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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.