August 27, 2018 |Hannah Palmer | Land

The River Beneath the World's Busiest Airport

Most metro-Atlanta residents are surprised to learn that the Flint River—Georgia’s second longest river which flows 344 miles south and joins the Chattahoochee to create the Apalachicola River—begins near the airport. It’s easy to miss it: the headwaters are either completely hidden in culverts or they are unmarked and off-limits in the airport area. You might call the Flint “the most important river Atlanta’s never heard of.”

I grew up in Clayton County alongside Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and have lived in East Point for the last decade, but I had no idea that the Flint River begins in this area. Discovering that this beautiful, free-flowing, regionally significant river begins in my backyard has been like learning of a surprise inheritance—just one that happens to flow in, around, and underneath the world’s busiest airport.

The headwaters of the Flint River first see daylight near a railroad junction in urban East Point and College Park. Photo by Hannah Palmer.


For the first couple miles, the Flint River looks like a small creek threading through backyards, behind parking lots, apartment buildings, and hotels. In some places, the “river” looks more like a roadside ditch; in other places it flows through pipes under roads and parking lots. Photo by Hannah Palmer.

While researching my book Flight Path, which is about the neighborhoods that were erased by our ever-growing airport, I learned about the houses, businesses, schools and churches that were swallowed during the years of airport expansion. The creeks, however, could not be completely erased, so we still have these fragile remnants of lost communities.

That history and context has been integral to my role as Project Coordinator of Finding the Flint, which is a joint effort of American Rivers, The Conservation Fund, and the Atlanta Regional Commission to reveal these hidden headwaters and the Upper Flint River in a way that restores healthy river flows and connects communities. It’s a big vision for a healthier river and better quality of life in the airport area, comprised of project concepts that meaningfully incorporate the urban headwaters into the plans and identity of the Atlanta Aerotropolis.

Aerotropolis: a metropolitan subregion where the layout, infrastructure, and economy are centered on an airport which serves as a multimodal “airport city” commercial core. It is similar in form to a traditional metropolis, which contains a central city commercial core and commuter-linked suburbs.

During rainstorms, this quiet stream swells rapidly into a rushing creek, but even on dry days, there is always a steady flow of water where you can see tadpoles and turtles among the morning glories and kudzu. This creek runs through Hapeville to the northern edge of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and disappears into a high-security enclosure in front of the Delta Flight Museum, then it travels for nearly two miles in a large culvert under the airport. Photo by Stacy Funderburke.

Aerotropolis planning—a new term for collaborative, airport-centered regional planning—could begin to repair the physical and cultural conflicts between the growing airport and its surrounding communities. Finding the Flint proposes key opportunities for the river and Aerotropolis to come together. The headwaters can provide the centerpiece for new, river-focused parks, connected trails and public spaces. Meanwhile, green infrastructure can address flooding while protecting Atlanta’s most valuable infrastructure investment, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

“The river is a rallying point. It’s a common cause that all Aerotropolis stakeholders can support.”

- Michael Cheyne, Director of Asset Management and Sustainability, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

South of the airport the Flint River emerges as a more continuous, naturally flowing river, where there is an opportunity to reveal and protect the larger river corridor, while creating new trails and greenspace that will connect and benefit surrounding communities. Photo by Stacy Funderburke.

Finding the Flint builds off years of research, planning, coalition building, and big ideas for the Flint’s headwaters in the airport area. It is composed of many distinct projects along the headwaters, public and private, at a range of scales. Each project depends on local partners with their own community goals and opportunities to impact the river. Luckily, our core team has both the technical expertise and relationships to bring stakeholders together to focus on restoration projects.

“The Conservation Fund is proud to be one of the leaders of the Finding the Flint effort. This is a historic opportunity to bring together the Airport, surrounding communities, leading businesses and municipal leaders to support investments in park and restoration projects that will benefit communities and put the Upper Flint River back on the map.”

- Stacy Funderburke, Assistant Regional Counsel & Conservation Acquisition Associate, The Conservation Fund

For generations, this area has been defined by the airport, and suffered a negative reputation because of it. Now we know that these communities are not only defined by the airport, but also by the headwaters of Flint River. Creating the world’s busiest and most efficient airport in an otherwise sleepy southern town was not an easy task, and it will take that kind of money and innovation to integrate the Flint River back into the landscape. Finding the Flint’s vision for Atlanta’s southside includes the world’s greatest airport and thriving neighborhoods, with the restored Flint headwaters connecting it all.

Photo by Stacy Funderburke.