A ‘Green Cabinet’ for Atlanta: keeping our parks, greenspace healthy and safe
By Maria Saporta
What a confluence. The issue of public safety in Atlanta’s parks rose to the surface this past 10 days with two horrific events.
The first was the shooting and killing of Jakari Dillard, a 17-year-old rising senior at Life Christian Academy, at the city-owned Anderson Park Pool on the west side of town.
The second was the brutal stabbing and killing of Katherine “Katie” Janness, 40, and her three-year-old dog, Bowie, at Piedmont Park – a discovery made by her wife, Emma Clark, at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning.
Coincidentally, that same day, a gathering of 13 “green” organizations were meeting privately with two mayoral hopefuls – former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed at 11 a.m. and Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore at 2 p.m. – at the historic Greystone building at Piedmont Park – just a short walk from where the stabbing took place.
“We found out about the stabbing just before the meeting,” said Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride and one of the coordinators of the gathering of “green” organizations with mayoral hopefuls. The group already had interviewed Atlanta attorney Sharon Gay and Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens a week earlier.
The 13 organizations were prepared, building upon a forum held in June. They had sent all the top candidates a briefing paper with the key questions that would be posed of the mayoral hopefuls– ranging from park maintenance to Atlanta’s tree canopy to the Atlanta City Design.
The report opened with the following statement:
Now more than ever, we recognize greenspace as a vital component of a healthy, equitable, resilient, and thriving future Atlanta.
“Candidates came ready to meet with us,” Halicki said. “With the overshadowing of crime during this whole campaign, I was concerned that issues like parks would be overlooked. I was pleasantly surprised.”
The candidates were prepared largely because of the unprecedented cooperation that currently exists among Atlanta nonprofits dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of the city’s parks and green spaces.
The groups include Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Eco-Action, Georgia Audubon, the Georgia Conservancy, Greening Youth Foundation, Park Pride, the Piedmont Park Conservancy, the Conservation Fund, the Nature Conservancy in Georgia, the Trust for Public Land, Trees Atlanta and West Atlanta Watershed Alliance.
They will hold a public mayoral forum on Sept. 8 at the Georgia State University’s Student Center from 6 to 8 p.m.
In short, those organizations have emerged as a “Green Cabinet” available to help the next administration develop policies that improve Atlanta’s green spaces and parks.
“The term ‘Green Cabinet’ came together organically,” Halicki said. “Whoever becomes mayor can use the ‘Green Cabinet’ in the same way mayors have used the Atlanta Committee for Progress.”
(ACP has been described as a “blue-ribbon task force” of CEOs and civic leaders formed early during the first term of former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin to help strengthen the city).
“The next mayor of Atlanta needs a group of advisors who understand how growth and development can impact the environment and how a healthy environment can benefit the citizenry,” said Deron Davis, executive director of the Nature Conservancy of Georgia. “This group meeting with the mayoral candidates now can serve in that vital capacity later.”
From a public policy standpoint, the collaboration among Atlanta’s green nonprofits is an opportunity to have greater influence in how we can maintain our quality of life by having a healthy tree canopy, well-maintained parks, a land acquisition fund and stormwater management.
“The issues aren’t simple,” Halicki said. “While everybody loves parks, we need to address chronic issues of maintenance. The stakes are higher. This briefing document is not just questions. It also provides information.”
The groups also presented possible solutions, such as the creation of a green job training program that would seek to reduce unemployment, especially among Atlanta’s youth of color. The green jobs program also would fulfill a critical need for the city, such as in the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Watershed Management.
“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of local parks, greenspace, trees, trails, and watersheds as critical community infrastructure,” said Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, co-founder of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance. “It is important that actions surrounding equitable investments in these health-promoting resources are a priority for Atlanta’s next mayor if the city is to live up to its potential to be a healthy, equitable, resilient, and thriving place for all Atlantans to call home regardless of race, income level or neighborhood.”
Still, issues of public safety keep surfacing.
“The green space partners already knew the issues of crime and safety were front of mind,” Halicki said. “The stabbing brought home the connection of parks and safety. It was very sobering. These are not separate issues.”
When it comes to public safety, Halicki said people feel safer going to a well-maintained park (all the more reason to improve park maintenance).
A safe park is a well-activated park,” Halicki said. “Parks are safer when people are out there using them.”
And Piedmont Park is continuing to play that role for the region, even after the horrific stabbing of Janness. Halicki visited Piedmont Park both on Saturday and Sunday, and he was relieved to find many people enjoying the park – shopping at the farmer’s market, attending exercise classes or simply strolling, running or cycling in the park.
Then on Sunday evening, about 400 people came to the park as part of a candlelight vigil in memory of Janness and Bowie. It was the second candlelight vigil held this past week at Piedmont Park.
Courtney Smith, president of Midtown Neighbors Association who spoke at the vigil, said people should feel comfortable going to Piedmont Park
“Residents shouldn’t lose their connection with the park,” Smith said. “Of course, they should be vigilant and observe park hours.”
Greater attention also is being given to lighting and security cameras in the city’s parks. Media outlets have reported that some of Piedmont Park’s security cameras were not working. The Atlanta Police Department later issued a statement saying those cameras were operated by the parks department.
When asked about the role of the Atlanta Police Foundation in enabling cameras in city parks, a spokesman wrote in an email: “APF’s role is to bring together the public sector agencies and private sector resources to make our public spaces safer and more secure. The Operation Shield camera system has proven to be an effective crime deterrence and surveillance tool across the city.”
That is only one example of how a “Green Cabinet” could be an important asset for the City of Atlanta and the next mayoral administration.
But more importantly, a “Green Cabinet” can help the next mayor dream big about how to preserve Atlanta’s greenspace and make the city even greener.