By Maria Saporta
This is the first in a two-part series about Atlanta’s parks
Atlanta has a long way to go to become a leader in the country when it comes to parks.
For years, the Trust for Public Land has been tracking Atlanta’s “Park Score” to see how we compare among the 100 largest cities in the country.
Out of a possible score of 100, Atlanta’s total score was only 51 percent. And among the 100 cities, Atlanta ranked 50th in a tie with Dallas.
Charlie McCabe: director of the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence – which puts together the annual ParkScore ranking, was in Atlanta as the keynote speaker of ParkPride’s Corporate Champion Roundtable.
And he gave Atlanta some pointers on how we could improve our ranking as well as our quality of life.
For starters, Atlanta’s track record actually has been improving over the years.
In 2006, Atlanta was only spending $80 per resident on its parks. Ten years later, that jumped to $134 per person for $54 increase.
But that’s a far cry from what the top cities spend on their parks. Seattle, for example spends $279 per capita, Minneapolis spends $233; and Chicago spends $173.
How much a city spends on parks only makes up a third of TPL’s ParkScore. The other two major factors it weighs are: access to parks – what percentage of the city’s population are within a 10-minute walk of a park; and what percentage of the city’s land area is public park land.
Only 66 percent of Atlanta’s residents are within a 10-minute walk to a park. By comparison, San Francisco is the first city in the nation to reach 100 percent.
About 98 percent of the residents in Boston are within a 10 minute walk of a park. Minneapolis is at 97 percent, and it is top-ranked city in the country when it comes to its ParkScore. The second highest-ranked city is its next door neighbor – St. Paul.
In addition to access is the percentage of city land that is dedicated to parks.
Only 6 percent of the city’s land area is set aside for parks compared to a national average of 9 percent. Atlanta’s score also was hurt because of its below-average size for parks. The median park size in Atlanta is only 3.1 acres, compared to a national average of 5 acres.
Park Pride invited the candidates running for mayor to hear the presentation, and they then addressed the group. Several said they would make improving Atlanta’s ParkScore a priority, if they were elected mayor. Ceasar Mitchell said he would like to see it improved from 50th to at least 26th. Cathy Woolard said she wanted Atlanta to be No. 1; as did Al Bartell.
But improving Atlanta’s ranking could be difficult because other cities also are improving their scores. And that’s a good thing.
McCabe, however, gave Atlanta some ideas on how to significantly improve its score.
A major move would be to have joint use of school facilities – keeping playgrounds and athletic fields open to the public when schools are closed (a national trend) has helped cities significantly increase its park access at a relatively low cost.
If the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Public Schools could reach such an agreement, it would dramatically improve its score, McCabe said.
Another area of opportunity is the creation of a new city-wide parks task force,, McCabe. He said Atlanta could build upon the success of a previous task force – in the early 2000s, that helped the city set ambitious goals.
Also, it’s important for Atlanta to consider various funding sources for parks, and to find other ways to secure dedicated funds for parks.
“Your big issue is going to be spending,” McCabe said. “Getting the dollars per resident is a challenge. It’s important to think about what you want to spend money on.”
He also suggested Atlanta might want to reconsider an idea that was proposed during Mayor Shirley Franklin’s administration – establishing a Parks District with dedicated funding. It did not advance because there was concern by the Atlanta City Council that it would lose some of its oversight if a district took over the city’s parks.
“A Parks District really helps,” McCabe said. “You can have your City Council serve as your Parks District.”
The Trust for Public Land also analyzes the issue of equity – where parks are located and if all residents have access to parks. City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, a mayoral candidate, said she represents a district that does not have a city park. McCabe said some cities – Minneapolis and San Francisco – have created a parks equity plan, an idea Atlanta might want to consider.
One of Atlanta’s other issues is that so much of its green space is not in public hands. Most of the land is privately-owned, including people’s front and back yards.
But Atlanta is densifying, and one of the major challenges will be to keep the city’s greenspace – both public and private – while the city develops and adds more population.
Linear parks, such as the Atlanta BeltLine, are an excellent way to improve access to parks, even though it might not greatly upgrade Atlanta’s score.
McCabe also put the whole conversation in context. “ParkScore is a tool, not an end game,” McCabe said.
So it’s not just about the score.
It’s about Atlanta creating a city with a high quality of life. And healthy parks are central to making Atlanta a wonderful place to live, work and play.
Next week: How Park Pride and other environmental groups hope to drive the conversation during Atlanta’s city elections in November.