Aspiring to a Higher Standard for Our Parks
by Michael Halicki, Park Pride’s Executive Director,
and Rachel Maher, Director of Communications + Policy
It’s 2020, and we’re at the height of the pandemic. You may recall that the question of whether parks would remain open and accessible was a very real issue during that time. When we couldn’t be inside at a restaurant or a sports event, park visitation spiked. While playgrounds, tennis courts, and basketball courts were ultimately closed and major events were cancelled, appreciation for Atlanta’s parks, greenspaces, and trails soared like never before. The relief that parks gave us during the pandemic was beyond measure. They were a critical part of Atlanta’s life support system.
During the pandemic, parks were places where Atlantans could recreate
and socialize safely, at a distance.
As parks experienced more foot traffic, there was a corresponding increase in litter and trash. Sometimes it piled up, and we noticed other maintenance issues and signs of wear and tear that couldn’t be addressed as quickly as it appeared. But we understood the situation, and we were grateful to park workers—frontline workers—who were doing all they could to keep our parks cleaned and maintained, despite staffing shortages caused by vacant positions and COVID cases that ran rampant through the Parks Department.
Fast forward to the fall of 2021. Election season is in full swing, and one of the narratives that everyone is talking about is the need to get Atlanta moving again. Open up, re-staff, and come back better, stronger, and more resilient. And Atlanta’s parks and recreation facilities were well positioned to be a part of the city’s rejuvenation. In December of that year, Atlanta City Council adopted Activate ATL, a 10-year comprehensive plan for parks and recreation that presents an extraordinary vision for an equitable, connected, and activated park system—a robust and well-maintained system that provides health benefits to all residents, and the amenities and experiences that Atlantans deserve.
But momentum in pursuit of that vision has been frustrated by inertia and barriers. For example, as of December 2022, 26% of full-time positions in the Department of Parks & Recreation (DPR) were vacant. And while DPR has been actively promoting openings through job fairs and proactive communications, these efforts have been hindered by funding restrictions that have kept more than half of those positions unfillable because they are unfunded. The negative impact of these staffing shortages on the upkeep of our cherished greenspaces cannot be overstated.
Make no mistake—this is not a criticism of the hard-working and dedicated staff of the park crews that serve our community tirelessly and provide the best greenspaces possible. This is about numbers and facts: DPR has too few people to appropriately maintain the 4,477 park acres for which it is responsible. And it has too few people because the budget is inadequate for the needs of the department.
Graffiti and deferred landscaping and amenity upkeep are examples of park maintenance issues caused by staffing shortages and underfunding of DPR.
The underfunding of DPR is a chronic issue that began several administrations ago. Economic recessions and budget cuts were followed by recoveries. And although the park inventory continued to grow (and with it the need for more park workers, better equipment, and regular training) the funding increases for DPR were minimal. Atlantans experience the impact of an underfunded park system daily; a statistically valid survey seeking input for Activate ATL revealed that 24% of respondents felt discouraged from using park amenities because they are not well maintained.
While the recent Moving Atlanta Forward bond package will direct nearly $150 million to recreation center and park improvements and expansions, it will do nothing to address the week-over-week, year-over-year costs of implementing and adhering to excellent park maintenance standards.
Atlanta—we deserve better.
But to get better, we must demand better. Not from our parks crews or the people in DPR who have stretched a dollar further than one could have imagined possible. We must tell our elected officials that we care about the quality of our parks and trails, that we care about the reasonable working conditions and good wages for park workers, and that we care about a better quality of life in Atlanta. We must demand a significant increase in the budget for park maintenance.
Now is the Moment for Park Advocacy
With the formation of the Greenspace Advisory Council, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has shown that he is committed to addressing the city’s most pressing greenspace issues with input and support from partners. He appointed a new Commissioner, Justin Cutler, to the helm of the Department of Parks & Recreation, who has infused DPR with a new energy of collaboration, determination, and strategy. And we have an Atlanta City Council that is similarly supportive of advancing the vision of a greener and more equitable city.
Now is the time—before the FY 2024 budget is proposed—to advocate for and demand an increased budget for park maintenance and operations:
- Email your Atlanta City Council representative with maintenance concerns in your neighborhood park and the positive impact that adequate maintenance would have on your community. Include pictures!
- Wear a green shirt and join Park Pride at an upcoming Community Development/Human Services Committee Meeting of Atlanta City Council (upcoming meetings on Tuesday, February 14, February 28, March 14, and March 28 at 1:30 p.m.). Community members may have the opportunity to address the committee and share photos of park maintenance issues that need attention.
- Sign up to receive Park Pride emails and get information about opportunities to advocate for your park and Atlanta’s park system.
Atlanta, we’re at a critical point to make a decision: do we settle for the status quo? Is that the city we want to live in? Or do we aspire to a higher standard, move our park system forward, and Activate ATL?
Without a strong commitment by the Administration and City Council to overhaul management and staffing at the same department under which our parks have been ailing for at least the past two decades of administrations, just throwing money at maintenance will result in little more than the same mowed-bare, compacted soils, crumbling BBQ grills, and dilapidated information kiosks, with maybe a few repairs to drinking fountains and playgrounds.
DPR needs more than a new Commissioner every 4 years with an ample capital maintenance budget. With its entrenched management lording-over our parks while making more excuses than commitments to community stakeholders, DPR also needs a significant pruning of dead-wood before any new growth can be expected to flourish.Report