There is a lot of momentum within the parks movement in Atlanta right now, so much so that it’s had me wondering whether we’re on the brink of a “golden age of parks.” For me, that manifests as having city parks that are maintained equitably and to a higher standard, well connected to communities, and accessible and welcoming to all. They are parks that serve the people who live here now. A golden age of parks is one in which parks are central to a holistic approach of making Atlanta a great place to live by increasing access to healthy food (whether through community gardens or farmers markets), creating safe routes to school for kids, ensuring access to nature within walking distance of affordable housing options, and nurturing the unique character and culture of neighborhoods.
Below, I highlight a few of the people, groups, and their recent actions that are giving me hope that this golden age will come to pass.
- Mayor Andre Dickens and his administration understand the importance of an equitable park system for a healthy and vibrant city. During his first year in office, Mayor Dickens’ administration acquired 260 acres of new parkland, including the former Chattahoochee Brick site, that will be transformed into a park of memorialization for the atrocities that took place there. The Mayor also formed the Greenspace Advisory Council, calling on thirteen environmental nonprofits (including Park Pride) to provide advice and guidance on Atlanta’s most pressing greenspace challenges.
- Atlanta City Council is taking an active role in improving parks across the city and within their districts. In 2021, Atlanta City Council unanimously approved legislation to dedicate $2 million to Park Pride’s Grantmaking Program to fund community-supported park improvements in low-income neighborhoods. Additionally, in March 2023, seven Council Members dedicated a total of $2.8M in discretionary dollars from the Moving Atlanta Forward bond package to Park Pride for park improvements in their districts; District 5 Council Member Liliana Bakhtiari’s unprecedented $1M contribution will make an impact in her district for years to come.
- The Commissioner of the Department of Parks & Recreation, Justin Cutler, is charting a visionary path for the department that is long overdue. He is leaning into the measurement and evaluation of Atlanta’s parks and rec facilities, amenities, and programs, using a data-driven approach to advance equity across the board. His team recently launched the Equity Data Tool which will help measure which of the City’s parks and recreation centers have the greatest need for investment. Structural changes within the department are also underway to grow capacity, provide necessary support, and leverage partnerships to help staff and parks workers deliver on the vision of Activate ATL (the department’s 10-year comprehensive master plan).
- The collaboration among the members of the Mayor’s Greenspace Advisory Council has been advancing priorities across the board, working closely to increase funding for the Department of Parks & Recreation, connect youth to green job opportunities, coordinate a strategy for acquiring new parkland that meets the demands of Atlanta’s growing population, and more.
- With each mile of completion, the buildout of the Atlanta BeltLine and PATH trails continue to connect the city (and the city to the region) like never before.
- Atlanta’s parks conservancies and Friends of the Park groups are activating, stewarding, and speaking up for parks across the city to ensure their parks serve the needs of their communities and those who visit. Over 130 Friends of the Park groups have registered with Park Pride in 2023, illustrating the breadth of dedication that communities feel toward their neighborhood parks. Additionally, several representatives from both conservancies and Friends of the Park groups attended Atlanta City Council’s Community Development / Human Services committee meetings in February and March to insist on an increased budget for the Dept. of Parks & Recreation for park maintenance. The connections between NPUs, neighborhood associations, and Friends of the Park groups are also getting stronger, and Park Pride is exploring ways to engage community members in areas where parks lack dedicated stewards.
- I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight Park Pride’s own contributions to the dawn of a golden era. Our most recent grant cycle awarded $2.5M to 25 community and neighborhood parks, with 67% of the dollars going into parks in low-income neighborhoods (information sessions for groups interested in applying for grants for the 2024 award cycle will be held in early June – sign up here). We also recently launched our Parks for All Campaign, our most ambitious campaign in history with a $12.8 million dollar goal to address the disparities in park equity and access throughout the city. The strong response from the philanthropic community makes me confident we will reach our goal.
Ushering In the Golden Age
As I said, there is a lot going right in Atlanta right now. And while a golden age of parks is a high bar to reach, I believe we are on the cusp of a breakthrough.
But, we have been here before. The “golden age of parks” has eluded us in the past and will once again if we let certain opportunities pass by. As I see it, there are a few key things that need to happen to usher in the golden age of parks in Atlanta:
- The budget for the Department of Parks & Recreation from the general fund needs to continue to increase. The proposed budget for FY2024 includes a $2.8M increase for the department (p 233). While the additional dollars will be helpful in restaffing the department, it is not enough to implement the aspirations outlined in Activate ATL, the City’s 10-year master plan for parks and recreation.
- Atlanta needs a dedicated source of funding, in addition to sustained growth through the general fund, for park operations and maintenance. As the park system continues to grow, we need to recognize that the general fund cannot carry this burden in isolation. We need to lift the veil and to acknowledge that what we can achieve through the general fund alone will never get us to “world class.” We are not setting up the Department of Parks and Recreation to succeed. For the first time in a long time, there are murmurs from various quarters that a dedicated funding strategy for park maintenance is a very real possibility. This is the time. Park maintenance is important and we need to fund it as if the health and vitality of our city depended on it, because it does.
- We need to focus on the small things, the details of our parks and recreation system. It is trash cans that are emptied and vistas and views that are cared for before they are degraded and diminished. It’s a working water fountain, a beautifully mulched and weeded garden bed, an unexpected and delightful mural which make park systems exceptional and experiences memorable.
Atlanta’s golden age of parks is ours to lose if we don’t double down on getting across the finish line. Park Pride will continue to do our part to see it through, but we need your help. Join us at Atlanta City Hall on Tuesday, June 6 for either the Department of Parks & Recreation’s budget presentation at 2 p.m. or for public comment on the budget at 6:15 p.m. Wear green. By showing up, you’ll add fuel to the forward momentum of the parks movement and help see that the golden age comes to pass. I hope to see you there, and thank you.