protesters walk in the street, and a Black femme wearing a mask holds a sign in the foreground saying "now we need justice for ALL victims of police brutality"
ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 20: People march through the streets after the verdict was announced for Derek Chauvin on April 20, 2021, in Atlanta. Former police officer Derek Chauvin was on trial on second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter charges in the death of George Floyd May 25, 2020. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)
Prism and People Over Plastic partnered to launch a podcast series centered around the personal stories from five U.S. communities that have been disproportionately impacted by climate, plastic, and environmental injustice. This article is featured in the second episode. People Over Plastic host Shilpi Chhotray and Prism’s climate justice reporter Ray Levy Uyeda look into what’s happening in Atlanta where the South River Forest—one of the four “city lungs”—is under attack by the local government and police department.

Jacqueline Echols loves to take Atlanta residents kayaking on the South River, which begins at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and flows 63 miles into Lake Jackson. Echols says that it’s fun to bring people out on the river who have never paddled before. The river is shallow and bordered by undergrowth and native trees, rich soil, and the occasional deer, making it an unintimidating classroom for those new to the water. 

“The South River and the green space around it have a lot to offer,” Echols says. “If you’re going to invest in a community, the first thing you invest in is green space.” 

But in Atlanta, a privately funded police foundation is working double-time to expand the police’s reach at the cost of the community’s access to the city’s rich environment. The river and its surrounding forest have become the site of a major battle playing out in Atlanta between the city’s police department, backed by many members of the city council and county leaders, and the residents of the neighborhood adjacent to the South River Forest. At issue is whether or not nearly 400 acres of the forest will be handed over to the police department to construct a new training facility, which activists have renamed “Cop City” because of the proposal to build a mock city on the grounds for training. The facility will be constructed on 85 acres of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, where incarcerated people once grew food for those detained in the city’s jail. 

“Green space holds value more than any other land, and [when] the environment goes, so does the community,” said Echols, who is also board president of the South River Watershed Alliance, an advocacy organization for the fourth-most endangered river in the U.S. “What’s going on with the prison farm … is just devaluing people, devaluing communities, devaluing the environment, and they’re doing it because these are very vulnerable communities, marginalized people, and they can get away with it. You know, they can’t get away with it in [a wealthy white area like] Buckhead.” 

A forest can quell climate impacts—if it exists

It’s not just that nearby predominantly BIPOC neighborhoods will be subjected to the sounds of gunshots from the facility’s proposed shooting range—the facility presents multiple problems for these communities, Atlanta residents say. Under the guise of so-called “rising crime,” the mayor’s office, Atlanta Police Foundation, and Atlanta Police Department made the surprise announcement to construct the facilities on land owned by the city but technically a part of unincorporated DeKalb County in April 2021, much to the chagrin of community members who had been previously told that the land would be developed into a public park. A city council member introduced legislation on June 7, 2021, to formalize the deal, and by the end of the year it was approved that nearly 400 acres would be leased, with 85 of those acres slated for development. The Atlanta Police already use some of the Old Prison Farm land as a shooting range and testing ground for other weapons; the added acreage would also allow for burn towers and explosives testing. 

Now, the execution of the facility is going forward largely without public input and without substantive prior environmental impact analyses, opponents of the facility say, heightening anxieties about how communities will be affected by future natural disasters. Climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of weather events, subjecting areas like Atlanta to dozens of tropical storms that previously would have mostly affected coastal regions. Not to mention that average temperatures are rising in Atlanta faster than those in most other cities. 

Kelsey Hull, a spokesperson for the Atlanta Police Foundation, objects to claims that public input was not solicited, saying that APF provided a draft plan to Atlanta city officials and council committees. When the full city council debated “Cop City” in September 2021, Hull says, “more than 400 comments—some 20+ hours of comments—were received by Council, which then voted overwhelmingly to approve building the Public Safety Training Center.” According to The Appeal, 70% of the total 1,100 public comments opposed the new facility. 

The forest is a critical piece of climate infrastructure, protecting the area from storm runoff, cleaning the air, and providing shade in Atlanta’s hot summer months—benefits that are being traded for a measure that activists say will further terrorize Atlanta’s Black neighborhoods. Water contamination from storm runoff is a significant risk because of the city’s combined sewer system—when there’s extreme rain, water in the pipes overflows and discharges waste to dump into streams and rivers, which could prove hazardous for both the people in surrounding areas and the environment.

