Green Spaces

Focus Area 7: Urban Parks, Green Spaces & Food Security Summary



(click above to access Atlanta’s Tree Ordinance)


Carbon Sequestration by Urban Trees and Green Spaces

Trees absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and store carbon as biomass. As such, trees in urban areas can become major carbon storage reservoirs through carbon sequestration. Urban trees and green spaces can also influence local climate by reducing the urban heat island effect and consequently reducing the use of electricity from air conditioning units.

The City of Atlanta, also called “The City in a Forest” for its abundance of trees, can benefit from carbon sequestration and reducing its heat island effect by increasing green spaces and tree canopy. Unfortunately, urban trees and forests ecosystem-services are just beginning to be understood and quantified by the scientific community.

As part of the Climate Action Plan, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability will work with city experts, including the Nature Conservancy, Georgia Tech, and others, to quantify the amount of carbon sequestered or avoided in Atlanta through its tree canopy and green spaces. The results of this study will provide vital information to prioritize efforts related to carbon emissions reductions.

The Urban Heat Island Effect

Urban heat island effect is the increase in air temperature that results in part from the replacement of trees and other vegetation with buildings, roads and other heat-absorbing infrastructure[1]. This increase in temperature can affect the environment and the quality of life in communities for the following reasons[2]:

  • Increases energy consumption by requiring more energy for cooling, adding stress to the electricity grid during peak periods of demand
  • Elevates emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases emissions because it increases energy demand, which results in greater emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Higher air temperatures also promote the formation of ground-level ozone
  • Produces a negative effect on human health and comfort because it warms days and nights and produces higher air pollution levels, which can contribute to general discomfort, respiratory difficulties, exhaustion, non-fatal heat stroke, and heat-related mortality
  • Produces a negative effect on water quality because hot pavement and rooftop surfaces transfer their excess heat to stormwater, which then drains into storm sewers, raising water temperatures in other streams as the heated water is released in rivers, ponds, and lakes. Changes in the temperature of water streams can be stressful to aquatic ecosystems.

Physical interventions and policies related to the built environment can help to reduce urban temperatures, especially during periods of extremely hot weather, which are predicted to become more frequent with global climate change[3]. Vegetation, such as tree-canopies and community gardens, and green spaces such as urban parks, are the simplest and most effective ways to reduce the urban heat island effect. Trees and community gardens moderate higher temperatures produced by the heat island effect through shading and evapotranspiration. Urban parks and other green spaces enhance local wind patterns through the park breeze, mitigate local precipitation anomalies amplified by the urban heat island effect, and sequester carbon and other pollutants trapped by the urban heat island effect that may otherwise alter local and global atmospheric composition[4].

The primary focus of the City of Atlanta is to reduce the heat island effect by increasing the tree canopy and impervious covers; these measures can produce statistically significant cooling in the area[5].

Urban Parks and Green Spaces

According to the 2014 Park Score Index published by The Trust for Public Land[6], the City of Atlanta ranks 42nd among 60 cities in meeting the need for parks. Results of the study indicate that Atlanta is dedicating 5.8% of the city area to parks compared to the national median of 9.3%.

The city has taken significant measures to improve its green spaces. From 2010 to 2013, more than 330 acres of city land have been dedicated to city parks, and projects such as the Atlanta BeltLine and the Beltwood Quarry have been recognized as national examples of green urban development[7].

Beyond the potential for GHG sequestration, parks and green spaces can reduce energy consumption by mitigating the heat island effect. Additionally, they may provide benefits to individual and communal health, transportation, water resource management[8], and wildlife (by providing suitable habitats).

The Atlanta BeltLine

The Atlanta BeltLine provides an opportunity for the city to transform its park system. With a goal of increasing Atlanta’s greenspace by 40%, the Atlanta BeltLine will add nearly 1,300 acres of new parks and greenspace over the course of the project’s 25-year implementation. These new parks will be connected via 33 miles of continuous multi-use trails, which will ultimately link 40 new and existing parks.

