Atlanta’s ParkScore ranking drops to 49th from 40thTrees at Piedmont Park (Photo by Kelly Jordan)
By Maria Saporta
Atlanta did not fare too well in the Trust for Public Land’s 2021 ParkScore ranking. Of the 100 major U.S. cities, Atlanta ranked 49th compared to 40th last year.
Part of the reason can be attributed to equity. For the first time, TPL added measures of park equity in its ParkScore rankings.
According to ParkScore, residents of Atlanta neighborhoods where most people identify as Black, Hispanic and Latinx, Indigenous and Native American, or Asian American and Pacific Islander have access to 49 percent less park space per capita than residents in neighborhoods that are predominantly white. And residents of low-income neighborhoods in Atlanta have access to 32 percent less park space than residents of high-income neighborhoods.
Atlanta’s relatively flat spending for parks and recreation also hurt the city’s ranking.
“Nobody stands still,” said George Dusenbury, the Trust for Public Lands’ state director for Georgia, of the other cities in the ranking.
For example, Washington, D.C. climbed from No. 2 to No. 1 in the 2021 ParkScore ranking largely because of the equity measurements. St. Paul, MN, which had been No. 3, came in second, while Minneapolis, MN dropped from No. 1 in 2020 to No. 3.
Atlanta’s precipitous fall to 49th was also because the city’s parks and recreation budget remained relatively flat while other cities increased their investments in parks and moved up in the rankings.
“Across the country, we saw an increased demand for parks during the pandemic,” Dusenbury said. “It reinforced the connection between land and people.”
Dusenbury, however, was optimistic about Atlanta’s future positioning because it has been making significant investments to expand and improve its parks system. The new Cook Park, a TPL initiative with the City of Atlanta, should open within the next month or two. The city also is developing the Westside Park, site of the former Bellwood Quarry. And it bought the Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve in southeast Atlanta. Also there are ongoing investments along the Atlanta BeltLine’s corridor that will add additional green space.
The City of Atlanta also is close to completing a new 10-year parks and recreation master plan – ActivateATL – which is focusing on park equity for all Atlantans. The goal is for every resident to have access to safe, high quality parks.
But Dusenbury acknowledged that much will depend on whether the City of Atlanta will make the investments to bring the master plan to fruition.
ParkScore did identify areas where Atlanta had improved. The city received strong marks for park amenities, especially recreation and senior centers. The city parks department offers 1.4 recreation and senior centers per 20,000 residents, almost double the national ParkScore average of 0.8.
A key metric is how many Atlanta residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. The percent in 2021 was the same as 2020 – 72 percent of Atlantans live within a 10-minute walk of a park.
Across all ParkScore cities in the United States, equity was an issue. People of color in the 100 cities have access to 44 percent less park space than neighborhoods that are predominantly white.
Park conservancies also inadvertently contribute to inequities in parks by providing additional resources that aren’t available to other city parks. For example, the Piedmont Park Conservancy, the Grant Park Conservancy and the Chastain Park Conservancy all bring more resources to their parks, but those resources should not replace the city’s obligations for maintenance at all the public parks.
The Trust for Public Land simultaneously is releasing a new report – Parks and an Equitable Recovery – which shows a significant disparity in who has access to parks in the nation’s 100 largest cities, and that disparity falls across racial and economic lines.
Atlanta also scored well in its ability to attract philanthropic dollars for its parks, but it could be even higher, Dusenbury said.
While getting public input for its new parks master plan, the City of Atlanta found that 24 percent of city residents reported that park facilities were not well maintained, which is twice the national average.
“Operation and maintenance do matter,” Dusenbury said. “The philanthropic community will invest even more when they know their investments will be maintained.”
Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride, said the city’s parks and recreation budget is only 1.9 percent of the total city budget.
“To rise in this ranking of peer cities, we will need to substantially increase the budget for the Department of Parks and Recreation,” Halicki said. “If we do, the residents in neighborhoods throughout our city will be the beneficiaries of this increased investment.”
During the COVID pandemic, parks and green space have become even more important.
“Atlantans have come to appreciate the parks and green spaces in our neighborhoods,” Halicki said. “People have been using parks even more. Everyone deserves access to quality, well-maintained parks. Greater investment in our parks is warranted and validated.”
Municipal leaders often use ParkScore information to guide park improvement efforts. The report enables people to study park access on a block-by-block basis – pinpointing the areas where new parks are needed most.
The ParkScore website, www.tpl.org/parkscore, is free and available to the public – enabling residents to hold their elected leaders accountable for achieving equitable access to quality parks for all. Given that this is an election year for the City of Atlanta, the ParkScore tool is a way for residents to hold their public officials accountable.
When asked about his thoughts about Atlanta’s drop in the rankings, Halicki summed it up this way: “Going from 40 to 49 shows we have more work to do.”