Opinion: What threatens my ‘city in the forest’

Editor’s Note: Katharine K. Wilkinson, DPhil is a homegrown Atlantan, author and climate leader. Her books include the bestselling anthology “All We Can Save” and she co-hosts the podcast “A Matter of Degrees.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.


My most beloved neighbor is a rangy octogenarian who’s lived in our Atlanta neighborhood for her entire life. I nicknamed her QN after her Latin name: Quercus nigra. Pronounced “queen,” it feels like bare minimum recognition of her royalty.

Katharine Wilkinson

Imagine QN, if you will, as a dendro-grande-dame — a Water Oak with a tremendous, twirled trunk and expansive reach across a curve of clovered park. I like to think cars pause here out of respect, not just because of the nearby stop sign, before zipping off to a main vein of Atlanta traffic.

For decades, QN has committed to this place, rooting deep into firm, ruddy soil and rising toward the light. It strikes me as a fusion of longing and joy.

A few months back, I met a woman who had flown into Atlanta’s international airport from her home in Cape Town. “The trees!” she exclaimed. “I know, aren’t they glorious?” I replied, delighted by her amazement and appreciation. It was her first encounter with our remarkable “city in the forest.” And the name is deserved — at least for now.

Urban tree canopy” is a technical term. It’s the constellation of leaves, branches, and stems of trees that cover the ground of a city when viewed from above. Aerial photography or satellite imagery make this patchwork fairly easy to assess. The most recent study for Atlanta dates to 2018. At that time, the “UTC” covered 46.5% of the city. That canopy, and the magnificent trees that co-create it, is Atlanta’s natural wonder.

Wilkinson's tree, a Quercus nigra or water oak, nicknamed QN

But our canopy rate is steadily dropping. That’s largely due to development in the city, especially in the absence of an effective tree ordinance, which the city council consistently fails to remedy. Industrial projects often undertake a wholesale clearcut on a given parcel before beginning construction. Residential teardown-rebuilds are another major culprit, with their seemingly viral impulse to erect the biggest possible single-family homes. Prior inhabitants on the lot be damned. I was in tears a couple years back when an extraordinary, rare elm was removed, just blocks from QN, to make way for a colossal new house.

Why has become my refrain. I haven’t lived in Atlanta as long as QN, but this city has been home for three of my four decades. Having lived here for so long, I feel angry and occasionally despairing about the indifference, and maybe disdain, some fellow Atlantans seem to have for our trees. That distress is fueled by my deep and durable love for the eyes that peer from American Beeches’ smooth gray bark, the Flowering Dogwoods with their white and pink magic each spring and the glossy dark-green bodies of Southern Magnolias. “Mag-noooo-li-a,” I apparently said as a youngster, toddling the sidewalks of our leafy nabe.

Lapping my current neighborhood during the long days of early Covid, I said to my partner: “I might be going back to my ancestral roots and turning into a Druid.” British Isles and whatnot. He laughed in the way you do about a joke that’s mostly true.

These days, Atlanta’s tree canopy has made the news for specific, and awful, reasons. A proposed police and fire training center, commonly referred to as “Cop City,” is slated for construction on forested land owned by the City of Atlanta, just outside its limits. The City leased 85 acres to the Atlanta Police Foundation to build the center with a mix of corporate funds and some $67 million in taxpayer dollars.

That land is part of the South River Forest, described by Will Harlan of the Center for Biological Diversity as “one of the last and largest urban forests in Atlanta and in the country.” It is precious and irreplaceable. Protection of that forest, also known by its Muscogee name Weelaunee, is one of the interconnected reasons a growing collection of people is working to stop the Cop City project.

That collection includes many of the majority Black residents who live adjacent to the forest — and do not want to live adjacent to one of the largest police training facilities in the country. Neighbor Joe Santifer told The New Yorker that he hopes instead to see the land “put to its best and highest use — to allow people to reconnect with nature, with their fellow-humans, and with themselves.” (His interviewer was a childhood classmate of mine.) Indeed, a plan for higher, better use exists: including it in an expansive network of greenspace, which could counter a history of disinvestment and environmental injustice in the area.

Until January 18, 2023, that collection also included 26-year-old activist Manuel Paez Terán, who went by the name Tortuguita, or “Little Turtle,” and is thought to be the first environmental defender killed on American soil. According to an independent autopsy, Tortuguita’s hands were raised and they were likely seated cross-legged when, per the county medical examiner, they were shot at least 57 times during a multi-agency clearing operation. Police said Tortuguita was shot after an activist shot a state trooper, but the examiner noted there was no visible gunpowder observed on their hands. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has completed its inquiry; a prosecutor will decide whether to press charges against police.

Tortuguita’s mother, Belkis Terán, is now continuing the work, while other activists are being held without bond in DeKalb County Jail on domestic terrorism charges. Some face up to 35 years in prison for nothing more than a misdemeanor trespassing charge — for the act of occupying public land in the name of saving a forest. The Georgia General Assembly expanded the state’s domestic terrorism law in 2017. State prosecutors are now using that law in new ways that quell political protest and free speech, both of which are constitutional rights. They call it “keeping Georgians safe.”

In April, Rev. Dr. Bernice A. King, daughter of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., joined the chorus of opposition with an open letter stressing the discontinuity between Cop City and Atlanta’s civil rights legacy. “The City of Atlanta has an opportunity to rise to higher ground,” she wrote, “to create a just, humane, equitable, and peaceful Atlanta — The Beloved Community. If we would but do it.”

