A Walk in the Park: the Lush Greenery of Cascade Heights

Bette Maloy, one of the Landscape architects on staff at Atlanta City Studio coordinated a series of nature walks in southwest Atlanta. Today she tells us about the walks and her experiences connecting people to nature.

When entering Cascade Heights, it’s apparent why the neighborhood is called “Atlanta’s Community in a Park”. The dense canopies are impossible to miss, and the lush greenspaces encourage exploration.

Residents eagerly communicated to the Atlanta City Studio staff that nature is a core value in this historic district. Evidence of that sentiment can be seen through the preservation of Lionel Hampton Nature Preserve (previously threatened by development), the beautiful water features and infrastructure investments in Adams Park, and the educational programming of the Outdoor Activity Center (which doubles as the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance’s headquarters). Guided by voices of the community, the Studio created opportunities to highlight this beloved asset. One of the events was a series of nature walks featuring Cascade’s greenspaces and open to anyone. I coordinated these sessions with a co-host who narrated and led us through each space. The following is a collection of experiences I had while reconnecting people to their backyard parks:

Citizen environmentalist, Bruce Morton, speaking on his involvement in the preservation of Lionel Hampton Nature Preserve

Citizen environmentalist, Bruce Morton, speaking on his involvement in the preservation of Lionel Hampton Nature Preserve

Prior to ever meeting Kathryn Kolb, executive director of non-profit Eco-Addendum, I learned of her involvement in Atlanta’s parks and natural greenspaces. Kathryn leads nature walks all over the City, as well as creates naturalist programming and stewardship training (some of which take place in Cascade Springs Nature Preserve). Kathryn’s knowledge as a Certified Naturalist, and her familiarity with Southwest Atlanta, made her an ideal leader for our “Walk in the Park” series. We selected our five locations: Cascade Springs Nature Preserve, Lionel-Hampton-Beecher Hills Preserve, Adams Park, The Outdoor Activity Center, and Herbert Greene Nature Preserve. The first four of these are considered the “major parks” of Cascade, and Herbert Greene feeds into all of these parks via the Utoy Creek.

View from edge of Utoy Creek at Herbert Greene Nature Preserve

View from edge of Utoy Creek at Herbert Greene Nature Preserve

Our first walk in the series was located at Cascade Spring Nature Preserve, home of the only waterfall within city limits. It is also the site of the 1864 Battle of Utoy Creek. I was eager to learn the trail system and expand on my Civil War history, not realizing the true “nature” of forest facts we’d be taught along the way. As we waited in the parking lot for everyone to arrive Kathryn brought our attention to the Wood Thrush singing in the distance. The “ee-oh-lay” song may be familiar to many but had never registered in my ears before. As we stood in silence, we could hear other species beginning to chime in. Kathryn broke the silence by informing us that Wood Thrushes are experiencing a serious population decrease (of 50-some percent), and how their decline impacts entire ecosystems. We hadn’t even started our walk and I already felt a sympathetic connection to this species and the forest ahead.

Antidote for Poison Ivy, native Jewelweed surrounded by invasive Japanese Stiltgrass

Antidote for Poison Ivy, native Jewelweed surrounded by invasive Japanese Stiltgrass

As we proceeded along the boardwalk that opens into the preserve, native and invasive plant species were already brought to our attention. Horse Balm, Wild Ginger, and Bellwort are all indicators of the “original forest”. Jewelweed, the natural antidote for Poison Ivy. Japanese Stiltgrass is a wildly invasive and fast-growing weed, but simple to eradicate if diligent measures are taken. For me, this was a more intentional way to look at our environment. I wanted all my nature walks to be guided – good thing we had four more.

Did you know that it takes 10-20 minutes for a forest to “reset” after being disturbed by visitors? If you’re ever walking through a forest with a large group, the commotion will undoubtedly send animals into hiding. An exercise Kathryn led during a particularly large walk in Herbert Greene involved sitting by the Utoy Creek, a Chattahoochee River tributary, in silence for 15 minutes. Sure enough, after about 10 minutes the forest creatures started getting back to their routine, and after 15 we felt immersed in their habitat. No one wanted to leave our peaceful sanctuary.

