By Rachel Maher, Park Pride’s Director of Communications + Policy 

Two weeks ago, Park Pride hosted our 22nd Annual Parks & Greenspace Conference at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Together with over 400 park people from around Atlanta, Georgia, and the nation, we dug into the conference theme, The Healing Power of Parks. We concluded the day inspired and energized to engage in our parks to heal ourselves, our communities, and our city. 

For those of you not living and breathing parks daily, I’m here to tell you that Yes! Parks are healing! On multiple levels. Let me provide some context. We know from multiple studies and from anecdotal experience that parks are good for our physical and mental well-being. We feel more relaxed and happier after visiting a park, we sleep better at night, and living near a park tends to lead to more physical activity.  

While exploring the healing power of parks, however, we wanted this year’s conference discussions to go beyond looking narrowly at personal health; public greenspaces are also where community bonds are formed, diverse ideas are experienced, and where history is memorialized. Parks heal the urban environment and make it more resilient by managing stormwater, reducing flooding, cooling and filtering the air, and providing natural habitat. A strong park system can fulfill all these roles. 

Hannah Jones, a Saporta Report journalist who attended the conference, provided a thorough recap and reflections of lessons learned from the conference’s keynote speakers in her article titled Leaders and experts discuss the healing power of parks at Park Pride’s 22nd annual conference (a great read, check it out!). Beyond the keynote speakers, 14 breakout sessions led by nearly 50 industry and community leaders, covered topics ranging from proper methods of invasive plant species management, to mindfulness in nature, policies that advance equitable access to parks, case studies of transformative park projects, and more. Below, Park Pride staff provide highlights and brief recaps of some sessions they attended.  


Michael Halicki, Executive Director of Park Pride

  • Rising to the Challenge of Reinvention: A Discussion with Citywide Parks Nonprofits 

I participated on this panel, alongside the leadership from the citywide parks nonprofits Parks & People from Baltimore and the Austin Parks Foundation. Our conversation was wide ranging, but one topic I want to elevate was a discussion about the need for park conservancies.  

A point was made that conservancies are often formed when larger, signature parks fall into disrepair and need to be saved by private intervention. This may lead some to assume that foundations support supplemental maintenance through parks with conservancies, which is not exactly the case. Foundations and other philanthropic institutions tend to fund capital improvements—such as playgrounds and park amenities. They do not fund maintenance. Supplemental maintenance provided by conservancies largely comes from individual donors, sponsorships, and earned revenue.  

The point here is that adequate public funding for park maintenance by cities and counties creates a level playing field among parks. The creation of a conservancy is not a silver bullet. Strong public funding for park maintenance is best achieved through advocacy and citywide park nonprofits play an organizing role in marshalling public input to hold elected officials’ feet to the fire in supporting a system that provides quality parks for all. 


Andrew White, Director of Park Visioning  

  • Storytelling: Educating, Healing and Deepening Our Connection to Place  

One part writer’s workshop and one part naturalists’ memoir, this session gave attendees insight into how authors David Haskell, Sally Bethea, and Hannah Palmer observe their surroundings to create insightful texts for their readers. Storytelling through a naturalist’s lens involves keen attention to your surroundings, an understanding of history, and thoughtful curation of observations to capture the reader’s attention and to enrich the way they see the world.  

  • The Black River: South Carolina’s Newest State Park  

Georgia isn’t the only place with exciting river projects like Chattahoochee Riverlands and Finding the Flint. The Black River in South Carolina’s low country is getting much deserved attention as a connected network of parks and public spaces along a 70-mile corridor. The key to this project? Community benefits! Mayor Frank McClary of Andrews, SC shared how the project is bringing new attention and investment to his hometown, along with Landscape Architect Holley Owings, State Park representative James Revis, and Open Space Institute’s Maria Whitehead.  


Teri Nye, Senior Designer

  • Memorializing the Hidden History of Atlanta’s Parks 

Presenters Ann Hill Bond and Victoria Lemos offered a condensed but unredacted history of the landscapes that are now some of Atlanta’s oldest parks—paired with a process for correcting our historical memory and making way for regenerative understanding of events that created the parks and greenspaces we enjoy today. Featured were the histories of Lincoln Park (now the southeast corner of Piedmont Park), Bagley Park (recently reclaiming its former name after being renamed Frankie Allen Park from 1980 until 2022), and the neighborhood of Rockdale Park (located between the railroad at Inman Yard and Proctor Creek). The predominantly Black neighborhood was erased and is now the site of the West Highlands development and Westside Park. Finally, the site of former Chattahoochee Brick, with its history of convict leasing, has been acquired by Atlanta as public space (in planning) offering the opportunity to memorialize those who lived and died building Atlanta.  

