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City of Atlanta’s parks stuck in the middle in need of dedicated dollars

By Maria Saporta

The Trust for Public Land released its annual ParkScore Index last week grading the top 60 cities in the country on the strength of their urban parks.

The City of Atlanta didn’t fare so well — ranking 42nd among the 60 cities. Last year, when 50 cities were in the index, Atlanta’s rank was 31st. The year before, when 40 cities were in the index, Atlanta’s rank was 26th.

The one constant was that Atlanta scored in the bottom half each year.

And yet Atlanta does have much to be proud of when it comes to parks. There’s the relatively new Historic Fourth Ward Park along the Atlanta BeltLine. And of course, there is the Atlanta BeltLine, which will have a series of new parks along its 22-mile corridor — the most dramatic being the green space around Bellwood Quarry, which will be turned into a reservoir.

About 20 years ago, we did add Centennial Olympic Park, one of the largest new urban parks to be developed in a downtown U.S city in recent history.

But despite our successes, we still are stuck in the mediocre middle when outsiders study our parks system.

Atlanta’s problem is simple. It keeps hoping to make major strides with incremental steps. If Atlanta wants to dramatically improve its park system, it’s going to have to develop a corresponding dramatic strategy that will get us there.

A view of the meadow at Piedmont Park

A view of the meadow at Piedmont Park

This is not really news. Back in 2002, just after Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin was elected, a group of metro leaders went to Chicago as part of the annual LINK trip.

One of the big ideas that was brought back home was that Atlanta should create a “Parks District” similar to what the delegation had seen in Chicago. The plan was for the district to have had its own dedicated source of funding.

But the recommendations of the mayor’s 2002 Parks and Green Spaces Task Force, chaired by landscape architect Barbara Faga, were not able to make it through the political process.

So Atlanta has been rocking along with a Department of Parks and Recreation that has to face all the annual budgetary struggles of having to compete with police, fire and sanitary services that are harder to cut during lean years.

“We are at a point of rising expectations with the Atlanta BeltLine and the Historic Fourth Ward Park,” said Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride, an independent advocacy organization for parks in Atlanta, DeKalb County and the rest of the region. “We have all bought into the vision of the BeltLine, but have we bought into the cost of maintaining it.”

Spending money on park maintenance certainly is not that sexy a topic. But when streetlights in a park are burnt out or when the benches are broken or when the sidewalks are cracked or when park doesn’t feel safe, it has a way of bringing down a whole neighborhood.

A pretty fall day at Piedmont Park (Photos by Maria Saporta)

A pretty fall day at Piedmont Park (Photos by Maria Saporta)

“There’s a need in our future to increase the funding for maintenance with dedicated funding for parks and green space,” Halicki said. “We need a city of Atlanta Parks District that gives us a way to have a dedicated source of funding for acquisition and maintenance.”

The city that ranks No. 1 on TPL’s ParkScore list is Minneapolis. It spends nearly $214 per person on its parks each year. By comparison, Atlanta spends less than $88.

And it’s not just about money. It’s about location and access. The Trust for Public Land carefully reviews what percentage of a city’s population lives within a half mile (a 10-minute walk or less) of a city park.

In Minneapolis, 94 percent of its population lives within a half-mile of a park. In Atlanta, it’s 65 percent.

The ParkScore index is highly interactive, and it is one where someone could spend hours looking at individual cities and studying maps of how parks are distributed geographically in each city.

Like any measuring stick, it has its limitations. It does not measure how many trees Atlanta has compared to other cities or how much green space we have that is actually privately-owned but contributes to our general sense of well-being.

But it does serve as a reminder that if we keep doing what we’ve always been doing year after year, the results will continue to be the same. And we’ll continue to be one of those middling cities, muddling by.


MINNEAPOLIS   (five benches)

  •                     City area: 33,958 acres
  •                     Median park size: 7.1 acres
  •                     Park land as % of city area: 14.9 %
  •                     Spending per resident: $213.87
  •                     Playgrounds per 10,000: 2.9
  •                      Population density: 11.6 per acre

Park Facts

  •                     Park acreage: 5,055 acres
  •                     People served per park acre: 78
  •                     Oldest park: Murphy Square, est. 1857
  •                     Largest park: Theodore Wirth Park, 759 acres
  •                     Most-visited park: Chain of Lakes Regional Park


ATLANTA  (two benches)

  •                     City area: 84,250 acres
  •                     Median park size: 3.1 acres
  •                     Park land as % of city area: 5.8 %
  •                     Spending per resident: $87.41
  •                     Playgrounds per 10,000: 2.5
  •                     Population density: 5.3 per acre

Park Facts

  •                     Park acreage: 4,880 acres
  •                     People served per park acre: 91
  •                     Oldest park: Oakland Cemetery, est. 1850
  •                     Largest park: Chastain Park, 268 acres
  •                     Most-visited park: Piedmont Park


Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


1 Comment

  1. David Edwards June 3, 2014 9:01 am

    Maria, I am not so sure that this annual TPL study is very useful.  The biggest flaw I see in it is that it measures the supply of parks space but not the demand for it.  In cities with high population densities – where people are living in high rises and do not have access to private greenspace – the demand for public parks will be very high.  In low density cities with an abundance of private greenspace, demand will be low.  It makes no sense to compare New York City to Atlanta using measures such a population/acres of park space.  When we lived in a brownstone on the Upper Westside of Manhattan, if we wanted to be outside, we needed to go to Central Park.  Now that we live in Inman Park, we just step out onto our porch. 

    The easiest way to fix this problem is to perform the TPL analysis but control for population density.  I did that analysis several years ago when I worked for the city and Atlanta came out much better (in the top quintile as I recall).  Atlanta ranks 54th in population density among the 100 largest US cities.  We have 1/10th the density of New York City and 1/3 that of Los Angeles.  Surely that makes a difference in our need for park space.
    The biggest challenge we face is not the lack of park space, but the under-utilization of the parkspace we already have.  If you visit many of our parks during a weekday, they are practically deserted.  Our resources would be better spent increasing the density of the areas around our parks and promoting commercial activity within those parks so that they attract more people and become more lively.Report


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