Atlanta’s 2020 ParkScore climbs two spots – from 42 to 40Piedmont Park before the Coronavirus (Photo by Kelly Jordan)
By Maria Saporta
Atlanta continues to make steady progress in its “ParkScore,” according to the Trust for Public Land’s annual index among the nation’s top 100 cities.
The 2020 ParkScore index showed Atlanta placing 40th nationally – up two spots from last year’s score of 42. Its rank is a marked improvement from 2013, when it placed 65th; or from 2015, when its score was 70th.
“We are excited Atlanta continues to move up compared to other cities,” said George Dusenbury, Georgia State director for the Trust for Public Land, in an interview. “In general, Atlanta has momentum behind its parks. But other cities are not standing still.”
The 2020 ParkScore index actually gave Minneapolis an overall park score of 85.3 – allowing the city to reclaim the top spot nationally. Minneapolis pushed Washington, D.C. into second place with an overall park score of 83.3.
By comparison, Atlanta’s overall score was 54.7.
“Relative to other cities, Atlanta continues to make progress, and that’s encouraging,” said Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride, a nonprofit advocate for parks and green space in Atlanta. “I certainly hope this will not be a high watermark. My general sense is that Atlanta’s best days for parks are ahead of us. ”
Atlanta can track its improved ranking to several factors – especially the development of the BeltLine, a circular green corridor being created around 45 different city neighborhoods.
In addition to expanding the BeltLine, the city has been acquiring new land and building new parks, such as Cook Park in Vine City which is supposed to open later this year. Also, a coalition between TPL, Park Pride and the Urban Land Institute is launching the Atlanta Schoolyards project later this year at two elementary schools. The idea is to make school grounds more open to the public and available as community green space.
Dusenbury said those developments should help Atlanta’s rank continue to improve.
One of the key factors in the ParkScore index is what percentage of the city’s population lives within a 10-minute walk of a park.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has said it’s a priority for all Atlantans to live within a 10-minute walk (about a half mile). Currently 72 percent of Atlanta’s residents live within 10 minutes of a park – a percentage that’s roughly the same as last year.
Atlanta currently is updating its comprehensive master plan for its parks, which should help focus how and where the city can improve its parks system.
“ParkScore gives the city a lot of the data it needs to develop a comprehensive master plan,” Dusenbury said. “The comprehensive plan is an opportunity to help us figure out how we can move into the top 20 or top 10. It’s important for Atlanta to be ambitious so it can continue to move upward.”
Halicki said Atlanta’s parks are especially important to the city because of the coronavirus pandemic. People now have “a newfound respect” for parks as places where they can enjoy being outdoors instead of being totally cooped up inside.
“Parks are our saving grace right now,” said Halicki, who hopes the parks budget won’t take a major hit this year as the city tries to cut expenses because of a shortfall of revenue due to the coronavirus.
It’s also a national concern. TPL reported national progress for parks, but it also warned that city park systems have reached a critical tipping point with widening inequities in equitable park access and COVID-related budget cuts that risk irreversible damage in 2020 and beyond.
“When stay-at-home orders permitted, people increasingly turned to parks, trails, and public open spaces to connect with nature, exercise, and enhance their mental and physical health,” said Diane Regas, president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land, in a statement. “Residents deeply value parks, but continued inequity and the risk of future budget cuts threaten severe damage to the park systems that make many cities so livable.”
Atlanta city parks and trails have remained open, although most amenities, such as playgrounds and restrooms, are closed. However, Atlanta’s parks have provided a needed respite as Atlantans sheltered-in-place.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn sharp attention to the reality that nearly 30 percent of Atlanta residents do not have easy access to a quality park,” Dusenbury said. “When we don’t have enough park space, well-known green spaces can become too crowded to keep a safe distance from others. If everyone could instead walk easily to a park closer to home, we would all have the ability to give each other space.”
Atlanta’s move to 40th position resulted mostly from budget improvements. The city’s park system now spends $151 per resident annually on recreation centers, far above the national average of. TPL provides a 2020 dashboard on the state of Atlanta’s parks.
But Atlanta’s ParkScore was hurt by a lack of access to park restrooms, with only 0.4 park restrooms per 10,000 residents. The city also scored low on median park size at 2.9 acres, smaller than the median ParkScore city park size of 5.0.
Boston and San Francisco, Calif. (eighth place), are the only ParkScore cities where 100 percent of residents have a park of public open space within a 10-minute walk of home.
The ParkScore Index uses advanced GIS (Geographic Information Systems) computer mapping technology to create digital maps evaluating park accessibility.
Municipal leaders use ParkScore information to guide park improvement efforts, studying park access on a block-by-block basis and pinpointing the areas where new parks are needed most. The ParkScore website is free and available to the public, empowering residents to hold their elected leaders accountable for achieving equitable access to quality parks for all.