If you haven’t discovered Victoria Lemos’ podcast “Archive Atlanta,” you’re in for a treat and an even deeper dive into Atlanta’s history! 

  • Whose Park is it Anyway? 

A conversation with two couples who call Grant Park their neighborhood and park, Doug and Michelle Blackmon, and Council Member Jason Winston and Shalya Forte, offer some of the ways the park and its history have shaped their neighborhood. For example, the recent efforts to rename streets, parks, and potentially entire neighborhoods (“…should streets and parks be named for human traffickers? No,” stated Doug Blackmon), and the presence of a memorial for “Fort Walker” (a fictional fort on a site that did nothing to prevent the seizure of Atlanta). Instead, they discussed subtle but progressive ways that the park is making itself more inclusive and welcoming from food to music offerings. 


Rachel Maher, Director of Communications & Policy

  • Technology + Nature: A New Collaboration to Fortify the City in the Forest 

This panel discussion that included the Blue Heron Nature Preserve, a City of Atlanta arborist, and a GA Tech professor was fascinating as it highlighted the impact that recurring ecological monitoring with the use of drones can have on protecting Atlanta’s tree canopy. What really shocked me is how you can really see the negative impacts of canopy loss through increased erosion and flooding in the vicinity (and even beyond!) where even a single tree was removed. Several interesting stats really drove home why we need to do all we can to fortify our canopy; for example, a mature tree can lower the temperature surrounding it by six to ten degrees! Atlanta is blistering hot in the summer, and it’s only getting worse as we continue to lose more and more of our canopy. Our mature trees are so important for the health of our city. We must do all we can to protect them, and using technology and tracking data to identify the issues is a critical part of finding the solution. 

  • Policy Talk: Prioritizing Greenspace Equity in Atlanta 

I had the great pleasure of moderating this session with two members of Mayor Dickens’ cabinet—Justin Cutler, Commissioner of the Department of Parks & Recreation, and Chandra Farley, Chief Sustainability Officer—and Dr. David Brown from the CDC. We had a wide-ranging conversation about the policy changes and mindset shifts required for the environmental, mental, and physical health benefits of parks to become equitably accessible to all Atlantans. The Department of Parks & Recreation is leaning into its 10-year comprehensive plan, Activate ATL, and transitioning to be increasingly data-driven when making programmatic decisions and changes that impact parks and users. What I especially appreciated during the conversation was the emphasis that all speakers placed on the importance of community members reaching out to their elected officials to influence policy. When more than five people show up, alarm bells go off and electeds really start paying attention. Which is all to say – show up and speak out for changes you’d like to see to make Atlanta’s parks and recreation system more equitable!  


Torey Garrett, Project Manager

  • Finding Healing in the Park at Any Age 

This panel discussion took a deep dive into three people’s perspectives of finding healing in the forest at the Outdoor Activity Center (OAC) on Atlanta’s Westside. The first panelist spoke about the connection between her midwifery practice and spending time in the forest: the OAC’s “reproductive garden” contains many different herbs and plants that are helpful in the successful and healthy birthing of children.  

This panel also featured the youngest speaker in Park Pride’s conference history! This young panelist shared his experiences at the OAC’s summer camp with his friends and his time at the forest with his family; he firmly believes that the time spent in the natural setting has strengthened his relationships with both.  

  • Healing Experiences in Nature

This panel discussion took a deep dive with Carolyn Hartfield and a few of her friends on how to find healing at the park at an older age. The speakers shared how hiking clubs and other networks of senior walking groups have provided safe opportunities for seniors to get out into nature and enjoy these greensapces. The panel also discussed how the stresses of caretaking can be relieved though minimal time in natural outdoor settings.   


Joanna Patterson, Volunteer Associate

  • Giving “The Butterfly” New Wings: Creating Community Parks in Baltimore’s “Black Butterfly”

I found this session to be incredibly eye opening. The panelists shared a history of redlining in Baltimore, the negative impacts of which are still felt today. The speakers highlighted that investing in parks has shown growth in the health of the community. The parks have created a sense of pride and a safe greenspace for people in the community to enjoy. 


By and large, attendees seem to agree that this year’s Parks & Greenspace Conference was the best yet. If you attended the conference, feel free to share what you heard and your personal epiphanies. We’ll be announcing the date of next year’s conference soon; make sure to mark your calendars when we do because you will not want to miss it!   

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