Michael Halicki, Executive Director of Park Pride

Last week, I joined Atlanta Regional Commission’s LINK (Leaders Involvement Networking Knowledge) trip to Pittsburgh with other metro-Atlanta leaders. The goal was to connect with and learn tactics for addressing regional issues from Pittsburgh leaders that could be adapted and applied in the Atlanta area.

As “the parks guy,” I did my very best to get outside and to see what I could of Pittsburgh’s parks and trails. Being in a park helps me clear my mind – a great opportunity to reflect on all the lessons learned (which were many), some of which are outlined below:

Great Cities have Great Rivers

Pittsburgh has three rivers that come together at the iconic Point State Park. Point State Park, in turn, connects to Three Rivers Heritage Trail, which also includes stops at destinations like North Shore Riverfront Park and its statue of hometown hero, Mr. Fred Rogers.

Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Heritage Trail evokes a strong sense of place.
Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Heritage Trail evokes a strong sense of place.

The sense of place created by the confluence of the riverfront trails, public art, and parks is awe-inspiring, and I’m optimistic that the same can be achieved here in Atlanta as we undertake efforts to connect to our rivers. The Chattahoochee River Greenway Study (led by The Trust for Public Land) will establish a 100-mile vision and plan for the Chattahoochee River corridor that will improve access and connectedness. Similarly, The Nature Conservancy in Georgia’s South River Project seeks to fund and support community projects to improve water quality and wildlife habitat and make the river safer for recreational use.

Great cities have great rivers, and both the Chattahoochee River Greenway Study and the South River Project have the potential to restore and connect us to our rivers. If the result is anything like the riverfront experience in Pittsburgh, Atlantans should expect a profound increase in our quality of life as we create a city that is as much defined by our rivers as by our canopy.  

A City Connected by Trails

Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Heritage Trail is part of an extensive trail network begun in the 1990s that goes all the way from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC. More recently, Pittsburgh’s Mayor Peduto has continued to support trail connectivity and a shift away from the automobile.

A similar story has been evolving in Atlanta over the past decade. The Atlanta BeltLine, PATH, and others are building an increasingly extensive trail network that is approaching a breakthrough. When that breakthrough happens, it may soon be the case that cyclists in Atlanta will be able to ride a trail all the way to Alabama, a game-changing milestone that I expect will become a similar point of pride as the Three Rivers Heritage Trail is to Pittsburgh.

Connecting our city and region through trails isn’t something we need to start doing. This is something that is already in motion. However, nothing happens overnight (or without conflict) and these efforts need to be supported, nurtured, and promoted constantly by trail and park advocates.

Statue of Mr. Rogers sculpted by Robert Berks at the North Shore Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh.

“If it’s not for all, it’s not for us.”

Perhaps the biggest area of focus throughout the trip related to equity. Time and again—from government officials, community members, nonprofits and philanthropic organizations, to business leaders—we heard that a more diverse and inclusive Pittsburgh was a stronger and more resilient Pittsburgh: that “if it’s not for all, it’s not for us.”

This is a phrase I hope made as much of an impression on the other Atlanta leaders on the trip as it did on me. As Atlanta grows and develops—as we continue to discuss the housing crisis, new parks and trails, transit solutions, etc.—we’ll continue to face the challenging questions of equity, affordability, and gentrification.

It is true that parks—especially when developed without community input or consideration—can contribute to gentrification by increasing property values and making neighborhoods unaffordable. However, all people deserve to live within walking distance of a great park. We must, therefore, adopt the “if it’s not for all, it’s not for us” method of creating new parks in conjunction with affordable housing to ensure that all people have park access close to where they live.

If a critical mass of stakeholders gets on board with this mantra of inclusivity across all facets of the city, I believe it will have a transformative impact on the lives of Atlantans in the coming years.

This Pittsburgh pocket park designed by LaQuatra Bonci Associates creates an amazing and comfortable area to rest and relax while waiting to board public transportation

True Partnerships + Collaboration

At our closing session, Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore commented that the trip to Pittsburgh made her hopeful. She saw the challenges we face as being solvable through “true partnerships and collaboration.”

I came away from this year’s LINK trip filled with a desire to be a true partner. A true partner to Park Pride’s government counterparts in Atlanta, DeKalb, Brookhaven, and Tucker. A true partner to park conservancies and other nonprofits. A true partner to funders and supporters who make Park Pride’s work possible. Most importantly, a true partner to the Friends of the Park, community members, and neighborhood activists who engage and activate their local parks.  

Through collaboration, there is no problem we cannot solve.

Featured image (TOP): LINK trip participants came together in Atlanta for an Atlanta Rotary Day of Service at Washington Park one day after returning from Pittsburgh. From left: Doug Hooker, Atlanta Regional Commission; Michael Halicki, Park Pride; Doug Shipman, Woodruff Arts Center; Kevin Green, Midtown Alliance.  Not pictured: Bill Bolling, Food Well Alliance.

I am a visual learner, so much of my park time in Pittsburgh is shared for your viewing pleasure through my Instagram feed.

A special shout out to my friends at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy for the wisdom of their local experience and for providing great tips and suggestions of places to visit!

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