By Maria Saporta
The City of Atlanta jumped from 50 to 43 in the Trust for Public Land’s annual ParkScore survey of the nation’s 100 largest cities.
The improved ranking shows how Atlanta has gained traction when it comes to acquiring and maintaining parks and green space in the city limits. TPL also including a few other factors in its ranking – such as including private support for parks – that helped boost Atlanta’s standing.
“The good news is that Atlanta continues to invest in parks,” said Charlie McCabe, TPL’s director of the Center for City Park Excellence, which oversees the annual ParkScore survey.
The survey measures a city’s parks acreage, residents access to parks, public and private investment in parks as well as amenities, such as dog parks, splash pads and bathrooms.
Michael Halicki, executive director of the Atlanta nonprofit Park Pride, said 66 percent of Atlantans are within a 10 minute walk of a park (that translates to about half a mile distance).
“That means a third of Atlantans do not live within a 10-minute walk,” Halicki added.
Over the past several years, the City of Atlanta has embarked on a number of initiatives. Several new parks are being developed (Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry, Cook Park, Boone Park West) and others are being expanded (Grant Park and Piedmont Park). Also the city continues to invest in the Atlanta BeltLine, which has helped boost the city’s ParkScore.
”There’s a continued commitment to strategic acquisition,” said George Dusenbury, TPL’s Georgia director and a former parks commissioner for the city. “Nationally, I think Atlanta is being seen as a place that’s doing innovative things.”
Other projects that are in the pipeline include the acquisition of the southern portion of the BeltLine, the Proctor Creek trail and a five-mile trail along the Chattahoochee River.
“It’s always good to improve,” said Amy Phuong, commissioner of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. “I felt like we have earned our increase in the ParkScore. In the last several years, our budget has been steadily growing.”
And that is set to continue. When Phuong became commissioner in 2015, the parks budget was about $30.8 million. The proposed 2019 fiscal year budget has $39.1 million slated for the parks department, Phuong said.
“I do like to think parks are an integral way to support the vision of One Atlanta,” Phuong said of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms goal of improving equity and affordability throughout the city.
Dusenbury said public investment in parks helps encourage private investment.
“The greater confidence the philanthropic community has in the city’s ability to maintain its parks, the more they will invest,” he said. “With the $3 million in increased maintenance, I feel we are in a pretty good place for the funding of maintenance.”
Atlanta’s rank improved largely because ParkScore now is including private philanthropy for parks. Only four other cities have greater private funding than Atlanta.
Atlanta also benefitted from the addition of splashpads as a park amenity. Atlanta parks provide 2.4 splashpads per 100,000 residents, far exceeding the national average of 0.9.
Where Atlanta did not score well is on the size of its parks. According to ParkScore, the median park size in Atlanta is only 2.9 acres, below the national ParkScore average of 5 acres. Also Atlanta provides only 0.6 park restrooms per 10,000 residents, one of the lowest scores in the nation and far below the national average of 2.4.
A missed opportunity for Atlanta is that public school property is not included in the ParkScore ranking.
If the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Board of Education were to enter into such an agreement, it would significantly increase local residents’ access to parks and green space.
A group of nonprofit leaders is looking to the possibility of having a similar agreement in Atlanta.
When the City of Chicago, entered into an agreement with its school system, the city’s ParkScore ranking jumped into the top 10 of U.S. cities.
Phuong, who has announced her departure from the city later this year, said the future of the parks department is strong.
“I think my successor will have a well-positioned department with the men and women who are in place,” Phuong said. “That person will have lots of capital projects in the works.”
The city’s planning department also is conducting an Urban Ecology Framework Plan for the entire city, which Halicki said is looking to provide greater access to nature despite the city’s rising growth in population.
Those factors bode well for Atlanta’s ParkScore to improve.
“Right now we have just moved beyond the middle of the road, so there’s room for improvement,” Halicki said.
Dusenbury put it another way.“We are excited that we have moved up to 43rd, but there are still 42 other cities to pass,” he said.
On the morning of June 21 at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Park Pride will hold its Corporate Champion Roundtable titled: “Atlanta’s ParkScore: How High Can We Climb.”
The program will have a special presentation by TPL’s McCabe, followed by remarks from Commissioner Phuong and a panel discussion with Byron Amos, a member of the Atlanta Board of Education; Ben Limmer, assistant general manager of MARTA; and Trish O’Connell, vice president of neighborhood revitalization for the Atlanta Housing Authority.
“It’s an exciting time for Atlanta with a new mayor and soon new leadership at the parks department,” McCabe said. “There’s a log of philanthropic interest in Atlanta. Despite some challenges, Atlanta has a lot going on.”