A joyful moment – cutting the ribbon for the new Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park in November 2019 with Mother Mamie Moore at the center (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

By Maria Saporta

Thanks to a longstanding partnership between Park Pride and the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, Atlanta is creating a more equitable park system that will better serve the city’s lower-income communities.

It’s part of an ongoing effort at Park Pride to focus on equity and to make sure every neighborhood in the city has thriving parks — especially in communities with limited resources. The nonprofit group works with Friends of Parks organizations to help develop this vision.

With the support of a Park Pride Legacy Grant in 2016, Adams Park celebrated a brand-new splash pad and renovations to the pool – just in time for summer (Special: Park Pride)
With the support of a Park Pride Legacy Grant in 2016, Adams Park celebrated a brand-new splash pad and renovations to the pool – just in time for summer (Special: Park Pride)

The Woodruff Foundation recently made a $3 million grant to Park Pride to provide “legacy grants” to parks throughout the city over the next two years. It’s the largest commitment the Woodruff Foundation has made to Park Pride since the program began in 2007.

As originally designed, Park Pride used the Woodruff dollars to invest in Atlanta’s neighborhood parks as long as the community identified public or private matching money to make improvements.

Public money often helped to balance out the projects that were funded from lower income neighborhoods as compared with middle and upper income neighborhoods that had greater fundraising capability.

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the heightened awareness of racial inequities throughout our society compelled Park Pride to go beyond its prior efforts to invest in lower income communities. The requirement for neighborhoods to provide matching dollars only reinforced already existing inequities and created a power imbalance that favored some communities over others.

So, with support from the Woodruff Foundation, Park Pride waived the requirement for a match in Atlanta’s lower-income census tracts. At least 30 percent of the Woodruff dollars would be set aside for those communities.

“Since we made that change, we have seen the creation of 10 new Friends of Park groups that did not exist before,” said Michael Halicki, Park Pride’s executive director.  “As we have lowered the barriers to entry over the past two years, we have found that community leaders are accessing resources.”

Park Pride serves as the fiscal sponsor and back-office administrator for smaller Friends of Parks groups throughout the city – helping communities build capacity to nurture their parks.

“Our sweet spot is community-led park projects,” Halicki said. “The legacy grants program has been the catalyst for change within our organization. Not only has Woodruff increased its support over time, but it has also inspired the Home Depot Foundation and other funders to support our work.”

The Woodruff Foundation first contributed a two-year $500,000 grant in 2007 to support the community-based legacy grants program. Over the years, the Woodruff Foundation increased that to $2 million every two years to the latest $3 million grant.

In all, the Foundation has made $12 million in grants to Park Pride, which has then invested those dollars in 101 separate grants. Park Pride will announce another 15 grants totaling $1.4 million to community parks within the next month.

The map shows the distribution of grants awarded within the City of Atlanta from 2004 to the present. The “growth line” (first introduced as part of Atlanta City Design, 2017) shows areas of strong or stable growth (above the growth line) and those areas of low or no growth (below the line).

Park Pride coordinates with the City of Atlanta when planning park improvements.

One recent example is Mozley Park in west Atlanta, which had a ribbon-cutting on a dog park and other improvements on Dec. 9. At the ground-breaking earlier this year, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said her mother remembered when Mozley Park was segregated, and she peered through a fence to watch white children swimming in the pool. To show how Atlanta has changed, now her daughter was Atlanta’s mayor.

“We did a visioning plan for Mozley Park in 2019 before we removed the matching grant requirement,” Halicki said. “The city restored the playground, and we leveraged additional resources to build out an exercise fitness trail.”

That’s only one example of how public-private partnerships have helped improve Atlanta’s community parks. Once a community has come up with a vision and design for a park, the City of Atlanta must accept the improvements and agree to maintain those investments.

The Atlanta City Council recently passed legislation sponsored by Councilman Matt Westmoreland to allocate $2 million to go towards improving community parks through Park Pride’s Grantmaking Program. The legislation passed unanimously. This will provide Park Pride with additional support for community-led park improvements in low income neighborhoods.

This should help Atlanta improve its national ParkScore, ranked by the Trust for Public Land. In the most recent ParkScore ranking, Atlanta went from 40th among the top 100 cities to 49th – largely because TPL included equity as part of its ranking. Halicki is optimistic Atlanta’s ParkScore rating will improve in future rankings.

“I honestly look at the fact the ParkScore included equity was positive in making sure that everybody has access to a quality park,” Halicki said. “We emphasize in our message that everybody deserves access to a quality park within walking distance of their home. We are a citywide resource, but our focus is to engage with communities at the neighborhood level.”

Also, the City of Atlanta has just adopted a new strategic plan for parks – Activate ATL – and Park Pride helped coordinate the public engagement for the strategic plan thanks to a separate $250,000 grant from the Woodruff Foundation.

The plan has several priorities, including:

  • Improving existing parks and facilities
  • Providing daily maintenance of parks and recreation facilities
  • Investing in natural areas to protect Atlanta’s tree canopy
  • Fostering a sustainable trail network
  • Acquiring additional park land

“It really feels like it’s a new day for public-private partnerships for parks in Atlanta,” said Halicki, who has been with Park Pride for eight years. “I feel we are in a good place to achieve greater impact.”

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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