White oak acorns served as a mid-walk snack – they’re edible!

White oak acorns served as a mid-walk snack – they’re edible!

While each preserve had different experiences to offer, there were many overlapping themes. We learned how to identify ecosystems based on tree species thriving in each environment. Natives American Elm and Tulip Poplar can be found in lower lying floodplains, while Beeches and Oaks do best on ridges. What seemed to be the most important of the overlapping themes were our frequent discussions of Georgia’s original forest, also called “remnant forests” and “Old Growth” forests. Atlanta is a relatively young city with a different layout than other major cities. We remained small and rural well into the 20th century, so a lot of our forests remained undisturbed. When Atlanta’s population started to increase in the 1950s, development reflected suburban lifestyles (and sprawl) which fortunately preserved a lot of our original forests directly within in the city. This gives us the remarkable opportunity to experience healthy ecosystems which are hundreds of centuries old in many of our intown neighborhoods. In fact, we saw the longevity in our white oaks and live oaks, the longest-lived tree species in our ecosystem (500-800 years).

Each walk had its own unique character, from the wide paved trails in Lionel-Hampton to the natural pathways at the Outdoor Activity Center. Each told its unique story through old trees, waterways, and mossy boulders.

If you haven’t been to any or all of these locations, here are few reasons why you should:

Group shot in front of ~200 year old Beech at the Outdoor Activity Center

Group shot in front of ~200 year old Beech at the Outdoor Activity Center

Cascade Spring Nature Preserve has the only waterfall in Atlanta. Not only are there many walking trails to choose from, but there are plenty of incredible sights. This preserve has an outdoor classroom, the frame of an old greenhouse, and springhouse from when the area used to be mined for fresh water. You can read plaques that tell stories of the Civil War and the 1864 Battle of Utoy Creek that took place there.

Lionel Hampton-Beecher Hills Nature Preserve has both paved and natural trails. This preserve is popular amongst bikers and is easily accessible to the Westside Beltline. It is the largest greenspace in the southwestern quadrant of the city, and home to a variety of forest types.

Adams Park has recreational facilities, a great playground, small streams, and diverse forests. It contains remnant native forest areas and old mossy boulders.

The Outdoor Activity Center is home to West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, a 20-year old organization that leads environmental justice efforts and environmental education for youth. Behind the center, which hosts urban agriculture garden and native plantings, is an urban forest, including a Beech tree dating back to the mid-1800’s.

Herbert Greene Park is a haven for wildlife. This is also where the north and south forks of the Utoy Creek join and become a small river. There are sandbars to walk on which bring you face to face with the water. Ancient rock formations can be found here as well.

Fall color in Herbert Greene Nature Preserve

Fall color in Herbert Greene Nature Preserve

The Broad & Poplar Crosswalk Journey

Today we hear from our Public Art Project Manager, Dorian McDuffie, on the process, development, and execution of a public art project at Broad Street and Poplar in Downtown Atlanta.

My first entrée back into the workforce after an extended leave was to work with the City of Atlanta Department of City Planning (DCP) to help fulfill a vision for Broad Street in Downtown Atlanta. A crosswalk mural was part of the plan for the enhancement of the intersection of Broad and Poplar Streets.  What??!! Are you kidding me?? I get to work on the kind of project I LOVE with the coolest (yes, I said it) department in Atlanta City government??  Uuuuhhh YES!!!!!!! 

Before I had the gig, I drove to said intersection and took a look. Ugly white stripes, uneven pavement.  The upside: it was at the end of what has to be one of the best designed and most utilized public spaces in the city. Because of a collaboration between DCP, Central Atlanta Progress (CAP), Atlanta Downtown Improvement District (ADID), and FlatironCity, the plaza on Broad Street was completed in February 2018. Colorful tables and chairs adorn the space and are constantly full of people. Georgia State students flood the area along with Downtown residents and workers.

Broad and Poplar Streets before crosswalk mural

Broad and Poplar Streets before crosswalk mural

 The other upside: on the opposite end of the plaza, there’s a great crosswalk that was designed by my colleague Vanessa Lira. It makes that whole end of the street pop and is also populated with tons of Downtown pedestrians.

