TPL photo
TPL's presentation of Atlanta featured one of the city's newer parks - the Historic Fourth Ward Park

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.

Charles McCabe
TPL’s Charles McCabe (right) gives pointers to Atlanta’s park leaders in a small roundtable talk after Park Pride meeting. Rob Brawner of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership and Ellen Wickersham of Invest Atlanta (Photo by Maria Saporta)

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.

mayoral candidates
Mayoral candidates at Park Pride’s Corporate Champion Roundtable (Photo by Maria Saporta)

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.”

TPL Atlanta parks
Atlanta’s parks as presented by the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore

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.

TPL photo
TPL’s presentation of Atlanta featured one of the city’s newer parks – the Historic Fourth Ward Park

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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  1. As someone who has spent more hours than I care to remember benchmarking the City of Atlanta on various subjects, I can tell you that greenspace availability is one of the trickiest. To your credit, you allude to the issue when you mention the private ownership of greenspace, but it is a much bigger factor than you might realize. The demand for greenspace is closely connected to population density, which makes the benchmarks included in the referenced study highly problematic.

    When my wife and I lived in Manhattan, we would spend entire Sundays in Central Park. It was the only greenspace we had easy access to. We now live in Inman Park, and spend Sundays on our porch. As an economist would say, our propensity to consume greenspace has declined enormously because we live in a low density environment with plenty of private greenspace. Any comparison among city’s regarding greenspace access must take this into consideration or it becomes an apples to oranges comparison.

    For example, of the cities on the list you provide in your piece, Atlanta has the lowest percentage of its total acreage dedicated to public greenspace than any city on the list:

    Atlanta 5.9%
    Chicago 8.9%
    Dallas 12.4%
    Denver 6.4%
    Minneapolis 14.7%
    Phoenix 14.9%
    Portland 17%
    Seattle 12.3%

    It is this stat that drives all of the unfavorable comparisons (walking distance to parks, number of park benches, etc.)

    However, if you adjust for population density the picture improves significantly:

    Atlanta 8.8%
    Chicago 9.1%
    Dallas 15.1%
    Denver 7.4%
    Minneapolis 10.5%
    Phoenix 25.1%
    Portland 16.9%
    Seattle 7.3%

    Atlanta outperforms Seattle and Denver, not places we generally view has hostile to greenspace.

    One final point. the quantity of greenspace is only one half of the equation. Greenspace value is really its quantity times its utilization. There is little point of having a bunch of park space that is rarely used. Atlanta has a lot of park space that barely gets used. Walk over to Maddox Park or Freedom Park on a Tuesday afternoon and you will see what I mean. As we continue to densify as a city, it is critical that we push that density to the edges of our existing greenspace, even if that means sacrificing some of that greenspace to residential or commercial uses. Active parks are healthy parks, and we have a long way to go on that score.

  2. Two comments:

    With the desperate need for more greenspace where lots of people live, the Parks Department even being willing to consider allowing the rezoning of designated park land on Memorial Drive to allow for more development belies the depth of bad governance lurking within the city workforce. More pocket parks should be created for high-density-dwellers with dogs, who like to sit or exercise outside, etc., not done away with.

    I completely disagree that greenspace has no value if there’s not a pack of humans occupying it 24/7. Greenspace serves wildlife (heresy, I know, but I like taking my child to forested places without having to drive for 90min), trees are great at removing air pollutants which ATL has way too much of (ask someone who has a child with asthma) and the bigger the tree the more pollution is removed, and greenspace helps offset the heat island effect which now has reached amazing levels as this last month’s radar demonstrated as the intown area created its own weather pattern.

    Childrens’ removal from the natural world around them does generate interesting results, like all the people who believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

    It also seems sort of hypocritical to say Atlanta needs more parks then say it’s ok to rend asunder the ones we have for more concrete.

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