city government and in city-sanctioned reports is much rosier, yet also inconsistent and inaccurate. Large sections of official records remain missing. With this much certain grim history and a good deal of uncertainty of how much worse it may have been, you might wonder why the city would want to build anything here, much less Cop City. Part of the reason seems to be a technicality that’s made the legal aspect a little easier: the land is owned by the city but lies just outside city limits in unincorporated DeKalb County. This means that the property is exempt from the usual community approval process dictated in town. This has made it easier for the city government to ignore the outcry that has come in waves from around the city after Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ sudden announcement of Cop City last spring. Despite mentions of reform in the aftermath of the police murder of Rayshard Brooks in 2020, the city has increased the police department’s budget and is very concerned with the morale of current officers and prospective recruits [Ed: The city is likely also trying to appease the Buckhead area secession movement, now that local CEOs are threatening to back the secession if the city doesn’t control the alleged crime wave]. In tightly controlled City Council Zoom meetings regarding Cop City, there were over 16 hours of recorded public comment that were 70% in opposition. Despite this, frequent protests, and growing national media attention, the City Council approved the project in a 10-4 vote on September 8, 2021. The surrounding neighborhoods have universally voiced their opposition to the project, unexcited about the frequent noise from firing ranges or the desecration of the historic prison site. Even with the council vote secured, project backers have revealed their own uncertainty by attempting to bypass required site assessments and permits to start as quickly as possible. Investigating and airing out the shady actions of the project backers is an important part of the resistance to Cop City, but as we’ll see, forest defense takes many forms.
After passing by the old Atlanta City Prison Farm, the creek snakes along DeKalb County’s Intrenchment Creek Park, passes by current Blackhall Studios property, and flows into the South River. The park lies along the banks of the creek and gradually ascends through wetlands and young pines to older mixed deciduous hardwood trees among hills. Parts that used to be a pine timber plantation serve as early succession trees crucial to any forest’s growth into charismatic old-growth woods. Grand sentinel trees, including an uncommon cherrybark oak hundreds of years old, share the hills with beavers, hawks, turtles, and deer. The park was supposed to be protected “in perpetuity” from any development according to a deed restriction when it was donated to DeKalb County decades ago.
That was well before Blackhall Studios, a film and television studio that has worked with Disney, Sony, and Universal, joined the legions of studios started in Georgia to take advantage of very generous film tax credits and relatively cheap land. It was also before Blackhall Studios wanted to expand and realized that the undeveloped property they already owned in the area was unsuitable for giant new soundstages. Blackhall set their sights on swapping some of their clear cut and scattered properties for established park land. DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond formally signed the land over last spring, but the transfer is currently held up by a lawsuit.
The Resistance So Far
A barbeque was held at Intrenchment Creek Park on May 15, 2021, like those that had been held many times before by opponents of the Blackhall land swap, but this time was different. Hundreds of people showed up from many different groups and backgrounds ready to expand the scope of resistance to any development of the woods. The Defend the Forest (DTF) movement coalesced, with participants planning actions ranging from festivals in the woods to construction machinery sabotage. The movement is decentralized and autonomous, partially coordinated but not contained by Instagram, Twitter, and Telegram accounts, along with a rapid alert text message list and several websites. The anonymity protects those considering bold actions and may help prevent any particular group from taking control. The multiple channels serve similar purposes and kind of show the broad support the movement has.
Apart from consistent diffuse action like witches hexing the main campus of Blackhall Studios and bulldozer sabotage, concentrated “weeks of action” were held in June and November. These consisted of a variety of events where people were encouraged to meet and experience the woods. By the time of the November week, a camp of forest defenders was set up in Intrenchment Creek Park to guard the woods and serve as a hub of activity. The rapid alert text message list came in handy on December 17, 2021 when DeKalb County and Atlanta police (likely called by Blackhall) entered the woods and began to evict the camp. They were also trying to destroy people’s supplies until a mass of forest defenders from around town showed up. Similar alerts have worked well more recently, like on January 18, 2022 when about 10 people were able to stop unauthorized tree removal at the old Atlanta City Prison Farm for a few days just by showing up and escorting the workers off the site.