Crosswalk at Broad Street and Peachtree St

Crosswalk at Broad Street and Peachtree St

So, I go down the path of what I know… how to do a public art process 101…

·         Write a call for artists

·         Pull together a public art committee

·         Create a presentation for them

·         Present it to them

Here’s the twist: the committee could pick the top three finalists but not the final winner. That lucky artist was going to be chosen during one of the five “Block Party on Broad Street” events that were scheduled. These events occurred monthly from June through October and were designed to get people on the plaza in the evening. It was also an excellent opportunity to engage the public in dialogue and activities that will inform the future design and programming of the plaza. Allowing the public to vote furthered the mission of having as much community input as possible. I didn’t come up with this brilliant idea, my colleagues did (love working with smart, fun people).

So, the public art selection committee (thank you Heather Alhadeff, Briana Camelo, Sonia Sequeira, Theia Smith, and Freddie Styles) chose Adam Crawford, Deanna Sirlin, and Niki Zarrabi as the three finalists.  Check out their artwork, and their different styles.

Voter during the October Block Party on Broad (and me)

Voter during the October Block Party on Broad (and me)

Luckily the decision was left to the public. I’m still hoping for crosswalks to install the two who didn’t get the commission. 

Adam Crawford’s submission

Adam Crawford’s submission

Deanna Sirlin’s submission

Deanna Sirlin’s submission

Niki Zarrabi’s submission

Niki Zarrabi’s submission

 Niki Zarrabi was the lucky winner. Beautiful right? 

So now it’s time to work out logistics so that the artist could get started. I was extremely lucky to have a Public Works team who worked so well with me. And my colleagues, Simone Heath, Vanessa Lira, Bette Maloy, Quynh Pham, and studio director Kevin Bacon, (yes, THE Kevin Bacon) could not have been easier to work with nor more helpful.

 One office we forgot to coordinate with is the City of Atlanta Office of Film & Entertainment.  So, if you’re reading this and you plan events in Atlanta, ALWAYS check with them to see where and when they’re filming; failure to do so could completely derail your schedule. Once I called them though, they were extremely helpful and blocked off the entire month of October for filming on Broad. Thank you! Thank you

Artist Niki Zarrabi and assistants Sarah Loftus and Donna Zarrab

Artist Niki Zarrabi and assistants Sarah Loftus and Donna Zarrab

The site was even visited by Congressman John Lewis.

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With some tweaks to the design we ended up with a beautiful installation.  The neighborhood has embraced the artwork and the space has been beautifully enhanced.

Crosswalk at Broad & Poplar Streets

Crosswalk at Broad & Poplar Streets

So now it’s time to dedicate the artwork and acknowledge all the amazing people who made it happen.  We did a dedication with a twist. Little did the audience know, we were going to activate AND dedicate the space.

Commissioner Tim Keane was our first speaker and host for the evening. Wilma Sothern, Vice President of Marketing at Central Atlanta Progress spoke, as did Adam Shumaker, Broad Street resident and public transportation advocate. We had a blast! But the best was yet to come…

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gloATL, an amazing dance company whose work is moving public art, did a pop-up performance while Commissioner Keane was getting ready to give a “dissertation” on Atlanta City Design. They danced to the song Downtown by Petula Clark. It was great!!! 

This project is the first of many that this serendipitous pairing of public realm design and public art will produce for the City of Atlanta. I’m excited to be a part of a team of smart, forward-thinking people who will shape what our city looks like. I would like to thank Commissioner Keane and studio director Kevin Bacon for trusting me with this great project. Thanks for allowing me to share this story. Look for more of these from our amazing team at the Atlanta City Studio.

The Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community

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Change is coming to Atlanta, and we’re going to be ready for it. Projections suggest that we could triple in population within the next couple of decades. It’s no longer a question of do we want to grow but rather how will we use growth to shape the city we want to become. Over a period of 18 months, we crafted The Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community to be the city’s guiding design. Its purpose is to articulate an aspiration for the future city that Atlantans can fall in love with, knowing that if people love their city, they will make better decisions about it. These decisions will then be reflected in all the plans, policies, and investments the city makes, allowing Dr. King’s concept of the beloved community to guide growth and transform Atlanta into the best possible version of itself.

