Local Nature Preserves: Nature’s Community Health Clinics

Nature Is Good Medicine

Being outdoors engaged with nature has beneficial, positive influences on our physical and mental health status. Immersion in nature can be an integral part of the healthcare prevention, treatment, and recovery continuum. So says an increasing amount of reputable medical and mental health research.

This is, in my opinion, a welcome addition to integrative, evidence-based healthcare. It acknowledges that prolonged separation from nature has a negative impact on our health and wellbeing (Richard Louv, Nature-Deficit Disorder). Even if it is not a ‘true’ medical disorder with its own code in the International Classification of Disease manual (yet), it is being increasingly recognized as a real and tangible personal sense of the status of our wellbeing. A feeling of a less than optimal, less than desirable, frame of mind. A feeling too many of us have experienced too often. Consequently, access, or lack of access, to nature is increasingly recognized as a social determinant of heath.

This is not just a happy-clappy tree hugger or ‘alternative medicine’ phenomena. Centers and institutes for multi-discipline research and study, and actual care delivery, are being established and seriously funded in prestigious medical schools, health systems and NGOs around the world. In practice, there is a growing trend of physicians and other clinicians prescribing time in nature for improved health and well being. To make it even more practical, NGOs have formed to provide a complete prescription program, such as Parks Rx America.

I hope that some of this serious attention, and funding, translates into increased public and private investments local nature preserves, parks, and other accessible greenspaces as ‘nature’s mental health clinics’. These spaces are health assets that too often struggle to exist financially and struggle to ward off threats of direct and indirect encroachments of development. Importantly, as public infrastructure policy and spending takes political center stage, these spaces’ preservation have basic infrastructure paybacks that multiply the return-on-investment made in them. More bang for the buck. Making them a deal, in my opinion.

Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve: My Local Mental Health Clinic

What follows is an introduction to an example of one of these critical spaces, my local neighborhood nature preserve – Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve (CSNP) – and some thoughts about threats to its health status that are representative of threats across similar citizen funded and maintained preserves .

CSNP is 28 acres owned and managed since 1995 for wildlife conservation and protection, and the enjoyment of us humans, by South Peachtree Creek Nature Preserves, Inc., (SPCNP, Inc), a non-profit (501c) neighborhood association. It is located deep inside-the-perimeter (ITP), that is, it’s inside the I-285 loop around metro-Atlanta center. It’s east of downtown in the Medlock neighborhood which is in the broader Decatur\Emory University community. Making it a nature preserve land-locked in some of Atlanta’s oldest and densest (and getting denser) neighborhoods about 8.5 miles from Georgia’s capital building.

CSNP is primarily a wetland, although it has other micro-habitats. In the winter rainy season and after summer thunderstorms, there is a natural flow through its classic bottomlands from a ridge line to South Peachtree creek, which flows into Peachtree Creek, which flows into the Chattahoochee River, which joins the Apalachicola River before flowing into the Gulf of Mexico at Apalachicola, FL.  The rainfall directly on the other side of the ridge flows into the Shoal Creek watershed, which flows into the South River, which flows into the Ocmulgee River, which meets the Oconee and forms the mighty Altamaha River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean at Darien, GA. CSNP has a great interpretive sign explaining watersheds because they are fundamentally important to the surrounding eco-systems.

That ridge line is the Eastern Continental Divide. It is the reason Atlanta exists and it is key in many respects to Atlanta’s growth, especially in its early years. Atlanta was a railway town and continues to this day to be a transportation town. Its placement was for the benefit of the railway, not because of an abundance of natural resources, in particular water. Railways are most easily built and maintained when they have minimum elevation changes with which to deal. A geological feature that offers that terrain are continental divides. Atlanta began as the terminus station of the Western and Atlantic railroad line. CSX (formerly GA Railroad) still operates a major line on the bed that runs east out of Atlanta. Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit’s (MARTA) first operational line, the East Line, runs just beside the CSX. Both along, or close to, the Eastern Continental Divide.

Partial view of Atlanta train traffic map – Source: railfanguides.us

Wetlands Are Valuable Infrastructure Assets

What does this have to do with CSNP? Actually, a lot. There was significant residential and commercial growth along the rail corridors because major thoroughfares run adjacent to these railway beds taking advantage of the elevation grades. It is not a coiencedence that you can lay down an Interstate map almost directly on the map above.

Development continues. In fact, in recent years there has been a boon as more people return to the city from the ultra-burbs and businesses are built to serve them. A major Walmart was built at an intersection leading to CSNP. Just to the east, major apartment\condominium\retail complexes are being built. All leading to more impermeable surface areas. Over this same time period the climate has changed and rain events have become more severe. As a consequence, severe flooding in CSNP is becoming more common. Simply put, on its side of the continental\development divide, more water is trying to get to the Chattahoochee River with less wetlands to naturally absorb and filter it. CSNP’s 28 acres being much of what little wetlands remain.

A lot is now being asked of CSNP. The surrounding neighborhood sewage and storm water infrastructure can’t rely on wetlands and creek to be the first line of defense as they once were. Public infrastructure is being over burdened. There is an irony in this. CSNP was made available for purchase to the neighborhood as part of a environmental wetland protection mitigation plan. The purpose of the plan was to make it possible for the Shepherd family to sell a major parcel of land uphill from what is now the preserve and along Scott Boulevard. Scott is one of the major thoroughfares mentioned earlier. This deal, along with several others like it, but not all with wetland set-asides, was a boon to tax base growth in north Dekalb County.

Neighborhood street bordering CSNP
Photo by Stephen Ramsden

It can be argued, in my opinion, that the original transaction has been a twenty-five year success. When viewed from the perspective of its original intent. An amount of wetlands, small as it is, was set aside and made an affordable investment for the private sector for the protection of wetland-centric habitat and buffer between a quiet neighborhood and sprawl. The return on this investment has been the enjoyment of wildlife by the neighborhood community and Atlantans at large. My famile certainly included.

It is equally arguable, in my opinion, that the benefits of wetlands in water management and quality were under valued as an infrastructure asset. Not an uncommon point of view at the time. Wetlands were (are) considered by many as wastelands. A lucky break for SPCNP, Inc and like associations in terms of valuation. But, the luck has run out. The health of CSNP is degrading. The cost burden of returning CSNP back into its place as an integral piece of watershed management should not be born just by the SPCNP, Inc donors. It is going to require that Dekalb County invest some of its tax boon, and hopefully some of the proposed Federal infrastructure spending, in rebuilding and modernizing the waste water and sewage infrastructure for the built-space, in my opinion.

The good news is over the last 25 years the return-on-investment of wetlands is better understood and valued as a force multiplier.

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