As one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the United States, Atlantais a major hub for transportation and industry. The Georgia state capital is home to the headquarters of such corporations as Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, and UPS, and has a prominent entertainment scene, producing popular hip-hop music, film, and television.
A cradle of the American civil rights movement, with an historically enfranchised African-American population who today make up over 50% of the city’s population, Atlanta is nevertheless geographically segregated along racial lines, and has the highest income inequality of any city in the United States. These two stresses overlap, as poverty in Atlanta is suffered most strongly by the city’s minorities.
Atlanta’s residents of color are also more likely to face environmental justice issues in their neighborhoods. Despite an abundance of trees that has given it the nickname “city in a forest,” in 2017 only 41% of Atlanta’s residents could safely walk to a green space, such as a park, with low-income and/or minority communities lacking access at higher rates than the city overall.
Wholly contained within the city’s borders, Proctor Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River, originates in downtown Atlanta and is piped through tunnels until daylighting in the economically depressed Westside neighborhoods five miles from the city center, where more than 90% of the 50,000 residents are minorities. For decades, the 16 square miles of the Proctor Creek watershed have been plagued by environmental degradation including erosion, street runoff, pollution from illegal dumping, and stormwater floods contaminated with sewer overflows.
Atlanta Resilience Strategy, released in 2017, articulated a strong commitment to promoting community resilience and environmental justice, and in particular to improving the ecological, economic, and social vitality of the neighborhoods around Proctor Creek, among others. Within that resilience work, the City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management (DWM) has established stormwater management that leverages green infrastructure and the creation of public green spaces as a critical tool for achieving these objectives.
When complete, the Greenway will feature 400 acres of green space and 50 acres of linear park, connecting multiple isolated neighborhoods in West and Northwest Atlanta to schools, restaurants, and transit.
One of the key initiatives of Atlanta’s Resilience Strategy was to construct the first segment of a new Proctor Creek Greenway trail, as part of the Strategy’s wider goal of creating 500 new acres of publicly-accessible greenspace across the city by 2022. The trail was funded through a $160,000 investment from the DWM and a $3.6M investment from a transportation-oriented special-purpose sales tax (TSPLOST) endorsed by voters in 2016.
Building on this initial work in Proctor Creek, in February 2019, the DWM issued the nation’s first publicly-offered Environmental Impact Bond (EIB) to fund $13.5M in new stormwater management projects across the watershed.
Atlanta is now using that EIB funding for six Proctor Creek green infrastructure projects, in those neighborhoods of the city’s Westside that have been disproportionately impacted by flooding, combined sewer overflows, environmental degradation, and unemployment.
The six projects are:
installing ten blocks of street-side vegetated stormwater planters
restoring an eroded section of the creek to reduce stagnant water where mosquitoes gather
creating bioretention areas in area parks
restoring native habitats
establishing new wetland areas
creating new green spaces for community use
The Role of 100 Resilient Cities
Through the city’s partnership with 100 Resilient Cities, Atlanta’s DWM participated in a nationwide competitive process for a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and was selected to develop green infrastructure for resilience projects using innovative EIB financing. The grant funded the services of impact investment firm Quantified Ventures, who helped Atlanta coordinate and structure the deal, as well as municipal finance specialists Neighborly Corporation, who underwrote and marketed the bonds. This financing opportunity provided DWM with access to a new source of private investment capital, by tapping into a unique sector of community-oriented investors focused on environmental and social impact.
Outcomes and Impacts to Date
On May 7, 2018, the first segment of the Proctor Creek Greenway—three out of the eventual seven total miles—officially opened to the public. The vision for the full Greenway will connect the Westside Beltline Trail to Quarry Park (the largest park in the City of Atlanta) on the southern end, and on the northern end, the trail will continue running alongside Proctor Creek to create a critical access point to the Chattahoochee River.
Boasting biking and pedestrian trails, the Proctor Creek Greenway offers multiple co-benefits from a single intervention, as it will facilitate exercise and healthy living, enhance Atlanta’s natural assets, and foster economic development in an area of the city which faces considerable environmental and economic challenges.
When complete, the Greenway will feature 400 acres of green space and 50 acres of linear park, connecting multiple isolated neighborhoods in West and Northwest Atlanta to schools, restaurants, and transit. Moreover, when Cobb County and Fulton County build their respective riverwalks that traverse the Chattahoochee, the Proctor Creek Greenway will eventually link downtown Atlanta to the Silver Comet Trail that runs all the way out to Alabama.
The upcoming green infrastructure projects being funded via the EIB are cumulatively designed to provide 6.4 million gallons of stormwater capture capacity, reducing runoff by 56 million gallons annually. Additionally, DWM will ensure that the EIB stimulates equitable economic development that directly benefits the local community by supporting workforce development initiatives in Proctor Creek watershed that will hire local community members to carry out the work.
This first three miles of the Proctor Creek Greenway are an impressive model of thoughtful, resilient trail infrastructure,. The project leverages green infrastructure to curb flooding and runoff, while providing local residents with increased connectivity to other areas of Atlanta and an overall more cohesive community. At the inauguration of the new Greenway, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms stated that, thanks to this initiative, “a once overwhelmingly polluted waterway has been revitalized to provide historically isolated neighborhoods greater access to nearby parks, schools, and restaurants.”
The six additional green infrastructure projects now being pursued thanks to the EIB will generate a variety of environmental, social, economic, and health benefits. Common to all of them is stormwater capture, which directly mitigates flooding and improves water quality by reducing the impacts of runoff on combined sewer systems and waterways. Some of the additional benefits these projects will bring to the local communities will include enhanced wildlife habitat, access to green space for recreation, improved air quality, and green jobs.