Photo by Luis Gaud (@jerrito1)

When we needed it most – during the highly stressful midterm election season –nature gave us a spectacular gift: bright-blue skies, cool temperatures, and vibrant color in tree leaves. I can’t remember an October as gorgeous as the one Atlanta just experienced. 

Every tree in my Intown neighborhood seemed to peak at the same time in shades from scarlet and burnt orange to gold and russet. Now, our yards are littered with the shriveled remnants of these beauties – ready for a rake (my choice) or leaf-blower to move them to disposal bags or, preferably, to compost piles to enrich soil and help retain moisture in gardens. 

Nature’s Food Factories

Powered by the miracle of photosynthesis – a Greek word meaning “putting together with light” – leaves are food factories for trees. They use sunlight to turn water (absorbed by roots) and carbon dioxide (taken from the air) into oxygen and glucose (a simple sugar); the latter is an important energy source in living organisms. Chlorophyll, a green pigment in plant cells, helps drive photosynthesis.

Fall’s shorter, cooler days signal broad-leaved, deciduous trees that they must get ready for winter, when there won’t be enough light or water for photosynthesis; they will have to live off food stored in the summer. As the chlorophyll in leaves breaks down, yellow and orange pigments that are masked by the green coloring in spring and summer become visible. 

The brilliance of seasonal tree color depends on weather conditions that occur before and during the time the chlorophyll in the leaves is dwindling. Temperature and moisture are the main influences; the countless combinations of these highly variable factors ensure that no two autumns are alike. 

Urban Forest at Risk

As I rake the crumbling leaves in my yard, remembering the beauty of October, I think about Atlanta’s declining urban forest. The number of healthy trees lost to development rose by 100% from 2021 to 2022. How is this intolerable trend possible? City residents repeatedly and overwhelmingly support tree protection. 

The enormous benefits that trees provide – free of charge – are well known: shade and water vapor to counter deadly rising temperatures in cities, removal of air pollutants, reduction of storm runoff and flooding, higher property values, sequestration of carbon to combat climate change, improved mental health, and aesthetic beauty. What a list and all for free! Yet, we (read: our elected officials and bureaucrats) are allowing developers to toss mature, healthy trees to the curb, literally. 

As one tree advocate told me: “Anyone with a computer and a bulldozer can download plans from the internet for a few hundred dollars and scrape land bare to erect massive structures. For convenience and speed, they grade entire lots.” Developers pay a pathetically-small fee established decades ago ($100 plus $30 per diameter inch for trees greater than six inches in diameter) and plant a sapling in its place that may or may not survive. Having dealt with our region’s pro-development (at any cost) mindset for most of my career as an environmental advocate, none of this really surprises me, but it sure leaves me angry. 

Kicking the Can

When Money magazine recently listed Atlanta as the “best place to live in the U.S.,” it noted, among other assets, the city’s tree-lined streets and its arboreal canopy, described as being, “so dense it’s been nicknamed ‘the city in a forest.’” Pro-growth boosters brag about our tree canopy, while they are often the same people opposing meaningful improvements to the city’s tree protection ordinance. 

The Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association is particularly vocal in its opposition to tree protection efforts. Its leaders complain about red tape and citizen appeals, while declaring they will experience economic hardship – that development in the city will stop—if any trees are protected. I’m still laughing. We do not have to choose between trees and homes. We can and must have both. 

More than twenty years ago, the Atlanta City Council passed a tree ordinance to protect our city in a forest, that source of civic pride. Since at least 2014, if not before, it’s been clear to anyone paying attention that this ordinance is not working. For the past eight years—under three city administrations – citizens, tree advocates, developers, bureaucrats, and elected officials have met, argued, and drafted proposals to overhaul the tree ordinance, currently little more than a pay-to-play operation. There has been no progress toward greater protection. 

Tree advocates tell me that homebuilder representatives have routinely roadblocked efforts to develop consensus, yet offer no constructive suggestions. Kicking the can down the road is a favorite ploy of those who simply want to continue business as usual and avoid taking responsibility. Atlanta’s tree ordinance “can” is so dented from delay and obfuscation that it’s barely kickable.  

The Dickens Administration

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has been in office less than a year and his plate has been full. He largely inherited this embarrassing failure to conduct what should be routine administrative work: fixing a city ordinance that governs a program essential to Atlanta’s brand and prosperity. 

Since Dickens was inaugurated, his staff has secured agreement on a half dozen tweaks to the ordinance, currently before the city council. This is a good step that should be supported, but it’s only a baby step. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr.: “This is no time to… take the tranquilizing drug of incrementalism.” 

Dickens recently appointed Jahnee Prince to head the city’s planning department. With her past connections to the development community, she may know the players in the tree protection landscape, which could be helpful. Prince should reach out to Chandra Farley, the city’s new chief sustainability officer, to engage her department’s expertise in climate solutions for drafting a new tree ordinance. 

The biggest question for me, as I continue to rake the falling leaves, is whether Atlanta’s elected leaders will finally take responsibility. Are they willing to pass a strong, enforceable measure to save more of our leafy companions? Or, will they join their recent predecessors as a “nod squad” for developer rule?  

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.