Nearly 100 miles of the Chattahoochee River, which stretches over 430 miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Florida Panhandle, snakes through metropolitan Atlanta. While residents in the upper—and whiter and wealthier—half of this swath can get to it via a network of trails, water launches, and public parks, parts of the river further south and west have remained largely inaccessible, especially inside the city itself.
“When you get below Peachtree Creek, access to the river kind of stops,” says George Dusenbury, a vice president and the Georgia state director of the Trust for Public Land. “Communities in West Atlanta, South Cobb, South Fulton, and Douglas County don’t have the same access that exists in the north.” But that’s about to change, due to a flurry of new plans to expand opportunities to hike, pedal, paddle, and even camp along Atlanta’s iconic river.
The most ambitious is a $2 billion, two-decade-long initiative, spearheaded by TPL, called Chattahoochee RiverLands—which envisions a 100-mile public greenway spanning seven counties, beginning at Buford Dam and ending at Chattahoochee Bend State Park. The continuous, multiuse path will connect to 40 existing parks while adding 25 new trailheads and 42 water access points. So far, 70 percent of the land for the greenway is in public hands, and construction begins this year on several projects along the city’s western and southern corridors—which will ultimately be connected by a 19-mile stretch of trail extending from Peachtree Creek (Marker 1 on the map above) to Boundary Waters Park (2) in Douglasville. Five miles of that will be within Atlanta city limits.
“This is where we’re most needed, through the lenses of climate, equity, and public health,” Dusenbury says. TPL’s 2022 ParkScore report, which examines park access in 100 cities across the country, shows that low-income Atlantans and Atlantans of color have nearly 50 percent less access to greenspace than their wealthier, white peers. In other studies, access to nature—particularly in urban areas—has been linked to better mental and physical health.
Up first: a nearly three-mile showcase trail in Cobb County (3), which will hug the western shores of the river, starting at Veterans Memorial Highway and ending at Mableton Parkway. Scheduled for completion in early 2026, the roughly 200 acres of parkland will include the primary greenway trail, two new trailhead parks, and various forms of water access, including a new boat launch. “Much like we needed the Eastside Trail to show people what the BeltLine could be, we need a project to show the possibilities of the RiverLands,” says Dusenbury, whose organization helped secure property for the Atlanta BeltLine and Cumberland Island.
In the city proper, plans are underway for two separate public parks with river access. The City of Atlanta recently purchased 75 acres of land at the confluence of the river and Proctor Creek (4), site of the former Chattahoochee Brick Company, which used convict labor to produce bricks for many of the city’s roads and buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Local environmental groups and Chattahoochee Brick Company Descendants were instrumental in pushing the city to purchase the land and preserve it as both a memorial for those who lost their lives there and as a public greenspace and gateway to the Chattahoochee.
“They not only knew the value of this property long before we did, but knew the history of it and have brought a level of community engagement to the process,” says LaChandra Burks, the City’s deputy chief operating officer. “Sometimes we think it’s so exciting to connect to the Chattahoochee and enjoy it that we forget many people lost their lives there. Being able to have something on the property to memorialize and educate residents around what it was, as we continue to celebrate what it will be, is important.” Donna Stephens, founder of Chattahoochee Brick Company Descendants, says, “The men, women, and children of convict leasing rebuilt cities like Atlanta and continue to support the global economy and deserve to be honored for their sacrifices.”
The City is also planning a nine-acre greenspace in the Riverside neighborhood, Lower Paul Park, that—while separated from the riverbanks by railroad tracks—will have access to the river via a dedicated trail.
New entry points are being planned for water activities as well. Construction begins soon on portions of a 48-mile camp-paddle trail, including the city’s first kayak launch at Standing Peachtree Park, slated to open in spring 2024. Additional launch and campsites will open at the same time at Buzzard Roost Island in South Fulton (5) and points south. Eventually, Atlantans will be able to spend three or four nights camping and paddling down the Chattahoochee—unprecedented water access in a metropolitan area of this size.
While TPL is leading the planning, design, and land-procurement efforts, over 60 local government entities and community organizations are involved in the efforts, including Groundwork Atlanta, a local nonprofit that focuses on collaborative environmental projects in the City of Atlanta, including the Chattahoochee River and Proctor Creek watersheds.
“When it comes to the riverfront, the segment that is really within the city limits is all brownfield and former industrial property,” says executive director Heather Hussey-Coker. “We have an opportunity to take something that has plagued the community and turn it into park space and river access and really thoughtful uses of these properties, all in a community that didn’t have much voice or power before.” With all ambitious land-use projects, Hussey-Coker says, gentrification is a risk—but she hopes the substantial cleanup and revitalization efforts involved will make the land less attractive to developers in the short term. Over the long term, Groundwork Atlanta plans to train community members in cleanup, trail building, restoration, and other environmentally adjacent jobs to provide economic opportunities while keeping expertise local.
As projects get underway in the southern and western parts of the city, existing public segments of the Chattahoochee are getting makeovers, including $11 million in planned upgrades to the Paces Mill/Palisades Unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA)—the park’s most-visited segment. Improvements will include a new visitors center and river-viewing platforms, an expanded picnic area, and a series of bioswales to filter stormwater runoff. After being closed for renovations, the Powers Island Unit in Sandy Springs will debut an improved canoe and raft launch in May, while construction is underway for a new, 1.1-mile greenway in Johns Creek.
Eventually, the existing CRNRA will connect into the 100-mile RiverLands greenway, which will connect into points around the city via a network of 44 planned or existing tributary trails like the Proctor Creek Greenway. Within the next several years, whether they’re in West End or West Cobb, the more than one million Atlantans who live within a three-mile bike ride of the Chattahoochee will be able to choose their own land- or water-based river destination, pedaling or paddling to Sweetwater Creek State Park (6), McIntosh Reserve Park, and beyond—all without getting behind the wheel.
This article appears in our April 2023 issue.