Several of the Atlanta BeltLine parks are already open to the public. In addition to enrichment through new recreational offerings, these green space initiatives offer environmental benefits, and will serve as a catalyst for economic development around the parks. The greenspace component of the Atlanta BeltLine was introduced by the Trust for Public Land in its 2004 Emerald Necklace Study, which it commissioned from renowned urban designer Alex Garvin.

The Bellwood Quarry/Westside Park

In 2006 the City of Atlanta purchased a quarry in northwest Atlanta that had been in operation for more than 100 years. In December of that year TPL preserved a 10-acre property located at the quarry entrance as an addition to the site. The entire property will be converted into a new 300-acre park along Atlanta’s Beltline, a 22-mile corridor of parks, trails, and transit encircling downtown. The new park will be the largest in the city and the quarry itself will become a sparkling 1.9-billion-gallon water reservoir.

Tree Canopy

The City of Atlanta is also called “The City in a Forest” for its abundance of trees, and it is classified by the US Forest Service as one of the most forested urban areas in the country. In 2012, the City of Atlanta achieved the highest urban tree cover in the nation with 53.9% of its area covered[9]. The City of Atlanta Department of Parks, in conjunction with Trees Atlanta and other community organizations, has planted more than 30,000 new native trees. The restoration of urban native botanical diversity enriches the habitat for wildlife and other native species, and has the potential of sequestering GHG emissions.

The City of Atlanta passed a tree protection ordinance in 2001, and in September of 2014 the City’s Arborist division submitted a revision of the original ordinance to the City Council to close loopholes. The City Council is still considering these revisions[10].

Urban Agriculture in Atlanta

Cities can benefit from urban agriculture economically, environmentally and socially. From an economic perspective, urban agriculture increases economic prosperity by creating jobs and developing new local industries; from an environmental perspective, urban agriculture improves the local environment by removing vacant lots and returning a green landscape to the city’s neighborhoods; from a social perspective, urban agriculture improves the health and safety of residents by providing healthy food and greater access to well-maintained green spaces, and it nurtures a sense of community by building social capital and organizational capacity[11].

An important consideration in the deployment of urban agriculture is related to the land being considered, which should be tested for soil contamination, particularly lead, and remediated first before planting begins13.

There are at least 85 active community and school gardens in the City of Atlanta and at least 10 urban farms. A diverse coalition of stakeholders works to build a more sustainable food system for Atlanta. These stakeholders include community organizations, nonprofits, universities, government agencies, individuals, and corporations. The Georgia Organics Organization holds bi-monthly meetings with approximately 30 to 40 stakeholders attending each meeting to build local food production and supply through comprehensive grower education and outreach programs. Georgia Organics also catalyzes demand on the consumer and business end by fostering market opportunities for local food.

Atlanta Food Deserts

Food deserts are parts of communities where residents have low access to healthy and affordable foods due to distance from supermarkets and grocery stores and low-income. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “limited access to nutritious food and easier access to less nutritious food may be linked to poor diets and, ultimately, to obesity and diet-related diseases”.

Using the Food Desert Locator, created as part of national campaign, Lets Move, Georgia Tech[12] calculated 7,778 Atlanta residents living in a food desert (see diagram below) and 4,036 children and 705 seniors having difficulty obtaining healthy Food.

Food deserts can exacerbate GHG emissions because people living in these areas are required to travel long distances to obtain healthy and affordable food.


