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Sustainable Communities Thought Leadership

Successful and Equitable Urban Sustainability Starts with Community

Mikiya McClain leading a nature walk in Walnut Creek Wetland Park at The Conservation Fund’s Peer Exchange Photo credit: Kelsi Eccles, The Conservation Fund

By Kelsi Eccles and Stacia Turner, The Conservation Fund

2020 has been a rainy year in Atlanta, and it’s on track to be one of the city’s top five wettest years on record. More water more often—with 2018 being the second wettest year on record—heightens the need to address aging or inadequate infrastructure, manage increased demands on transportation and stormwater management systems, and plan for climate related impacts. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted these pressures and their impacts on public health. Neighborhoods facing the greatest adverse environmental and health outcomes are frequently those that have historically been plagued with economic and social inequities and are often communities of color. 

In the last decade, growing cities like Atlanta have recognized that urban conservation efforts must be inclusive of these challenged communities and focus on increasing accountability and transparency that ensures conservation outcomes address the needs of both current and future residents.

The Conservation Fund’s Parks with Purpose initiative has demonstrated innovative and inclusive urban conservation by partnering with government and grassroots organizations to create new parks and greenspaces that address environmental justice and climate-related issues at a neighborhood level. While these park projects take time to develop, along the way we have learned some valuable lessons that help to ensure long-term community benefits that honor our diverse neighbors, partners, and planet. 

Lesson 1: Get back to nature – replicate natural systems to increase climate and community resilience.

Climate science is pointing to increased frequency of intense weather events and conditions including heavy precipitation, prolonged drought, and higher temperatures. Urban parks can address multiple climate change challenges through ecosystem services, such as mitigating urban heat island effects, filtering stormwater runoff, and allowing more natural cycling of water with green infrastructure investments. By restoring natural systems that help to cool our concrete jungles, we can reduce the current impacts of sewer overflows and stormwater flooding in these communities. 

The Fund is working with numerous private and public partners in Atlanta to reconnect economically distressed urban communities with their natural waterways. Atlanta’s Proctor Creek Watershed is identified in the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, (something is missing here) working to amend the legacy of water pollution from sewer overflows and stormwater runoff from streets, buildings and parking lots that disproportionately impact lower income neighborhoods. Green infrastructure investments, like tree planter boxes and bioswales, are adding stormwater infrastructure capacity and helping manage urban flooding.

In addition to supporting more resilient municipal systems, green infrastructure in the form of new parks also provides access to healthy, nature-based recreational opportunities, providing safe places for kids to play, families to gather, and neighbors to build social bonds. Residents in many of Atlanta’s most challenged neighborhoods lack access to quality parks, and COVID-19 has further emphasized the impact of these community inequities. Urban parks provide a significant opportunity to work alongside communities to increase access to nature-based programming, park planning, and natural resource decision making.

“Almost every Thursday I collect samples of the [Proctor Creek] water at Lindsay Street Park and take it to Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. They test it for E. coli and post it on their website. The creek was healthy when I was a kid and that’s what I want to see again,” said Juanita Wallace, Proctor Creek Stewardship Council, Clean-up and Community Science Committee Chair. 

Community members install plants in a rain garden at Atlanta’s Lindsay Street Park. Photo Credit: Shannon Lee, The Conservation Fund

Lesson 2: Invest in people – foster community-centered environmental stewardship 

Traditional environmentalism is focused on protecting and preserving pristine landscapes for wildlife and biodiversity. These lands area often managed by state and federal partners as National Parks and Wildlife Refuges and supporters are outdoor enthusiasts with a love of nature. 

Urban conservation is different. Parks with Purpose projects are in communities that have been historically impacted by environmental, social, and racial injustices and the properties are often degraded and polluted. Residents have been subjected to greenspaces that are often overgrown, trash-filled, and dangerous. The Parks with Purpose model not only restores degraded urban landscapes, but also invests in growing the capacity of community leaders and grassroots organizations who champion environmental stewardship.

The Conservation Fund recognizes that supporting environmental resiliency in urban neighborhoods means providing resources to communities that face underinvestment but hold expertise in land stewardship and community organizing. This includes supporting environmental education, community science, workforce training, and resident based planning and visioning activities that build an inclusive network of community leaders who are passionate about urban conservation and who will champion the activation and stewardship of these new parks and greenspaces. 

