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Hannah Jones

Cook Park: First year review of one of Atlanta’s most innovative greenspaces

Cook Park, a 16-acre park with green infrastructure in Atlanta's Vine City. (Photo courtesy of HDR, Paul Dingman.)

By Hannah E. Jones

This summer marked the first-year anniversary of one of Atlanta’s most celebrated parks, The Rodney Cook Sr. Park — lauded for its innovative green infrastructure in the historic Vine City. 

The community also hosts four HBCUs and is the former home to civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Julian Bond and Maynard Jackson. But over the past few decades, the area has faced disinvestment. 

In 2002, heavy rains flooded the Vine City neighborhood, damaging about 100 homes and leaving at least 80 families seeking shelter from the American Red Cross. No lives were lost, but the toxic mixture of stormwater and untreated sewage damaged many of the homes.

Longtime resident and community leader Carrie Salvary remembers the night of the flood well. Her home was left unscathed so she opened her doors to neighbors who were seeking refuge.

“My house was full of people,” Salvary said. “Some had feces on them from the sewer and I had to empty out my closet to give people clothes and take showers. The neighborhood had to organize itself.”

Following the flood, the land was deemed uninhabitable, and Salvary — who now chairs the Alliance for the Activation of Cook Park — and other residents rallied for a park to go in its place. After nineteen years of hard work, a climate-conscious park lies where the homes once stood, giving over 3,600 residents a park within a 10-minute walk of their homes.

The terraced pools collect and aerate water during heavy rains. (Photo courtesy of HDR, Paul Dingman.)

In 2018, the City of Atlanta enlisted the Trust for Public Land (TPL) to work alongside the community to create the 16-acre park — named after Rodney Mims Cook Sr., a longtime member of the Georgia House of Representatives — eventually becoming the largest in Vine City. Engineered in partnership with Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management, the $40 million park is designed with green infrastructure that manages and treats stormwater. 

“The park is an amenity, but we had to have the infrastructure to save the community,” Salvary said.

For example, the park features plants that manage and improve the quality of the collected stormwater and a retention pond that can store up to 10 million gallons, collecting water that is released gradually and contaminants are removed before flowing downstream. These features not only help mitigate stormwater in Vine City, but the park’s design also helps decrease flooding towards the Chattahoochee River.

More on the park’s green infrastructure. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

“This part of Atlanta has dealt with significant flooding over the years,” said Jay Wozniak, TPL Georgia Director of Urban Parks. “The fact that we can build something attractive and provide all these benefits, I think it’s a great example of what is possible when it comes to parks.”

These features have granted the park several awards, like the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2022 Innovation in Sustainable Engineering Award and ULI Atlanta’s Mission Advancement Award.

Cook Park’s futuristic playground. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

In addition to the practical watershed management, the park also features classic amenities requested by residents like a playground, splash pad — one of only seven in the city — two climbing boulders, outdoor fitness equipment, sports courts, public performance spaces and greenspace.

Wozniak described the climbing boulders as “a project within a project” with the team enlisting local kids to help design the playscape.

“We held design workshops where we shared with that generation the value of parks and the opportunity that exists for them to be change agents in terms of being landscape architects or environmental engineers,” Wozniak said. “It was fun to expose those students to what’s possible, and those two climbing boulders are gonna get some pretty significant use.”

While the park recently reached its one-year mark, the work isn’t done. Local organizations are still focused on engaging folks and serving the community through events like the weekly Roller Skate Day in the summer. 

One of those groups is the Alliance for the Activation of Cook Park, a nonprofit created by former Councilmember Antonio Brown and current Councilmember Byron Amos now sits on the board. Salvary serves as board chair. The Alliance works with corporate and philanthropic groups to encourage residents to get involved with the park and educate visitors about its green infrastructure and the neighborhood’s history. 

Currently, the Alliance is working on a memorial to honor the residents who lost their homes and possessions to the 2002 flood. The installation will include photos and stories from neighbors, along with a QR code that allows visitors to hear their experiences firsthand. The Alliance is in the process of conducting interviews and expects to unveil the project in October.

“The first thing that we wanted to do as the Alliance is ensure that particular part of our history is represented,” Salvary said. “Historically speaking, Black neighborhoods have been swept under to make amenities. [The memorial] is an opportunity for people to hear from the people who were really impacted.”

NMF Founder and President Rodney Mims Cook, Jr. and Andrew Young at the unveiling in March. (Photos courtesy of the National Monuments Foundation.)

The National Monuments Foundation (NMF) also plans to install a series of 18 statues depicting Georgia changemakers, along with a Georgia Nobel Peace Pantheon and Peace Column. In March, the team unveiled a statue of Ambassador Andrew Young to honor his 90th birthday. The celebration also included a Walk for Peace and Reconciliation from Centennial Olympic Park to Vine City. 

A statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. is currently in the works with a plan to unveil it on his birthday weekend in January 2023, which also marks the 55th anniversary of his assassination.

With one year under its belt, Cook Park is a good example of how greenspaces can be used to serve the needs of both the environment and the community.

“I’m astounded by how many folks use the park regularly,” Wozniak said. “There’s a need for a park in the community, and it really took a village to get this thing done and across the finish line.”

(Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect the status of NMF’s plans at Cook Park.)

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Hannah E. Jones

Hannah Jones is an Atlanta native and Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for two newspapers. Hannah managed the Arts and Living section of The Signal, Georgia State’s independent award-winning newspaper. She has a passion for environmental issues, urban life and telling a good story. Hannah can be reached at hannah@saportareport.com.

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1 Comment

  1. Tony Torrence September 16, 2022 6:52 am

    Also, thanks to Park Pride, Conservation Fund, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance and Community Improvement Association for leading the park design process.Report

    Reply

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