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Season 2

May 2024 - Episode 8

Cop City: The Environmental Inequity Facing Atlanta's Black Community

In 2017, Atlanta’s city planning department designated four large green spaces as quote “lungs,” that were vital for cooling the city. They announced plans to turn one of these lungs, the South River Forest, into an urban park. But four years later, there was a change in plans. The mayor approved a police and firefighter training facility to be built in that park. It’s called “The Atlanta Public Safety Training Center,” but to some, it has come to be known as “Cop City.”

There has been a concerted effort to push back against the development of the training center. But what’s interesting is that these protestors aren’t just anti-police. Many are environmental activists who don’t want to see Atlanta’s natural climate infrastructure destroyed. They know that the neighborhoods closest to the South River Forest are majority Black, historically redlined, and vulnerable to climate change.

For this episode, we spoke to Manaan Donaghoe and Hanna Love, researchers from the Brookings Institution.

Charles T. Brown:

Atlanta is a hot city. Temperatures in the summer usually hover around the high 80s and they’ve been rising since the 1970s. The city is covered by a lush tree canopy that helps to cool certain areas, but lower income neighborhoods have fewer trees and less green space. Buildings and infrastructure made of asphalt and concrete absorb and release heat, keeping these areas warmer on average than the rest of the city. IN climate science, this is known as the urban heat island effect.

In 2017, Atlanta’s city planning department designated four large green spaces as “lungs” that were vital for cooling the city. They announced plans to turn one of these lungs, the South River Forest, into an urban park. But four years later, there was a change in plans. The mayor approved a police and firefighter training facility to be built in that park. It’s called the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, but to some it has come to be known as Cop City.
My name is Charles T. Brown and this is Arrested Mobility. If and when it is completed, the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center will be one of the largest and most expensive facilities of its kind in the country. It will cost $90 million and sit on 85 acres of land, that’s over 100 football fields. There’s been a concerted effort to push back against the development of the training center. Protestors have set up camp in the forest, chained themselves to construction equipment.

A young activist named Manuel Terán was killed by police shot 57 times. The autopsy reveals that they had their hands in the air. Other protestors have been charged for racketeering, a very unusual punishment for civil disobedience. But what’s interesting is that these protestors aren’t just anti-police. Many are environmental activists who don’t want to see Atlanta’s natural climate infrastructure destroyed. They know that the neighborhoods closest to the South River Forest are majority black, historically redlined, and vulnerable to climate change.

Manann Donoghoe is a researcher for the Brookings Institution. He specializes in the intersection between climate justice and the United States history of racism. I spoke to Manann about his perspective on the conflict over a cop city.

Manann Donoghoe:

The way that I’ve been thinking this is just about land use. You’ve got a big watershed, a big green space in this southern part of Atlanta, which is surrounded by largely black majority neighborhoods who benefit from that green space by the climate protection that can provide there. What I mean there specific is protection from, for example, heatwaves. When you’re near a big green area, it’s cooler usually than when you’re in a dense urban area. Cop city is one way of using this big green space and developing it into more urban space. And there’s a history of this in the US, if you look at the distribution of green space in cities across the US in majority black and brown neighborhoods, there tends to be less green space than in majority white neighborhoods, less public lands.

So for me, how is it going to impact the lives of those communities nearby? From a public planning perspective, you’re taking away this space that was helping to cool down the city, cool down those surrounding neighborhoods, and you’re essentially burdening these majority black neighborhoods with this big development.

Charles T. Brown:

I also spoke to Manann’s colleague, Hanna Love. Where Manning comes from a climate background, Hanna approaches this story from the perspective of criminalization and community safety.

Hanna Love:

We have seen a proliferation of these proposed training centers across the country. So there’s been one proposed in Chicago’s Garfield Park, which is also similarly, a majority black neighborhood within Chicago. And a lot of the protests that we’re seeing nationwide against these proposed training centers is many residents are saying what we need is not more training or guns or ammunition or militarization for the police, we need more in investments within communities that help keep us safe.

