Atlanta mayoral candidates pledge to support parks if elected

By Maria Saporta

Parks will be a priority of Atlanta’s next mayor – at least that’s what the eight leading mayoral candidates said during a Park Pride roundtable Thursday morning.

The first part of the program featured Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, who spoke about how parks are an essential part of the urban infrastructure.

She also provided a far-reaching overview of how other communities generated revenue for parks – either to acquire new green space or to maintain and program existing park space.

Communities around the country have adopted a wide range of tools for parks – creating a Green Benefit District, issuing environmental impact bonds, setting aside a dedicated revenue source for parks, teaming up with other city departments – such as public works, watershed and transportation, and forming public-private partnerships to support a community’s green space.

mayoral candidates

The mayoral candidates meet at a Park Pride roundtable at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Left to right: Peter Aman, Kwanza Hall, Ceasar Mitchell, Mary Norwood, Michael Sterling, Cathy Woolard, Vincent Fort and Keisha Lance Bottoms (Photo by Maria Saporta)

After responses from local experts – George Dusenbury, Georgia state director for the Trust for Public Land; Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride; and Stacy Funderburke, the Conservation Fund’s regional counsel.

Then it was time to hear from the candidates. The spoke in alphabetical order – and they were given three minutes to talk about how they would address parks as mayor.

Peter Aman, formerly a partner at Bain Consulting who also served as chief operating officer for Mayor Kasim Reed during his first two years in office, said parks would be in the top tier of his priorities.

“It’s all interlocking – parks, green space, economic development, health and happiness,” Aman said – adding that the city has not done a good job measuring the return on investment with parks funding. He also said the next mayor likely will have to manage through a recession, and it will be important to have stable funding for parks.

City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms said she understands the importance of parks because the Neighborhood Planning Unit in her district is the only NPU in the city without a park.

“Going to a park shouldn’t be an event,” she said. “It should be a habit. We have to leverage relationships.”

State Sen. Vincent Fort said it was important for parks in the more marginal neighborhoods to get the same resources as parks in wealthier communities.

“We cannot allow the way we manage our parks to aggravate income inequality in our city,” Fort said.

City Councilman Kwanza Hall pledged to be “everybody’s mayor.” He said the city needed to invest more in its parks infrastructure, and he said he understood the importance of having parks in neighborhoods that were accessible to everyone.

City Council President Ceasar Mitchell said parks would be a high priority if he were mayor.

“We are going to find a dedicated source of funding for parks,” Mitchell said. “We can now through the state allocate a fractional penny (of sales tax).”

City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who said she’s been involved with parks and green space for more than two decades, observed that 77 percent of Atlanta’s green space is in private hands.

She talked about the need to preserve neighborhoods with their green space while focusing denser development on the city’s major commercial corridors.

Michael Sterling, who used to run the city’s Workforce Development Agency, said he understood the value of parks because he grew up in a small town where there wasn’t much else to do.

“I love the idea of social impact bonds,” Sterling said. And if he were to be elected, “we will have a mayor who will make parks a central part of our city.”

Cathy Woolard, who served as president of the Atlanta City Council from 2002 to 2004, reminded people at the roundtable that she helped launch the idea of the Atlanta BeltLine.

“There are things we have failed to implement (in the city) – liking a parking tax,” she said. “We can use that to mitigate what that hard space (parking lots and garages) does to our city.”

Mother Mamie Moore, one of the community anchors in English Avenue, asked the candidates how they were going to resolved the issues of inequality and displacement in areas with additional investment in parks.

Woolard spoke of the need to develop green infrastructure to minimize flooding.

Sterling said it was essential for communities to play a critical role in planning parks.

Norwood described parks as being the lungs of the city, and said she has been a strong advocate for neighborhood preservation – both on the south side and the north side.

Mitchell said that in addition to dedicated funding, it would be important for the city to partner with the school system and the business community to make sure there is programming in parks.

Hall said it was vital to create a shared vision where everyone felt connected to parks in their communities.

Fort questioned why the city was spending at least $12 million to build a pedestrian bridge over Northside Drive when that money could be spent to improve the quality of life within the community. “Our policy decisions impact people in a real way,” he said.

Bottoms said she would like to create displacement free zones to make sure longtime residents can continue to live in reviving communities.

And Aman said: “We can be the crown jewel for a lot of revitalization and provide for non-displacement and affordability.”

Park Pride’s Halicki said the panel with the mayoral candidates was just the beginning of a conversation the organization would like to have all year about the future of parks in Atlanta.

But perhaps the most impressive reaction came from Catherine Nagel, who visits communities all over the country.

“I thought it was a great turnout,” she said of the number of mayoral candidates who participated in the roundtable. “Philadelphia tried to do a similar program and only one or two candidates showed up…. Kudos to you. I was really impressed by the level of sophistication of their comments.”

Later she said each city has to figure out what is most important to them, and Atlanta needs to figure out what will work best for the city.

“There’s an opportunity to do something quite remarkable here with development and the BeltLine,” Nagel said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing what y’all will create. You can be a model for so many other cities around the country.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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