Caring for People and Nature in the South River Watershed
Can revitalizing a river help bring renewal to the communities along its path? It’s a question the Nature Conservancy in Georgia seeks to answer through our Healthy Cities initiative within the South River watershed in southeast Atlanta.
Spanning the boundary between the City of Atlanta and DeKalb County, the South River originates in East Point near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and flows more than 60 miles through six counties into Lake Jackson, where it joins two other rivers to form the Ocmulgee River, a tributary of the mighty Altamaha River.
Much of the South River in Atlanta is surrounded by industrial properties and largely hidden from view. Moderate to heavy rainfall sometimes results in millions of gallons of sewage and storm water pouring into the South River from Atlanta. As a result, the river routinely suffers sewage leaks, stormwater runoff, heavy siltation and other pollution.
Some communities along the South River struggle as well. Residents of Thomasville Heights, for example, are faced with high crime rates and chronic poverty. Rising rent and the risk of displacement are ever-present concerns. In fact, a 2017 study identified the South River area of southeast Atlanta as a place where collaborative, community-based conservation could meet social equity and environmental objectives.
Protecting the River and Its Water Quality
The revitalization of the river and the forest that surrounds it is the foundation of the South River project.
We partner with organizations like HABESHA, Park Pride, South River Watershed Alliance and Trees Atlanta to fund and support community projects to improve water quality and wildlife habitat and make the river safer for recreational use. Completed projects include invasive species removal and the planting of native grasses and shrubs in Constitution Lakes Park. Current projects include planting of river cane along the riverbank to hold soil and prevent erosion and sediment runoff. River cleanups bring volunteers together to remove litter brought into the river from the streets when there is rain.
Prioritizing the Community
Our work in the South River watershed is focused equally on protecting an important waterway and on centering the people who live there. Our vision is to provide them with the skills and tools to advocate for themselves and their community on environmental issues that impact their daily lives.
Thomasville Heights residents can apply for a free Urban Green Jobs training program, created in collaboration with HABESHA, a community-based pan-African organization. In this four-week intensive course, trainees get hands-on experience in greenspace management, tree identification, urban agriculture, chemical water testing and green infrastructure. They meet city officials and tour Atlanta landscapes, all while gaining valuable skills such as teamwork, empathy and creative problem-solving.
This rich experience not only results in skills and contacts that expand trainees’ employment opportunities, but also strengthens their community activism and desire to improve and protect Thomasville Heights.
I liked the people that came in and spoke to us because they are powerful people with a lot of knowledge...I thought that was incredible. It motivated me to show up each day! I never knew exactly what to expect.
There are few green spaces within Thomasville Heights and other South River communities and many of them are neglected. The Atlanta City Design, an ambitious plan to handle Atlanta’s rapidly growing population, envisions South River Park, a massive public greenspace of up to 35,000 acres. Realizing this vision will ultimately preserve the tree canopy along the South River, reclaim underutilized industrial areas for greenspace and sustainable, equitable development and connect people and nature.
Both people and wildlife would be served by making this vision a reality.
As one of the last pieces of undeveloped land in the ever-growing city, the South River area has the potential to meet the needs of people and nature in a way that ushers Atlanta closer to the Beloved Community Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted for humanity.