Maintaining Atlanta’s parks — it’s the best of times; worst of times

By Guest Columnist GEORGE DUSENBURY, executive director of Park Pride

Parks are the best of Atlanta; they are the worst of Atlanta. They are the foundations of community; they are the foundations of crime. They are the catalyst of economic development; they are the catalyst of middle-class flight. They are the epitome of excellence; they are the epitome of mediocrity. They promise everything before us; they promise nothing before us.

It all depends on how they are maintained.

george dusenberry photo  (edited)

As executive director of Park Pride, Atlanta’s nonprofit park and park advocacy group, I have seen in all corners of metro Atlanta how maintenance can make or break a park. And – though you may not have realized it – you have seen it, too.

At one end of our experience are Piedmont Park and Centennial Olympic Park – two public spaces consistently maintained at a level above and beyond the average park. The Piedmont Park Conservancy’s supplement to city funding results in a maintenance budget that is double what is spent in other city parks.

The Georgia World Congress Center maintains Centennial Olympic Park at a similar high standard. The results of these investments are parks that any resident would want in their neighborhood. They increase property values, attract residents and recreationalists, and foster a sense of pride and community within surrounding neighborhoods and business districts.

These parks are the best of Atlanta.

At the other end of our experience are parks in lower-income communities where, despite the best efforts of concerned community citizens, activity in the park most often is illicit. Graffiti, broken lights, dilapidated equipment and trash greet the parks’ few visitors.

Lacking funding, the parks department mows the grass and picks up the trash every week or so, and can only watch the sidewalks and landscaping crumble. Residents shun the park, businesses flee, and parents warn their children not to enter.

These parks are the worst of Atlanta.

It is in how parks are maintained that separates the best from the worst. Many of us are aware of the “broken window” theory of policing.

Essentially, if a city enforces quality of life laws – against litter, pan-handling, graffiti and breaking windows – it sends the message that people are watching and care enough to act to protect their community. This creates an uncomfortable environment for criminals, and an attractive one for law-abiding residents.

Parks operate under the same broken window theory. Well-maintained parks are a community asset. When parks go to seed – and unmowed lawns are the source of this metaphor – crime moves in and the community suffers.

Even a park like Piedmont is not immune, harboring prostitutes, drug dealers and other criminals in the not-too-distant past. New York City’s Central Park – feared in the Eighties, adored today – is perhaps the best national example of this phenomenon. It is easy – perhaps too easy – to forget the damage that neglect wrought on these treasures.

We must not forget, or we will again pay the price. To quote Atlanta Mayor-Elect Kasim Reed, “Budget crises come and go, but one constant seems to be that our parks are always first to suffer.”

In the short term, it is easy to justify cuts in park maintenance – to let the grass grow a little bit longer – because the decline is gradual. However, the decline also is persistent and cumulative. And because poorly-maintained parks foster crime, lower property values and drive residential flight, cutting maintenance also sows the seed for reduced tax revenue in future years – and further budget cuts.

Between 1993 and 2003, while it struggled with a declining population and shrinking tax base, the City of Atlanta eliminated nearly 250 full-time park employees – more than half its workforce.

Fortunately, there are signs that metro voters and leaders understand the value of maintaining our public realm to ensuring the economic vitality – and the fiscal stability – of their jurisdictions.

Gwinnett County dedicates a certain portion of its property tax to park maintenance. Atlanta Mayor-Elect Reed has publicly stated that: “We must ensure a dedicated revenue source for our parks and recreation centers so that they can continue to improve over time and stop being a political football.”

If we are to do what is best for the long-term growth of Atlanta – to create a city and a region that continues to attract residents and economic growth – we must invest in our parks. We must maintain them to the highest standards, so that people and industries flock to them, not away from them.

Study after study shows that our investment will be repaid. In Charlotte-Mecklenberg County, their parks and nature preserves generate $4 in revenue for every dollar in expense.

A report from 2008 showed Philadelphia’s parks generate about 100 times the amount the city spends on them each year. Similarly, a 2009 New York State Parks study concluded the 55.7 million park visitors support $1.9 billion in economic activity and 20,000 jobs.

However, the full economic and social benefits of parks are realized only when they are well-maintained. As metro Atlanta jurisdictions set their budget priorities in the years to come, they should recognize that cutting park maintenance may be penny wise, but it is pound foolish.

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