So there are a lot of community-based supports that are evidence-based to reduce crime without using the police. So these can be things as simple as summer job programs, increasing access to green space, workforce development, etc. So across the nation, we’re seeing pushback of people saying we don’t need more police militarization, we need other forms of investment.

Charles T. Brown:

Okay, so how are the neighborhoods near the training center going to be impacted by its construction?

Hanna Love:

The neighborhood surrounding the proposed training center are informally, redlined, majority black, and also have higher rates of asthma, of diabetes, of other health disparities within these neighborhoods. And the reasons for that are not because of any sort of personal choices of residents in neighborhoods, it’s often because they are exposed to the placement of toxic facilities within their neighborhoods, where industry is placed, where railroads and highways have been placed. There’s a strong connection between the physical destruction of black neighborhoods that occur with urban renewal and with highway construction and the current health rates that we see.

So the main issue here for many of the residents, it’s not just that they’re going to have this facility built nearby where they’ll be exposed to hearing gunshots and then also the police militarization and the fear that majority black neighborhoods are often already over policed. It’s that it’s going to destroy a critical piece of climate infrastructure in a neighborhood that’s already experienced health disparities.

Charles T. Brown:

The people protesting the training center are not only activists camping in the forest. Many of them are working class people living nearby in largely low income neighborhoods like Thomasville Heights, Gresham Park, and Lakewood. They have largely not had their voices heard. In September of 2021, the Atlanta City Council received 17 hours of public comment from over 1,000 Atlanta residents. Their concerns were ignored.

Hanna Love:

Oftentimes what you see when it comes to protests, particularly on behalf of historically disenfranchised communities, is the public comment period is performative. And often institutionalized actors tend to heed the protest and the comment of folks representing disenfranchised groups, and they won’t heed that as much as they would say, a homeowner’s association trying to block a new affordable housing development in their community. Right? There’s a disparate amount of attention paid to different residents based on perceived level of political capital and influence, and I think that’s exactly what we saw here, is that this was going to happen anyways. And despite the amount of public comment, the concerns were not being taken seriously because of the nature of the communities in which they were advocating on behalf of.

Charles T. Brown:

Research tells us that local officials are often ineffective at engaging with communities, particularly communities of color. For example, public meetings are often timed and structured to inconvenience working class people, whereas wealthier folks are able to make the time to have their voices heard. But in this case, people have really tried to make use of the channels available to them. A petition to “Stop Cop City,” collected over 100,000 signatures in an attempt to force a referendum and allow the entire city of Atlanta to vote on the issue. The city council responded by introducing signature matching to their referendum rules. The city council responded by introducing signature matching to their referendum rules. This action has been referred to as a method of voter suppression by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. But this story is larger than just Cop City, larger than Atlanta.
Hanna and Manann collaborated on a research study looking at how environmental injustice and over-policing are correlated in New York, Chicago, and Atlanta.

Hanna Love:

We didn’t want to interrogate the specifics of the Cop City protests or the Atlantic Public Safety Training Center in general, we wanted to look at something larger, which is really, how certain structural causes, whether that be land use and zoning policies or public and private investment patterns, how those structural causes make the same communities disproportionately affected by climate injustice and over policing.

So what we decided to do is we chose three different cities and we decided to look at a map and see where we could find an overlap in communities where they have disproportionate exposure to climate injustice, as well as disproportionate exposure to over policing. We found a strong relationship. The same neighborhoods are being impacted by urban heat island effects, as well as over policing. And that might seem a little in the weeds, but we thought it was really important to do this because in the criminology literature there have been research that focus on the relationship between heat and crime.

Manann Donoghoe:

Researchers tend to take a more one-to-one cultural relationship, where they look and they say it’s a hotter day, when we got a hotter day, crime spikes. But what we wanted to look at instead was to say, to take a more spacial approach and to look at where are crimes occurring, where are high heat waves occurring? Where is heat particularly bad and how are these two things overlapping? Because what we know is that by and large, they share a lot of the same root causes. You get high heat waves, high urban heat island effects because of a history of disinvestment from a place where there hasn’t been the influx of resources to build parks, to build green space and to build public lands. The same is true of areas which have higher crime rates. They tend also to be areas where poverty rates are higher, where there’s more housing precarity, people are struggling more to pay their rent, for example, in areas that are overdeveloped and lacking green space. When you see that overlap, it changes the way you think about how we should be investing in the built environment.