Our design is rooted in one of the most defining points in our city’s history: Atlanta’s outsized role shaping the Civil Rights Movement. In 1959, Dr. King described the outcome of the Movement as the beloved community. Far from a utopian fantasy, Dr. King saw the beloved community as a realistic and achievable goal – an actual community of people made possible by the Movement. As we prepare for the unprecedented growth ahead, the city must ensure that it also becomes more equitable, more resilient, and more committed than ever to welcoming everyone.

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The Atlanta City Design is the framework for inclusive growth that Atlanta has been missing. We didn’t create a plan with policy and regulatory recommendations for the next 10 years. We created an ambitious design that will perpetually challenge us to live up to our five core values of equity, progress, ambition, access, and nature in the hard work that lies ahead. Our physical design for the city reflects its physical form: not the sprawling highways that defines us now but our entire evolution beginning with our natural state as a verdant forest in the Appalachian Piedmont. This struggle between preservation of our natural condition and our drive towards urbanization is the basis for our design concept that designs for people, nature, and people in ature.

We’re committed to the Atlanta City Design and building the beloved community. In December 2017, we amended our charter to recognize the Atlanta City Design as the design of the city. It is already strategically realigning the city’s myriad plans, projects, policies, and priorities. These are the critical next steps of developing and detailing our design and include the city’s urban ecology framework, new mobility plan, zoning ordinance re-write, historic preservation strategy, and housing strategy. The Atlanta City Design is drawing these plans together with clarity and common purpose in way that has not happened before in the city’s history. It has also inspired a collaboration with the public school system to create an eighth-grade school curriculum in the Atlanta Public School System that is now being taught to over 2,000 students.

The Atlanta City Design is NOT a plan. Planning does a lot of very specific things. It manages the process of planning the city, including the development and enforcement of policies related to land use, transportation, and zoning. It reviews and permits the construction of buildings and other projects. It assists people on all kinds of technical issues and initiatives related to housing, urban design, and preservation. Most often, it’s deep in the weeds, sorting through a lot of details.

That is not what this is about.

The Atlanta City Design is our opportunity to step out of the weeds and consider the city as a whole – to dream about a future Atlanta that we want, and then design our approach to achieve it. This work is fun, but it is also essential, because when we look at the tremendous growth and change that is coming, we see that not changing is not really an option.

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This is why we created the Atlanta City Design. Our intention is to reveal the city’s physical identity as a basis for the design of our future, and then propose ways to improve and accentuate Atlanta’s authentic character in a form that can accommodate a much larger population. Envisioning what that looks like – how Atlanta can become a better place to live and do business while doubling, or even tripling, our population is essential.

Not since Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago in 1909, has a city truly undertaken a long-term design vision fueled by fast-paced growth. Burnham designed the relationship between people and the public realm, proposed a physical form to bring form to formlessness, and led to the development of a public school curriculum to ensure engagement and endurance. Like the Atlanta City Design, the Plan of Chicago is aspirational. Over 100 years later, it continues to shape Chicago’s physical form.

The Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community is the first step in a design process. Think of it as our concept design for the city. It describes who we are and how, based on that identity, we can leverage the change we see coming to create a dimensional, tangible, and aspirational form that will enable us to become a better version of ourselves. Following through on this aspiration is the next phase: the design development. This phase involves drawings the city’s myriad plans, projects, policies, and plans together with clarity and common purpose in service to the concept. Finally, over the next generation, we will operationalize the design’s actions and ideas through the actual construction of projects that shape the city. This will require the work of the Department of City Planning, the mayor and city council, other divisions of city hall, and many external partners, including everyday citizens.

The Atlanta City Design is capturing the city’s imagination, mobilizing its residents to action, and instilling a sense of accountability to its future. We are building the beloved community. When built, this design will enable a new generation of growth to create an even better Atlanta for everyone.