Enhancing the Resilience of Our Region
Reflections on the power of parks after a week at the Regional Leadership Institute
By Rachel Maher, Park Pride’s Director of Communications and Policy
At Park Pride, we are motivated by the philosophy of the power of parks. That is “When parks meet the needs and reflect the unique character of the communities they serve, they are welcoming places for all members of the community to gather, play, relax, and connect with nature, encouraging mental and physical health and enhancing the resilience of our neighborhoods.”
What is meant by parks have the power to enhance the resilience of our neighborhoods? I recently had the opportunity to more deeply reflect on this question as I joined local leaders to participate in the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Regional Leadership Institute (RLI). RLI is an annual program that brings together leaders from across metro-Atlanta to assess our most challenging issues and to build the cross-jurisdictional and cross-sectoral relationships needed to address them.
Throughout my week at RLI, I was reminded again and again of the amazing opportunities parks offer to advance regional economic, environmental, and social outcomes. Below, I discuss challenges elevated at RLI and the ability of parks to address them and support the residents of our growing metro, leading to greater regional resilience.
Workforce Development + Parks
Parks can advance economic development through workforce training programs, connecting community members to rewarding and meaningful jobs as stewards of our local environment.
John Helton, the Executive Director of CareerRise, Inc. shared that across nearly all sectors, employers are looking for workers. There is a disconnect between the labor force eager to find work and the skills and knowledge required for the decent jobs that pay a fair wage with opportunity for growth.
This holds true in the area of park maintenance and operations, with both seasonal and full-time positions in park maintenance, forestry, gardening, and more, too often remaining unfilled. There is an opportunity to invest in workforce development programs and match the training of individuals to the needs of parks departments (or other companies or government agencies) needing skilled environmental stewards.
The benefits of expanding workforce development training in areas such as forestry, gardening, and park maintenance are compounding and enhance regional resilience in two ways: first, these programs prepare people for long-term, meaningful careers, and their employment has beneficial economic impacts for them, their families, as well as for their community. Second, they provide relief to chronically understaffed parks departments, building a robust pipeline of individuals trained in the skills most needed to effectively steward parks and natural spaces. Which, in turn, leads to well-maintained parks and a healthy park system, a benefit that everyone deserves to enjoy.
Climate Change + Parks
Parks are critical infrastructure that help cities manage the negative impacts of climate change.
Katherine Zitsch, ARC’s Managing Director of the Natural Resources Group and Director of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, discussed in her presentation at RLI how climate change is manifesting in the Atlanta region through the cycle of floods and droughts. The graph shared below explains that “While we receive abundant rainfall most years, multi-year droughts stress our water supply and have become more frequent.” The result of more droughts followed by abundant rain?
More serious flooding. This is because droughts harden the soil, making it difficult for rain to absorb into the ground when it falls. As more water collects on the surface during a heavy downpour, stormwater infrastructure is overwhelmed, leaving water with nowhere to go except into the streets and people’s homes.
Parks, however, are uniquely equipped to mitigate the increased flooding seen as a result of climate change. In fact, some of Atlanta’s newest parks were created specifically with stormwater mitigation in mind. The Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park on the westside of Atlanta, for example, is the third in a series of parks proposed in the Proctor Creek North Avenue Green Infrastructure Vision (Park Pride, 2010) to address the recurring flooding experienced in the English Avenue neighborhood. Thanks to the park’s green infrastructure—designed to capture runoff from adjacent streets and route the water into a series of rain gardens, stormwater swales, and underground chambers—the park is expected to manage up to 3.5 million gallons of stormwater per year and reduce local flooding.
Cook Park, Historic Fourth Ward Park, Lindsay Street Park, and Dean Rusk Park are other examples of parks, both large and small, specifically designed to manage stormwater runoff and reduce neighborhood flooding (while also serving as a wonderful community amenity). Parks—and the resilient qualities they bring to cities and neighborhoods—are and will continue to be an important tool in the fight against the regional and local impacts of climate change.
Atlanta’s Aging Population + Parks
Parks will maintain community cohesion as the region’s population ages, providing quality-of-life benefits that are important to allowing seniors to age in place.
Becky Kurtz, ARC’s Managing Director of Aging and Independent Services, shared insights into the nature of Atlanta’s aging population, urging leaders in the room to consider seniors and aging Atlantans as they plan for the future of the region. By 2050, Kurtz shared, one in four metro-Atlanta residents will be over the age of 60.
The ARC is advocating for Lifelong Communities—communities thoughtfully built to allow people to remain in their homes and thrive in their communities as they age. At the top of the list of amenities that make communities livable for older adults? Outdoor spaces.
At all stages of life, it is important that people have access to the mental and physical health benefits that parks provide. Additionally, parks are community gathering spaces that combat loneliness, a condition that we’re learning is impacting seniors in growing numbers and that can have serious negative health impacts, especially among older generations at risk of social isolation.
As the region ages, parks will be an important factor in keeping elders in place and communities whole.
My week at RLI brought several new insights into the most serious challenges that face our region, as well as the different approaches that different sectors are taking to address them. The week affirmed for me, however, that parks, trails, other natural spaces have an important role to play in addressing nearly all of them. In so many ways—economically, environmentally, and socially—parks make our neighborhoods, communities, cities, counties, and region more resilient. Shoutout to the RLI class of 2022—the best RLI class forever—for helping to confirm that.