The South River Forest is what Kathryn Kolb, an Atlanta-based naturalist, photographer, and founder of the environmental organization Eco Addendum, would call a recovering native forest home to a scattering of old-growth trees. Kolb says that “from an ecological perspective, it would kind of be a shame” to place the proposed facility at the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. The forest is recovering from decades of logging, farming, and construction, and is on the verge of flourishing again. It would be an incredible loss to squander the forest’s potential recovery and what that would mean for Atlanta residents.

A healthy and thriving forest could provide even greater climate benefits. Healthy soils, especially those near older trees, absorb rainwater and mitigate stormwater runoff, thus preventing flooding. This is critical in Atlanta, a city that’s experienced a 75% increase in heavy downpours in the last seven decades. Forests and especially older trees also help clean the air—which has improved in recent years—by removing about 19 million pounds of pollution annually. Kolb also says that research has shown that simply walking through a forested area and breathing in the ecosystem’s air has a direct positive impact on one’s immune system

The South River Forest also plays a critical role in maintaining biodiversity. It’s home to wetlands and other riparian bodies that protect against extreme heat and weather events like hurricanes. Waterways and trees with healthy soil can act as a balm against “heat island effect,” a term that describes how industrial structures like buildings and roadways absorb and release heat. The tree cover in formerly redlined southwest Atlanta protects against the worst consequences of the heat island effect. According to Echols, tree cover is “the only thing we have to mitigate those impacts.” 

Green space is for everyone 

Kolb says that in most major cities people of color are forced into neighborhoods blighted by a lack of parks and other green space. But in Atlanta, known as the City in a Forest, many communities of color live near forested areas. The benefits of living near trees and green space abound for people of color, who disproportionately bear the brunt of disinvestment and climate impacts, Kolb says. She says some research has even shown that simply living within half a mile of green space—even if one never sets foot in it—decreases the likelihood of over a dozen major diseases, like depression and anxiety.

In the neighborhoods surrounding the South River Forest, 71-88% of residents are Black, with asthma rates in the 94th percentile and diabetes in the 80th percentile nationally. The vast majority of residents live at or below the federal poverty level, and the neighborhoods rank in the 96th percentile nationally for toxic water pollution. Cutting down trees, leaching construction materials into soil, and polluting waterways with heavy metal toxins found in bullets and grenades, which would be used in police training, would further place the neighborhoods’ residents at risk. 

Even with the reprieve from hot days that forests provide, cities with green spaces, like Atlanta, are struggling against more days of extreme heat each summer. A dangerous heat day, categorized as high humidity and heat (over 90 degrees) for at least two days, can lead to heat stroke and even death. And while Atlanta currently experiences around 20 of these days a year, that number is expected to quadruple in the next 30 years. Black people are disproportionately exposed to and affected by extreme heat, and counties with more Black residents are more likely to have extreme heat days.   

In addition to the alarming amount of damage the facility’s construction would cause to the environment, the vast majority of residents living near the forest simply don’t want the facility to be built near them, or even at all. A poll conducted by Atlanta-based Social Insights Research found that 98% of residents oppose the new training facility in the forest, and 90% oppose any new facility being built in Atlanta. Eighty-four percent of respondents said that they’d prefer the Old Atlanta Prison Farm be developed into park space. Atlanta residents are even willing to pay millions every year to support urban forests. 

“If [construction of the police facility] takes place, I don’t want to live here,” said Tinsley Ginn, a resident of the Gresham Park neighborhood in Atlanta since 2000, who lives about a quarter of a mile from the forest. 

At one point, the intention for the land was preservation—not development. Back in 2017, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) of Georgia announced a plan to restore the Old Atlanta Prison Farm and make it a key tract in a larger vision of connected parklands in the southeast part of Atlanta. In 2020, the organization got the approval from the Atlanta Regional Commission to conduct interviews with community members and begin developing a strategy for conserving 3,500 acres of green space in the area. The Old Atlanta Prison Farm and the South River Forest were “the heart” of that plan, says Deron Davis, executive director TNC in Georgia. 

The April 2021 announcement for the training facility by former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms came as a shock, particularly because there’s been “no community process at all,” Davis says. 

“One day the city committed the land to green space, the next day she announced that it would be a public safety training center,” said Davis. 

Ginn says she invited all of the DeKalb County commissioners to come to her neighborhood to experience the forest—and the impacts of the existing police weapons testing—firsthand. No one got back to her.

Now, with the city angling to push through the facility’s construction, Davis says that his organization is focused on executing the project plan without the 85 acres that have been promised to the facility. In fact, rather than find another location for the police training facility, Atlanta officials are looking at other parcels of land of equal size to the prison farm to purchase for conservation under TNC’s stewardship. 