Website- USDA-ERS Food Desert Locator:

Objectives Reduction Potential
Reduce emissions by increasing park land, green spaces, and tree canopy, and assuring local food security low-impact
Strategies Activities Supports Adaptation Community/Government Reduction Potential
GS1- Maintain and Increase park land to 7% by 2020 and 10% by 2025; increase accessibility to parks (within a half mile) to 40% of the population by 2020 and 45% by 2025 Work with the City Department of Parks and Recreation and Planning and Community Development to Increase city park land and green spaces Y Both low-impact
GS2- Maintain/Increase Urban Canopy Tree Protection Ordinance Y Both low-impact
GS3- Increase Urban Agriculture/Vertical Farming practices Urban Agr. Ordinance Y Both low-impact
GS4 – Reduce Food Deserts Mobile Markets Y Both low-impact
GS5- Trees Carbon Sequestration- Quantification Coordinate a study to quantify the amount of carbon sequestered or avoided in Atlanta through its tree canopy and green spaces Y Both low-impact
GS 1-Maintain and Increase park land to 7% by 2020 and 10% by 2025; accessibility to parks (half mile) to 40% of the population by 2020 and 45% by 2025... low-impact
Work with the City Department of Parks and Recreation and Planning and Community Development to Increase city park land and green spaces
GS 1-A Power to Change-Land Use Status
Develop land use policies and programs designed to protect green spaces and bring brownfields back to productive and enhance community livability. moderate
GS 2- Maintain/Increase Urban Canopy moderate
Maintain and increase the canopy of the City of Atlanta
GS 2-A Tree Protection Ordinance Status
Work with the City’s Community Development/Human Resources committees to ensure that the city development is in accordance with the Tree Protection Ordinance to ensure that there is not net loss of tree canopy within the city limits early
GS 2-B Work with Nonprofits / Education Status
Work with nonprofit organizations (e.g., Trees Atlanta) and with educational institutions to promote and support the planning of new trees. early
GS 3- Increase Urban Agriculture/Vertical Farming Practices low-impact
Work with stakeholders – including community organizations, nonprofits, universities, government agencies, individuals, and corporations – to promote urban agriculture practices and vertical farming
GS 3-A Power to Change- Community Health & Vitality Status
Establish at least 40 new edible gardens by 2015 and increase this number by 20% each year after


GS 3-B Vertical Farming Events Status
Program workshops in which the academic and business sectors collaborate to address Atlanta’s food security concerns using vertical farming alternatives early
GS 4- Reduce Food Deserts low-impact
Develop projects to address the problem of Atlanta’s food deserts.
GS 4-A Power to Change: Mobile Markets Status
Work with the public and private sectors to bring local healthy food within a ½ mile of 75% of all residents by 2020:


GS 5-Quantification Trees Carbon Sequestration low-impact
Coordinate a study with city experts – including the Nature Conservancy, Georgia Tech, and others – to quantify the amount of carbon sequestered or avoided in Atlanta through its tree canopy and green spaces.

[1] Berkeley Lab. (2015). Cool Science: Urban Heat Island. Retrieved 3 31, 2015, from Heat Island Group:
[2] EPA. (2013, 8 29). Basic Information. Retrieved 3 31, 2015, from Heat Island Effect:
[3] Vargo, J. (2012, 11 12). Planning for the new urban climate: interactions of local environmental planning and regional extreme heat. Georgia Insittute of Technology.
[4] American Planning Association. (2015). Making Great Communities Happen. Retrieved 4 1, 2015, from How cities use parks for Climate Change Management:
[5] Vargo, J. Planning for the Forest and the Trees. In H. Etienne, & B. Faga, Planning Atlanta. Chicago, Il: Planners Press.
[6] The Trust for Public Land. (2014). ParkScore Index. Retrieved 3 23, 2015, from ParkScore Index:
[7] Park Pride Org. (2015). Internal Communications.
[8] Quantifying the Greenhouse Gas Benefits of Urban Parks. ICF International. San Francisco: The Trust for Public Land. Olivares, E. (2010)
[9] US Forest Service. (2012, February 23). Nation’s Urban Forest Losing Ground. Retrieved March 23, 2015, from
[11] Mogk, J. (2010). Promoting Urban Agriculture As An Alternative Land Use For Vacant Properties In The City Of Detroit: Benefits, Problems And Proposals For A Regulatory Framework For Successful Land Use Integration. Wayne State University Law School.

Questions? e-mail Jairo H Garcia, Sustainability Management Analyst at jhgarcia@AtlantaGa.Gov