“When the pandemic hit, our community lost a lot of the large group volunteer days that we usually have in the spring. But we were able to get resources to help hire our neighbors that are trained to clean up parks and green infrastructure to fill that gap,” said Vanessa Booker, Park Ambassador Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park.

Another innovative approach that The Conservation Fund has taken to overcome barriers in engaging urban communities in the decision-making and stewardship of parks and natural resources has been to create space for community voices at the decision-making table. They become partners in planning and developing the projects instead of responding to solutions proposed by municipal partners. 

By engaging community partners in the early stages of a project, local knowledge and expertise become a prominent feature of the park design. This type of community involvement builds connections between residents and their local parks as well as a sense of ownership and pride, which enhances the place keeping impact of these neighborhood hubs.

Thanks to partnerships in Atlanta with Park Pride, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance and Eco-Action, we are helping communities shape visions of new parks, stream corridors, and greenspaces. We rely on the expertise of community-led organizations to help educate and engage residents in green infrastructure, watershed stewardship and local natural resources. Through nature-based learning programs, grassroots partners help reconnect residents with outdoor spaces. Once residents are engaged with the project, The Conservation Fund partners with Park Pride’s community park visioning team to conceptualize how a park can make an impact on the quality of life and environments in these historically disenfranchised communities. 

“The idea is simple: take time at the beginning of each planning process to examine and articulate the hopes of each person in the room – their hopes for the visioning process, their hopes for the park, their hopes for the community,” said Andrew White, Director Community Visioning Park Pride.  “It is an exercise that encourages community members to share their own motivations and aspirations, while also listening to others. Listening is one of the most powerful things we can do to bridge divides and negotiate a constructive path forward.”

Friends of Mattie Freeland Park decide on amenities that they want to see in their future park and determine the best layout for the park to be accessible.  Photo Credit: Kelsi Eccles, The Conservation Fund

Lesson 3: Create more space for authentic collaboration 

Residents share their personal visions for what they would like to see in the parks during the park visioning process. The future site of Mattie Freeland Park will soon be under construction. Photo Credit: Park Pride

A major challenge in gathering diverse groups of community members, municipalities and non-profit representatives is leveling the playing field. For discussions to be inclusive and productive despite varying degrees of expertise among participants, Parks with Purpose events shape forums as peer-to-peer learning exchanges aimed at surfacing innovative ideas and greater collaborative problem solving among all participants.  

We emphasize the phrase “peer exchange” as opposed to “conference” or “lecture” to underscore the intention of equalizing learning opportunities. Parks with Purpose values uplift lived experience, knowledge of unique social networks, and history as equal in value to traditional technical expertise or professional experience. Urban conservation opportunities arise from the combination of people and place, and it is crucial to hear diverse voices and perspectives. One adage is that urban conservation projects move at the speed of trust, and inner-city communities often exist among legacies of distrust and disregard for residents that need to be addressed to remove barriers to improved understanding and collaboration among diverse stakeholders.

In our Raleigh, NC Parks with Purpose projects, some of our most dedicated partners, for example, are local teenagers. The Neighborhood Ecology Corp plays an active role in decision making about the visioning and community engagement for our park project, which has created a successful model for intergenerational collaboration. At the 2019 Peer Exchange, Neighborhood Ecology Corp youth showcased their leadership skills by leading a nature hike and sensory exercise through the Walnut Creek Wetland Park. 

 “I live in the neighborhood adjacent to the park so I can give good feedback about how to improve engaging neighbors in the Parks with Purpose Task Force,” said Mikiya McClain, Neighborhood Ecology Corp Member and High School Senior.  

As we embark on a new decade with a growing list of urban sustainability challenges that are even more imperative in the face of climate change and an ongoing global pandemic, we must take action and use lessons learned to realize lasting outcomes. 

Equitable urban conservation work is rewarding, but it requires ample investment of time, resources, and creativity. By keeping community at the center of these efforts, we can create solutions that provide multiple economic, environmental and social benefits for the people who need it most. 

Your support is needed now more than ever. Consider a gift and learn more about  Parks with Purpose in Atlanta and throughout the southeast by visiting: https://www.conservationfund.org/pwp


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