I also count myself among the collection of people that want to see Cop City stopped — not only because I treasure Atlanta’s trees and waterways, and because I loathe the growing militarization of police and its implications for my neighbors of color and for activists on the frontlines. I am also deeply concerned as a climate expert in an already hot city.

Heat and humidity have been a central theme since Atlanta was named Atlanta in the 1840s — shortly after the Muscogee were removed from their ancestral homelands by the federal government — and certainly long before that. But climate change is adding dangerous emphasis to our tawdry nickname, Hotlanta.

In 1971, the Allman Brothers Band popularized the tag with a song, “Hot ‘Lanta,” on the live album “At Fillmore East.” (My mother was at the show. You can hear her whistling during “Statesboro Blues.”) Since that time, Atlanta’s average summer temperatures have increased by 3.3°F. Heat waves and extreme heat days have ticked up too. Unfortunately, we’re just getting started, as heat-trapping pollution continues to pile up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Climate change and its implications for cities like ours are the focus of Brian Stone and Evan Mallen’s Urban Climate Lab, a research project housed at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The pair recently conducted a detailed assessment of Atlanta’s urban heat vulnerability. While heat is a challenge for all Atlantans, this study paints a grave picture of inequity across the city with historically Black and low-income neighborhoods facing much greater risk. (It’s not the first to do so.)

Stone and Mallen also point to solutions. We can and should reduce Atlanta’s urban heat island effect by adopting white “cool” roofs and reflective asphalt, which absorb less heat from the sun than their typical dark-colored counterparts. We can and should create more cooling centers across the metro area, giving people access to air conditioning and water during hot days and hot seasons. But, more than anything, we should focus on the incredible infrastructure for heat resilience that we already have: our trees.

When it comes to coping with heat, protecting, as well as replanting and expanding, Atlanta’s tree canopy is vital. As Stone said in a recent interview: “There’s nothing else that is remotely as effective.” Mature trees are the most important asset of all because it can take decades for a newly planted sapling to provide similar benefits.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has promised that the police center developer will “replace” each hardwood cut with 100 new trees. But that fundamentally misses the point. Even in multitudes, saplings cannot substitute for the function of full-grown trees. We should do all we can to safeguard forests like Weelaunee. And also individual trees like QN.

Sitting beneath QN’s canopy on a recent hot day, the thing I immediately notice, and relish, is the shade. The ground beneath her giant leafy parasol is cooler than that just a few feet away, and I feel cooler resting there than in the sun. But in addition to shading, I’m also benefiting from another natural function: transpiration.

As the sun’s rays meet the canopy, water evaporates as vapor from stomata in QN’s leaves, cooling them down much the way sweat cools the human body. In effect, she becomes a personal solar-powered AC system, and the benefits extend to the surrounding air. This combination of shading and transpiration that urban tree canopy provides can meaningfully reduce a city’s temperatures, as well as the need for human-made air conditioning (and its carbon emissions).

In tandem with heat, the other primary climate impact we’re experiencing in Atlanta is increased precipitation — more water rung out of an atmosphere with more moisture. I’ve visited QN only once during a rainstorm, but she was hard at work then too. Trees slow water down; reduce runoff into streets, storm drains, and creeks; and help that water absorb into ground that hasn’t been paved over.

Elected officials always seem to be looking for two-for-one specials. In this era of heat and floods, there are few that beat the combo trees offer. Three-for-one, if you consider the aesthetic beauty they provide. Four-for-one, if you include branding and what it means to be known as the “city in the forest.”

My family and I moved from Manhattan to the 404 in 1983. My father, a sports journalist, had been hired by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the city’s main newspaper. A pressbox, to him, was hallowed ground. “The AJC,” as it’s locally known, belongs to Cox Enterprises, a privately held, global conglomerate headquartered in a suburb north of the city. (My father was relieved to depart the paper before the downtown office was shuttered, ending its physical presence in Atlanta proper.) Cox’s current CEO, Alex Taylor, is now chairing the fundraising efforts for the massive police training center on the southside.

So here I sit in the snarl of people and place, past and present, family and forest. I worry that rather than the “city in the forest,” known for exporting sparkly sugar water, hip-hop and civil rights, our city will become known for ripping down forest and muscling up the long arm of the law, as police descend from around the country and the world to train here.

I also hold hope that we will find another way — a way that respects all Atlantans, especially the most marginalized, and keeps trees standing.

Atlanta voters may ultimately have the final say. I, along tens of thousands of others, have signed the petition that would put a referendum on the ballot. Given the outpouring of concern about Cop City, why not let voters choose whether we want to repeal the ordinance that authorized the lease of the land upon which the training center depends? Why not let voters decide if this is how we want to spend taxpayer money, spurn the wishes of residents, and sacrifice scarce remaining forest?

We might yet try something as brave as democracy in action.

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As protest persists in Weelaunee, here in my neighborhood, QN is already growing this year’s profusion of acorns. I don’t know how many she’s spilled in her life, but likely more than a million. Each autumn, as air conditioners ease up, the acorns’ dense nutty hearts glow a bright pumpkin gold, a feast for the gray squirrels who shinny QN’s branches and leap the lengths of her crooked, lovely fingers.

Perhaps these creatures are there simply for the nuggets of nourishment. Who doesn’t love a complimentary snack free-for-all? But I can’t help but wonder if they feel QN as I do: a mother of this sacred pocket of our urban ecology.

What might be possible for this city in the forest if more of us came to see, to feel, our trees this way? If our leaders clued in to the facts of our immense interdependence — the ways we are just as entangled as the roots beneath our feet? We too could extend grace to our neighbors. We too could reach for the light.

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