Celeste Lomax has been working at Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill in southeast Atlanta for six years. This time of year, the trees and bushes are still dormant and leafless, but the soil underneath is rich and moist — as Lomax, the site’s food steward, reveals as she digs up an elderberry tree pup. The plants promise pineapple guava, banana trees, lavender, thyme, and sage this summer. 

Located in a food desert, the 7-acre site is Atlanta’s first community urban forest. Food is available for local neighbors to forage and gather in the food forest. “We teach the people how to use the food and grow the food and different gardening skills,” said Lomax, a 20-year holistic health and wellness veteran.

Urban Food Forest is a five-minute drive from South River Forest, the site of the proposed police and fire training facility known as “Cop City” — a 300-acre complex that includes a mock city for police training.

Lomax said the 7 acres provide neighbors and nearby residents a local solution for food insecurity, a severe public health problem for Black neighborhoods in the metro Atlanta area.  

“Can you imagine what we could do if we turned that [land] into another food forest,” she said.

The construction of Cop City and the predominantly Black area surrounding the site have sparked conversations focused on housing, gentrification, police exposure, and environmental justice, all of which create the conditions that endanger the health of Black people in Atlanta and the nation. 

Separate and unequal health care

Health care in Atlanta is segregated by race and location. DeKalb County, where South River Forest is located, is designated as medically underserved, meaning there is a shortage of primary care health providers, according to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration. Most areas in Georgia are medically underserved, but hospitals in south Atlanta’s neighborhoods  — also near Cop City — receive lower marks for health care quality compared with hospitals in whiter, north side neighborhoods, according to Medicare.gov. 

The census tract immediately surrounding the site of the proposed training facility is classified as “disadvantaged,” according to a White House Climate and Economic Justice Screening tool. The tract’s population is 67% Black and 27% white. It is ranked in the 94th percentile for the share of people with asthma; 88th for impoverished households; 93rd for wastewater discharge, and 92nd for people living in poverty. Nearly 1 in 5 residents have less than a high school education.

Experts say this signals that the area needs investment in health-producing sites, such as hospitals and schools.  

“You don’t see them trying to build this in Buckhead,” said Carol Anderson, a professor of African American studies at Emory University and an expert on race and policing in the U.S. “I think about wouldn’t that have been an incredible space for a new public school.”

Environmental health concerns 

Much has been reported about the environmental hazards the construction of Cop City proposes for the forests and surrounding neighborhoods, including protections against natural disasters. Black and low-income people often bear the brunt of natural disasters’ impact due to a lack of resources to evacuate and manage emergencies. In addition, residential segregation often places Black residents in areas that are vulnerable to natural disasters. In Georgia, Black residents are more likely to live near hazardous and toxic sites. 

Anderson says Cop City is a direct threat to the natural resources within Atlanta’s Black middle class. The city’s large tree cover likely helped to absorb excess water during Atlanta’s catastrophic flooding event in September 2009.  

In addition to the potential to grow food, like Lomax’s Urban Food Forest, natural green spaces and forests provide an array of public health benefits, including reducing air pollutants, cooling and shade, and protection. Several studies show that people benefit from exposure to trees and forests — including improved mental health from reduced stress and improved mood. Positive outcomes for cardiovascular and respiratory health can also be attributed to good environmental exposure, according to a 2020 review of literature on urban forest and population health. 

The destruction of South River Forest is an example of how Black areas experience environmental racism, says Alyasah Sewell, a sociology professor at Emory University. In contrast, wealthy white neighborhoods in north Atlanta can protect their natural resources due to greater wealth and political capital, an example of environmental racism. 

“We do not have the same environment,” said Sewell, who grew up in Ellenwood. “We also know that if you live in a neighborhood where this is happening, you’re also more likely to have health problems.” 

Fear of police

Demonstrators in Atlanta march during a protest in January over the death of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis, Tennessee, police. (Alex Slitz/Associated Press)

Tending to her garden, Lomax wondered if elected officials and investors thought about the well-being of residents near the site in nearby Black communities in South DeKalb.

“Our community is already terrified of cops,” she said. “Why would you even want to build something like that right in the middle of a Black neighborhood?”

Public health experts who spoke with Capital B Atlanta said the evidence does not support the idea that training facilities alleviate police violence and trauma. With the preponderance of reports and footage of police violence against Black citizens, the facility and increased police presence in the community may be “repeating sources of trauma,” according to Keon Gilbert, a public health professor at Saint Louis University and co-director of the Institute for Healing Justice and Equity. 

The American Public Health Association declared police violence a public health threat in a 2018 report. The data showed how those violent encounters could lead to health issues, including increased stress, deaths, injuries, and trauma. The report found that police violence disproportionately causes negative health outcomes for marginalized populations, including Black people, those living with physical and mental disabilities, mental illness, and the LGBTQ community. 

In 2019, Sewell led a study on “stop-and-frisk” police tactics, and found that law enforcement activity in New York City neighborhoods had a “spillover” effect, in which communities with more police interactions, like search and stop-and-frisk, were linked to higher rates of diabetes, psychological distress, and high blood pressure. They argue that police are actual “pollutants” in communities, and the evidence is in residents’ elevated physical and psychological distress. 

‘Don’t have a voice’

The Atlanta City Council moved forward with the proposed construction of Cop City in September 2021, despite 17 hours and 1,100 comments from the public, 70% of which expressed opposition to the project.

Prentiss Dantzler, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, said Cop City could drive gentrification in the area. Gentrification threatens the health of displaced Black and low-income residents, according to a 2020 systematic review, including older adults’ mental health and increased emergency department visits for displaced residents. 

“There’s a bigger bang for your buck if you invest [in] lower-income urban communities around things like education, workforce training, and affordable housing versus the continued investment into policing,” Danztler said.

Dantzler worries that the amount of corporate resources and lack of public input means health concerns aren’t foremost on the minds of Cop City’s top investors. He said getting buy-in from the community leads to better outcomes for everyone, particularly those most affected. Otherwise, money flows — and separate interests — drive the community priorities.

Lomax worries about the future of her garden and the Urban Food Forest, and the communities that could lose much-needed health resources because of deforestation.

“It is not fair. We almost feel like we don’t have a voice,” she said. “I feel like the government can just do whatever they want to, say whatever they want to, and we just do whatever they tell us to do because what can we do?”

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the location of Urban Forest at Browns Mill, which is in southeast Atlanta.