“My dad brought me up to have reverence for the forest and the things living in it,” Ginn said. “I walk down [to the forest] basically every day. I have for 20 years. It’s where I go to regain my sanity, [and] it’s gradually been whittled away.”

Pushing back against the land grab

The systemic forces that lead to environmental racism, evidenced by waste and Superfund sites situated predominantly near Black neighborhoods, are why TNC wanted to center the connected green space plan in southeast Atlanta. 

“I absolutely believe that there has been a long history of disinvestment in this area,” Davis says. “I think it is a reasonable assumption that, in part, is because the ‘powerful people’ did not live in this part of the city.”

According to organizers, the “powerful people” are still intent on using false narratives to continue that disinvestment. According to Kamau Franklin, the founder of the grassroots anti-gentrification organization Community Movement Builders, the main ones are the myths of the dominating problem of rising crime and that the facility has garnered major public support. Neither of which are true, he says. 

“Even under the best circumstances, the center would take three-to-five years to build, so there’s no way it has anything to do with the idea of stopping crime,” said Franklin. 

In Atlanta, violent crime had been falling since 2013, concurrent with a shrinking police force. The lack of substantive support to belay the financial and social fallout of the pandemic, not to mention a failure to adequately address the public health crisis itself, means that across the country, crimes of poverty went up. Of any mainland U.S. city, Atlanta ranks the highest in terms of income inequality. Alec Karakatsanis, the founder and executive director of the Civil Rights Corps, a legal advocacy organization, says that given how often police lie, how some actions are criminalized while others are not, and the mounting evidence that more police do not make communities safer, responding to narratives of rising crime with more police would be like responding to climate change by donating to oil companies. 

Rather than being about crime, Franklin says that the city’s permission to build “Cop City” “is a gift to the police.” Community Movement Builders organizing director Jasmine Burnett says that the proposal is a direct response to organizing and protests in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd and killing of Rayshard Brooks in 2020. Demands of defunding the police and investing in community programs “really scared city council members, scared the executives and the elites in the city, and that’s when they really put their foot on the gas to get this ‘Cop City’ project moving forward,” Burnett says. 

Community Movement Builders is taking a multi-pronged approach to protecting the forest and preventing the facility from being built, though some tree removal has begun, advocates on the ground say. Franklin says that they plan to target those who sit on the board of the Atlanta Police Foundation, a funding group that solicited $90 million in private funding for the project, whose board boasts representatives from Accenture, UPS, and Amazon. The project has also received funding support from Cox Enterprises President and CEO Alex Taylor; Cox owns the major newspaper in Atlanta, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

They’re also staging demonstrations downtown, at City Hall, in the forest, and on the doorsteps of the corporations funding the project; Coca Cola, headquartered in Atlanta, quit the board of the Atlanta Police Foundation because of CMB’s work, Franklin says. The national racial justice organization Color of Change has also stepped in to help with social media campaigns and petition work. Gathering this data is critical, Burnett says, given how officials are relying on the premise that residents support the facility’s construction.

The police department remains unmoved by the protests and community apprehensions over the potential consequences of the facility’s construction. In an email response to inquiries from Prism, a representative with the police department said the department is undeterred from its “mission of constructing this state-of-the-art public safety training facility that will allow us to teach and train recruits and our tenured police officers and firefighters in an environment that is safe, aesthetically pleasing, and technically capable of moving public safety training forward.”

Organizers see the sale as a legal land grab made possible by a confusing bureaucratic process between the two local governments involved. DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry explains that because the City of Atlanta owns the land, it doesn’t have to follow the county’s zoning regulations or go through a public planning process. Terry says he would prefer the training facility be built in another location, but given that he’s “only in charge of DeKalb County,” it’s not in his “ability to force any sort of changes.” 

Hull says that the city surveyed a number of spaces for the potential facility before settling on the Old Prison Farm and South River Forest, given that “qualified sites needed to be quickly accessible to the City, affordable, able to be developed in the relative near term, and afford minimal disruption to nearby residents,” Hull said.

Reverend Avis Williams, a local faith and community leader, says that this kind of mentality is equivalent to “passing the buck.” Williams has also made calls to city officials asking for environmental reviews and more information on the project, but has been given, as she says, “the runaround.” There’s still time to prevent construction, Williams says, and she’s hopeful that someone with influence in the city or state governments will step up and align with community members. 

“I mean, who’s not for clean air?” Williams said. 

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.