By Hannah E. Jones
The City of Atlanta is home to 447 parks and, as a result, 77 percent of residents can walk to a local greenspace within 10 minutes. That number is significantly higher than the national average of 55 percent. While this is a great feat, local leaders must still work to ensure that these spaces are activated and well maintained — a major topic of discussion at Park Pride’s recent 22nd annual Parks and Greenspace Conference.
One breakout session — “Rising to the Challenge of Reinvention: A Discussion with Citywide Parks Nonprofits” — focused on the crucial role that city-wide nonprofits play in engaging local communities with their neighborhood parks and helping those greenspaces thrive.
The speakers included:
- Charlie McCabe, Charlie McCabe Consulting
- Michael Halicki, Executive Director of Park Pride — Atlanta
- Franklin Lance, President & CEO of Parks and People Foundation — Baltimore
- Colin Wallis, CEO of Austin Parks Foundation — Austin
The speakers identified a few top challenges that they face in the world of parks, including funding and maintenance. Even with local governments working hard to provide proper upkeep of greenspaces, parks and recreation departments are often short on staff and funding, meaning these spaces can sometimes fall to the wayside.
For example, the City of Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation (DNR) is responsible for managing 4,477 park acres but the 2023 budget allocates just under two percent of the citywide budget to parks. Additionally, as of last December, twenty-six percent of DNR’s full-time positions were vacant, with more than half of those positions unfillable because they are unfunded.
That’s why nonprofits play an important role in the park space by introducing infrastructure and programming that continually engage nearby residents. By serving as a connector between local government and residents, city-wide parks nonprofits can help empower communities to create the parks they want through fundraising, grant opportunities, volunteer work and more.
A prime example is Park Pride’s Friends of the Park (FoP) program which empowers citizens to invest in and activate their neighborhood parks. Last year, Park Pride had over 150 FoP groups within the City of Atlanta, DeKalb County and Brookhaven, offering access to resources related to park stewardship, like crafting a master plan, fundraising, volunteer management, capacity-building workshops and free tool rentals.
“[Park Pride] is the connective tissue of the parks community,” Halicki said. “I think the ways that things work within the government and the community can almost be an acquired language, and we pride ourselves in speaking both languages.”
He continued: “Sometimes community members come to a council member wanting to know why their park is a certain way and whose problem it is to solve it. Oftentimes, we can show up in a way that the parks department can’t and invite those people to be the change they wish to see in the world.”
The downside, though, is that it can be difficult to secure the necessary capital to provide this service. Funding generally comes for bigger, flashier projects but day-to-day maintenance and programming are often overlooked, according to Lance.
“Programming and maintenance are key attributes of the park … but [people] just take it as a given,” Lance said. “We can build something but when it comes to programming and maintenance, it’s almost impossible to raise the funds for it. It’s a huge uphill battle.”
Additionally, Wallis noted, the combination of chronic underfunding and bureaucracy can make some projects move at a snail’s pace. As an example, Wallis referred to a two-and-a-half-acre park headed by the Austin Parks Foundation that is expected to take six years to complete.
“Getting dollars into the ground is so grindingly slow,” Wallis said. “Everything takes so long. [We] understand that because you’re building on public land, there has to be some public process. But in our city, permitting is just a complete disaster. It makes things cost so much more than they should and take so much longer.”
The bottom line, according to these nonprofit parks leaders, is that folks must engage with and support local parks and the entities that manage them. Support can be given through donations and volunteering in these local spaces.
“Whether it’s the parks themselves, the parks nonprofits, the parks departments — they’re all under budget,” Wallis said. “If we don’t put in the work, if we don’t put in the investment now, you just pay for it on the back end. They just keep getting worse and the deferred maintenance keeps getting bigger. Remembering how important parks are in the landscape of our lives and the landscape of our cities — I think they are what make a lot of our cities great.”