Everyone Deserves Access to a Quality Park!
A Short Recap from the 18th Annual Parks & Greenspace Conference
By Michael Halicki, Executive Director, Park Pride
Park Pride’s annual Parks and Greenspace Conference has become a rite of spring for all who care about parks, greenspace, and trails. Park enthusiasts gathered in great numbers at the Atlanta Botanical Garden to hear inspiring speakers and to engage with local changemakers around this year’s conference theme, Parks are the Heart of Community. The tulips were as plentiful as they were colorful. With this year being Park Pride’s 30th anniversary, the surroundings seemed particularly festive and celebratory.
A packed hall was greeted in the morning by Mary Pat Matheson, President and CEO of the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms followed, affirming her commitment to the 10 Minute Walk Campaign; along with 150 mayors across the United States, Mayor Bottoms has signed on to the vision statement that “everyone deserves a park or open space within a 10-minute walk of home.” The Mayor also clearly noticed the warm applause from a friendly crowd for Atlanta’s Parks Commissioner, John Dargle, who was in the audience and an engaged part of the program throughout the day.
New York City’s Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver, the day’s first keynote speaker, covered a range of topics well-suited to the conversation unfolding in Atlanta about parks and equity. In preparing for his visit, Mitchell and I had a conversation where I shared with him the dynamics at play regarding Atlanta’s projected population growth and the palpable tension growing among existing residents who are struggling to remain in place. Mitchell did not shy away from the topic of parks and equity. In fact, he met it head-on, specifically in relation to issues of park improvements and park maintenance.
Mitchell first provided a simple definition of equity: equity = fairness. New York City has taken a data-driven approach to equitable access to quality parks that began with identifying parks that had not seen significant investment during the preceding 20 years. Just imagine, prodded Mitchell, growing up next to a park that had not seen any major investment over two decades. What does that feel like?
The proposed solution was direct: prioritize capital improvements to neighborhood parks that had not seen investment and move them to the front of the line.
The first phase of this effort secured funding of over $300M for these overlooked, neglected parks and proceeded to invest in those parks in a strategic manner (a manner which clearly illustrated Mitchell’s background as a city planner).
Though a second round of funding was recently rejected, Mitchell is confident that this effort is not over. His story demonstrates to me that the road to progress is long and rarely linear. Perseverance over time is required.
Mitchell went on to talk about the importance of park maintenance and the need to shift our thinking, and our language, around this issue. “I have a daughter,” Mitchell said. “When I raised her, I didn’t maintain her… I cared for her!” To live up to the promise of quality parks for all, we need to care for our parks in a new way and to a higher standard. Mitchell implored us to shift our thinking about park maintenance to park care and to move beyond a conversation about access to parks to one that prioritizes access to quality parks for everyone, an idea, I believe, that could have a transformational impact on neighborhoods.
His words of encouragement left the audience inspired and ready apply these lessons here at home. I see the Atlanta City Design (with its core values of “nature” and “equity”) and the Department of Parks and Recreation’s comprehensive vision for parks and recreation as appropriate places to translate Mitchell’s ideas into action.
Such is just a taste of the brilliance that attendees experienced at this year’s Parks and Greenspace Conference. Attendees went on the hear from pediatrician and park champion, Dr. Nooshin Razani, who spoke about the mental and physical health benefits of a “daily dose” of nature. Gil Penalosa, the former Parks Commissioner of Bogota, Columbia and founder and chair of the Canadian nonprofit 8 80 Cities, implored attendees to move beyond planning to action.
More than any other year, I am proud of this year’s Parks & Greenspace Conference. Our theme, Parks are the Heart of Community, dug into the essence and focus of Park Pride’s work: community, equity, health, and culture. These values—that are at the forefront of discussions nationally—run through every facet of the work we do to engage communities to activate the power of parks.
For those of you who attended the conference, thank you for joining us in celebrating 30 years of advocating on behalf of the greener good. The celebration, however, isn’t over; in fact, we intend to celebrate all year long. I hope you’ll join us in September as we recognize Park Pride’s achievements and the community of park enthusiasts that we’ve brought together over the decades at our Green Tie Gala. Details are coming soon – I hope to see you there!
Photo Top: Attendees at the 18th Annual Parks & Greenspace Conference.