Parks + the Resilient City Revisited
By Michael Halicki, Park Pride’s Executive Director
Disruptive events – both man-made and natural – have become the norm. We need only look at the last year in Atlanta to know this is true: heat waves, snowstorms, floods, hurricanes, water main breaks, an interstate collapse, traffic gridlock, and most recently, a cyber-security meltdown. It is within this turbulent environment that we consider the role that parks, greenspaces, and trails play in our lives today and the role they SHOULD play in the future of our growing city.
Last month, over 500 parks and greenspace enthusiasts gathered for Park Pride’s 17th Annual Parks and Greenspace Conference to explore the many ways parks strengthen urban resilience. “Urban resilience” is defined by 100 Resilient Cities as “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stress and acute shocks they experience.”
The day started with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms – joined at the stage by Parks Commissioner Amy Phuong, Watershed Commissioner Kishia Powell, and Chief Resilience Officer Stephanie Stuckey –announcing that an Environmental Impact Bond of $12.9 million was awarded to the City of Atlanta to benefit eight green infrastructure projects on Atlanta’s Westside. The sight of the Mayor flanked by her leaders in the respective areas of parks, watersheds, and resilience was a powerful image that has stayed with many past the conference.
Another highpoint that brought me great joy was when Mayor Bottoms accepted her very own “I heart parks” Park Pride t-shirt!
Keynote Otis Rolley, the North American Regional Director for 100 Resilient Cities, discussed Atlanta’s involvement in 100 Resilient Cities and the importance of parks and greenspace in the City of Atlanta’s recently developed resilience plan. The audience Q&A dug into the complex issues at the intersection of resilience, systemic economic inequality, and decades of racial injustice. Otis’ comment that “Atlanta may be known as ‘the city too busy to hate,’ but somehow, you guys find the time,” met with a wave of audience validation that suggested we have work to do.
Otis was followed by Keynote Ken Leinbach of the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee. In one of the more memorable moments in conference history, Ken rode into the room on a six-foot-tall unicycle while talking about his philosophy of abundance. Confessing that he suffers from chronic arthritis, Ken then requested the assistance of volunteers to help him dismount: a teachable moment about the need to ask for help from a place of authenticity. As Ken demonstrated, a sincere request for help can be a powerful motivator for collective action.
Ken’s talk germinated seeds for the concept of one or more urban ecology centers in Atlanta patterned after his own success of creating not one but three such centers in Milwaukee. During the Q&A, a vision emerged of these centers being as plentiful in Atlanta as recreation centers and reinforcing the ecological underpinnings of the Atlanta City Design effort that is currently underway.
Our final Keynote speaker, Kate Orff, RLA, Founder of SCAPE, the Director of the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes at Columbia University, and a MacArthur Fellow, challenged us to expand our definition of a park and to embrace multi-purpose infrastructure that retains water and fosters civic life. In other words, to create places that do more than one thing. Kate also brought an urgent sense of the threat of climate change and issued a challenge to design professionals to face this threat with creativity, passion, and openness.
The conference concluded with a conversation about “Parks and the Beloved Community” between Ryan Gravel, Founding Principal at Sixpitch, and Nathaniel Smith, the Founder and Chief Equity Officer at the Partnership for Southern Equity. They discussed how the three pillars of equitable change – trust, empathy and courage – represent the keys to tackling the racial issues that divide us. Both identified parks and greenspace as important spaces that bring communities together.
This recap merely scratches the surface of the conversations, idea sharing, and collaboration that took place throughout the day. I encourage you to check out the links to the presentations listed above, Park Pride’s YouTube channel, and to visit Park Pride’s website to view presentations from several speakers (click on the program tab), all of whom are responsible for making the 17th Annual Parks and Greenspace Conference memorable.
This AMAZING conference could not have been possible without the leadership of Parks and Greenspace Conference Committee, Park Pride staff, and Park Pride’s Board of Directors. Thanks also to our generous sponsors led by Cox Conserves, Kaiser Permanente, The Home Depot Foundation and the Atlanta Botanical Garden, as well as Gold, Silver, and Supporting Sponsors.
Save the date: Next year’s Parks and Conference will be on March 25, 2019 at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, a fitting place to bring the parks and greenspace community together. I hope to see you there.
Featured photo (top) : Ryan Gravel and Nathaniel Smith discuss the role of greenspace in building the “beloved community.”