Thomas Wheatley: Embrace the Wild, Harness Our Mistakes

On a quiet, early evening recently, I sat next to the Chattahoochee River on a plastic chair left by a stranger. Not far away, a power plant hummed just beyond a hill. Up river, a cement plant churned. A mile or so south of me was the 75-acre site of a brickyard where people—mostly Black men, along with some women and young folks—accused of crimes like spitting in public and loitering broke their backs for no pay to make bricks.

In the early 1900s, the Atlanta Water and Electric Power company built a hydroelectric dam on the Chattahoochee River at Morgan Falls and sold the power to Atlanta’s streetcar system. Decades later came the 187-foot-tall dam that created Lake Lanier. Around the same time, federal highway officials blasted Summerhill, Sweet Auburn, and other communities to build the interstate system. The historic centers of some European villages could fit comfortably in the footprint of the resulting Downtown Connector.

These engineering marvels created fortunes and sprawl, which allowed generations access to starter homes, but also forced many of those homeowners into hourlong commutes. Infrastructure projects like these made metro Atlanta. But they also polluted the air, water, and soil, while deepening inequities.

Smart growth champion Christopher Leinberger once referred to metro Atlanta as the fastest growing human settlement in history, but that was more a statement of shock than awe. Over the past 60 years, metro Atlanta’s population has ballooned, now standing at around 4.8 million people. To get here, we’ve plowed through forests, clear-cut land, and dammed rivers. The negative effects are many, ranging from decreased air quality to income inequality.

Here’s the thing, though: metro Atlanta isn’t going to stop growing. And though I wish otherwise, some of our mistakes—the asphalt, the concrete, the steel—will likely never get unwound, undone, or fixed in our lifetimes. The power plant in Cobb along the river? The massive cement plant on the other side of the Chattahoochee? The I-75 bridges over the river? I-75 and Highway 41 themselves? It’s unlikely that any of this is going away. The cost is too high, the political will is non-existent, and the impact on millions of people’s lives is too great. 

So, how do we make meaningful change? The answer isn’t to continue expanding roads or building factories in communities where people are living on low incomes. It’s not to pour all our energy into erasing the cityscape we’ve created. It’s to acknowledge our poor choices of the past and turn them into something beautiful that remedies the damage we’ve caused. It’s to embrace and co-exist with the flora and fauna that’s persevered despite the bad things we’ve done to it. 

We sometimes lose sight of the wild and wonder around us in metro Atlanta. A woodland in the foothills slowly rising toward the Appalachian Mountains. Hawks, eagles, and owls living in the trees just outside our homes, perching and nesting in oaks, maples, and dogwoods. Creeks running behind homes and feeding into rivers, the closest natural bodies of water our landlocked city can claim. The more time I’ve spent exploring metro Atlanta and taking in its infrastructure, the more I see what we did in the past and how it affects the present while I daydream about the potential of the future. 

Recovery and time have convinced me that we can choose to make really beautiful things from our mistakes. In doing so, we can heal places, people, and ourselves. While tweeting recently about how ATL’s nature interacts and butts up against our infrastructure, Ryan Gravel, a fellow believer, replied, “Our mistakes are the raw materials for building ideas about what’s next.”

But deciding what’s next is the tricky part.

The Atlanta City Design, which Gravel co-wrote, offers some solutions. The vision, which is waiting on a mayor and City Council to bring its elements to life, encourages city leaders to make nature a priority in planning the city’s future.

Some great projects are already in the works. In northwest Atlanta, we’re building a trail for people and cleaning the adjacent creek. We’re turning an old brickyard into a park and memorial to connect us with our history, however painful it is. We’re building a bike path past an old incinerator, bringing life to static places.

These are radical but not revolutionary ideas. On a recent trip through California, I cycled with friends on a growing bike trail along the Los Angeles River, where trees and tiny signs of life are rising. Much like New York’s High Line and ATL’s BeltLine, Philadelphia’s Rail Park is taking an old rail corridor, including a segment that runs underground, and turning it into a trail connecting neighborhoods. In Charleston, South Carolina, the Lowcounty Lowline aims to do the same.

Doing these projects requires political will, money, community support, and vision to think big (a chain of large nature preserves in southeast Atlanta that supporters have called the city’s lungs), small (green infrastructure like bioswales and daylighting a creek paved over by an industrial site) and holistically (dense, affordable housing—especially near transit—to combat the gentrification and displacement that follows the arrival of pretty things and new people). 

Put another way: just as it was possible to do so many things wrong in the past, it’s possible to do so many things right in the future. But we have to want for these things and loudly ask for them.

And those things? They don’t have to be hyper-designed and over-curated. We can replace invasive plants with native species to celebrate the diversity of this place and encourage wildlife. We can greenlight projects like RiverWalk, the space where I sat that night along the Chattahoochee. It’s a low-cost passion project of residents and local environmentalists that’s given Atlantans something novel: access to the waterway. It could become a key part of the overall vision to build the 125-mile RiverLands trail from Buford Dam to Chattahoochee Bend State Park, connecting an in-the-works memorial and greenspace on the site of that former brick factory. In the meantime, it’s a special place to watch water flow. In a late spring golden hour, you can take walks in tall grass under transmission lines.

We can make beautiful progress like this when we dream big, think creatively, listen to our communities, and understand our place in this place. And if we do more things like that, we’ll be much better off.

Thomas Wheatley

Thomas Wheatley is a reporter at Axios Atlanta covering city politics, policy, and culture. Before that, he worked at Atlanta Magazine and Creative Loafing. He’s a native Atlantan.