South River Forest: A Big Idea for Atlanta
TNC is part of a growing coalition of community members, conservationists and business leaders working to revitalize the South River watershed.
Equity. Progress. Ambition. Access. Nature.
Those words are emblazoned within the City of Atlanta’s Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community—an ambitious study and plan to address the metro’s rapid population growth. Released in 2017, the plan identifies lands in the South River watershed of southeast Atlanta and southwest DeKalb County as a conservation corridor and envisions the South River Forest as a massive, 3,500-acre public greenspace protected from commercial or residential development.
When the Atlanta City Council approved the Atlanta City Design and adopted into the city charter, The Nature Conservancy and a growing coalition of community members, conservationists and business leaders began working passionately to move the South River Forest from vision to reality.
The South River Forest is an incredible opportunity for the people of Atlanta to connect with nature in ways that benefit public health and wellness and generate economic opportunity. The ecological benefits—such as floodplain restoration, habitat expansion, and tree canopy protection—are critically important to Atlanta’s future in the face of a population expected to triple in size by 2040.
Land within the South River Forest territory is a mix of publicly- and privately-owned parcels of varying condition. Much like the South River itself, the land bears the scars of generations of environmental neglect and systemic inequities. In fact, the South River is considered one of America’s most endangered rivers due to DeKalb County’s repeated failure to address sewage pollution by the 2020 deadline set by the Environmental Protection Agency. TNC proudly supports the existing, ongoing work of community-based organizations like the South River Watershed Alliance and others that are committed to the ecological restoration of the river.
The centerpiece of the park as proposed in the Atlanta City Design is known as the old Atlanta Prison Farm. The 340-acre property is owned by the City of Atlanta and located outside the city limits in unincorporated DeKalb County. Architectural ruins dot the reforested landscape of old farm ponds, terraced land and floodplain. Visitors to the lushly overgrown space can easily envision a recreational haven, where neighbors can safely gather for outdoor recreation and community-building activities. The prison farm will seamlessly connect Intrenchment Creek and Constitution Lakes parks, resulting in a transformative regional outdoor amenity. One of Atlanta’s most notorious landscapes of environmental injustice can become a beacon of environmental justice.
Some communities along the South River struggle. 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.
Meanwhile, South River Gardens is a community of ranch-style homes on tree-lined streets in southeast Atlanta. Adjacent to Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve, bordered by I-285, and bisected by the river, it is a classic metro Atlanta community. Neighbors of this community fought for decades to protect Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve, a goal that came to fruition in 2020.
The revitalization of the river and the forest that surrounds it is the foundation of the South River project.
We work with local partners to fund and support community projects to improve water quality and wildlife habitat and make the river safer for recreational use. TNC has supported invasive species removal, planting of native species, river cleanups and other projects.
Explore the South River watershed
The Atlanta Prison Farm — owned by the City of Atlanta and located in unincorporated DeKalb County, is the centerpiece of the South River Forest vision. TNC is part of a coalition of community leaders, urban planners, and conservation groups working to make the vision a reality, joining a network of community-based organizations who have defended the South River for decades.
This 200-acre scenic wetlands park in South DeKalb County provides an excellent habitat and nesting area for birds and wildlife. Explore paved, dirt and gravel walking trails, including the Doll’s Head trail. Several small lakes dot the landscape.
Located in Dekalb County, Intrenchment Creek Park is a 125-acre public greenspace. the park's tree canopy, wetlands and floodplain work together to protect the South River’s largest urban tributary, Intrenchment Creek.
Atlanta is among the most heavily forested cities in the country. The famed tree canopy covers nearly half of the 133 square miles that constitute Atlanta proper. The South River Forest will preserve the tree canopy along the South River. These urban trees filter the air we breathe, cool buildings, and absorb carbon dioxide—the primary greenhouse gas that triggers climate change.
Our work in the South River watershed also focuses on centering the people who live in the nearby communities. 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.
Atlantans can apply for a free Urban Green Jobs training program, created in collaboration with HABESHA, a community-based pan-African organization. In this four-month 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.
Both people and wildlife would be served by making this vision a reality.
As one of the last areas 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.