There’s a whole range of policies that policymakers have about land use, which can help to lower rates of crime, at the same time as helping to improve climate resilience within communities. So simply investing in green space, in publicly accessible lands, there’s been shown to be relationships between those investments in obviously reducing the severity of heatwaves, but also improving the livability of neighborhoods. And there’s a correlational relationship with lowering crime rates as well.

I would add on to that from a climate perspective, things like investments in affordable housing, investments in employment opportunities, investments in civic organizations, these are things that you might not think of as being connected to climate change. Climate isn’t in any of those titles, they don’t sound environmentally connected, but all of those things can help to lower climate vulnerability.
If you’re in a household which is really poorly insulated, so it costs a lot more money than to heat and cool your house. If you’re on at the same time low income or you’re unemployed, when you’re thinking about the decisions to, do I turn on the air conditioning and cool my house and pay that higher electricity bill, or do I spend my money on groceries or some other house expense that I have? If you’re living in more affordable housing, you’ve got more disposable income that when there is a heat wave, you might not have to turn off your cooling because you’re worried about the electricity costs.

Civic organizations, they can be a great place for community building so that when there is a heat wave, community members are connected. They have spaces that they can go to that are cooling spaces, spaces with air conditioning, they can help to offset some of these social impacts of climate disasters. So just to say that investing in social infrastructures, although it may not seem like it, can be kind of a win-win for helping to impact community safety at the same time as impacting climate resilience.

Hanna Love:

There are so many neighborhoods across the nation in which you see environmental injustice and over policing converge, and it’s often at a pressure point when something like Cop City happens where the relationship is called to the forefront, but it shouldn’t have to take a pressure point like Cop City for this relationship to be acknowledged and for the intersection between these two challenges to be addressed.

And so I think if I was to do further research on this, I would want to map nationwide where there is this overlap, and then to also do field work and to see, is this something that people are talking about on the ground? Are residents drawing the connection between climate harms and over policing and investment patterns within neighborhoods? And is this something that city council members will listen to before you get to a point like Cop City? Because there are shared solutions and many of them are cheaper than a $90 million public safety training center that can keep communities safe and keep them healthy.

And so I think I would want to do both field work and mapping in neighborhoods before it got to such a pressure point and to really try to change the narrative and let policymakers and folks beyond just academic circles recognize this intersection.

Where I see the through line between all my research is looking at place through the lens of what public institutions value and how public policy decision making reveals those values. And so if you see a $90 million investment in a majority black community, you would hope it would be an investment that involved community engagement that was asked for by this community, that could contribute to their health and wellbeing. Instead, you see a $90 million investment in police militarization with the potential to destroy this critical piece of climate infrastructure.

And so I think that when you just look at decisions like that and spending allocation and investment patterns, you start to see what cities value and you start to see the potential for what could happen and how investments could be shaped if they listened to residents and broadened their understanding of what is valuable and what contributes to value in health and wellbeing and safety.

Charles T. Brown:

As of 2024, the protests in Atlanta continue. Lawsuits fly back and forth. People try to make their voices heard, and they are silenced. Ultimately, Cop City will likely be built. The city of Atlanta would get hotter. We can only hope that when people feel the heat, it continues to ignite their passion to fight for civil rights and environmental justice.

I want to thank my guests, Hanna Love and Manann Donoghoe. I appreciate your time and your expertise. If you don’t already follow the podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, then please do so. This podcast is totally self-funded, so please check out our new Patreon, that’s the best way to contribute, join our community, and get access to all new exclusive content. I’m on Twitter at CT Brown 1911, and Instagram at Arrested Mobility Podcast, and make sure you follow me on LinkedIn as well. Thank you so much for your support. This podcast is a production of Equitable Cities with support from Puddle Creative.