The fight to save Atlanta’s oldest park

Just south of I-20 sits an oasis in the city. Rolling hills, bike paths, massive trees and playgrounds usher in people of all ages and backgrounds to the Grant Park neighborhood.

But despite the park being a community staple, it is at risk of losing a massive chunk of its greenery, leading many Grant Park residents to fiercely protect their beloved green space. 

Save the Trees of Grant Park is a grassroots coalition of neighbors and nature advocates united to protect Grant Park, the 131-acre green space that is Atlanta’s oldest recreational area. Since 2017, the coalition has fought to preserve trees in the face of new developments by the City of Atlanta.

A 1,000 car parking garage for Zoo Atlanta and a 4,000 square foot restaurant, together termed “Grant Park Gateway,” was completed in Dec. 2019. This project required the removal of 75 healthy trees in Grant Park.

Teresa Finlayson co-founded Save the Trees of Grant Park along with her husband Leigh. She believes that many of the trees marked for removal are historical relics; by tearing down the trees, the government is tearing down a valuable part of Atlanta’s history.

“If you look around, many of the trees they have marked are these beautiful willow oaks and red maples,” Finlayson said. “Some of these trees have been here almost as long as the park has. Some are over 50 years old, and then you have a select few that are older than 90.”

Since its conception, Save the Trees of Grant Park has aimed not only to protect Atlanta’s green space but to inform the public of the city’s closed-door meetings about developments in the area.

“[Government officials] are not being transparent about what they’re planning,” Finlayson said. “We don’t know about what trees they’re going to mark to take down next until they’ve already done it.”

The City of Atlanta has proposed to do away with all orange and yellow sign postings that identify trees to be cut down. There is also a push by city officials to eliminate all appeal options of proposed tree removals.

According to Finlayson, this ordinance would completely undermine citizens’ rights to have an active voice in their communities and curb much of the progress Save the Trees has already made.

Brooke Riley is a Georgia State sophomore who has lived in Grant Park for the last two years.

“If you walk through the area, you see these ‘Save the Trees of Grant Park’ signs posted all over the place,” Riley said. “I remember I looked up the organization after I kept seeing them everywhere, and it really is mind-blowing just how much could change if all these plans by the city do go through.”

Despite the fact that 77% of Atlanta’s tree canopy is in single-family residential areas like Grant Park, there are currently no legal protections for these trees. Government regulations mention the protection of “high-value trees,” but this term has no official definition and is thus unlikely to be legally enforceable.

“I just don’t think [City of Atlanta] is listening to us yet,” Riley said. “This campaign has been going on for years now, and they’re still just plowing right ahead.”

Despite years of fruitless meetings with city officials, Finlayson is still hopeful in her mission to protect the park and educate community members on changes in the neighborhood.

Save the Trees is now a registered non-profit organization and accepts donations through its website. The coalition also encourages neighbors to sign up for a weekly email newsletter to stay up to date on new projects, petitions and information sessions.

“We’re always fighting,” Finlayson said. “Atlanta is developing rapidly, and as long as the trees are threatened, we’ll be here to protect them.”


Editors note: A previous version of this article did not indicate that the “Grant Park Gateway” project has been completed.