The Courage to Change
By Michael Halicki, Park Pride’s Executive Director,
and Rachel Maher, Director of Communications & Policy
Last Monday, Park Pride returned to host our 21st Annual Parks & Greenspace Conference in-person at the Atlanta Botanical Garden—the first time doing so since 2019. And wow—what an amazing and mission-affirming day. Together with nearly 400 park people from around Atlanta, Georgia, and the nation (masked and with several Covid safety procedures in place!), we fully dug into the conference theme, The Parks We Need Now.
First, some context. The world has fundamentally changed from “the before times,” and there’s no going back. We know that parks are critical urban infrastructure. Through the pandemic, America’s racial reckoning, and increased stormwater flooding, we’ve experienced the truly essential services greenspaces provide that have helped us to survive. And time continues to march forward. Atlanta is growing, densifying. Demographics are shifting. Climate change isn’t slowing. The pandemic hasn’t quite faded into the background, and the adaptive capacity of our parks and greenspaces will be essential to truly thriving in the years ahead.
And with how much our city has changed and is changing, does it stand to reason that the “old” way of managing, funding, planning, engaging, and activating parks is still effective? Will “how we’ve always done it” cut it?
Our biggest take away from this year’s Parks & Greenspace Conference is that, no—we (government agencies, funders, park nonprofits / conservancies, and Friends of the Park groups) cannot maintain the status quo and expect to succeed in delivering great parks that meet the needs of Atlantans. We’ll share how we got here by highlighting the conference’s Keynote Speakers:
Neelay Bhatt, Principal, PROS Consulting, Inc.
“The most dangerous phrase in the human language is ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ ”
Grace Murray Hopper
Neelay has been involved in 130+ Strategic / Master Planning projects for parks and recreation systems across the country, including Atlanta, Los Angeles County, San Diego, Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, and more. The belief that because something has always been done a particular way, Neelay shared, that it should continue to be done that way is a belief that cripples efforts to grow, adapt, and change.
Have you heard those words said when a long-standing process is challenged? Pause and think about that for a moment. “We’ve always done it this way.” If you have not had someone say those words to you, Neelay pointed to the uncomfortable truth: you are the one who is saying it. Reflect on that. Is the way we’ve always done it, the best way to do it now? Is it within your power to change it?
Our city IS changing—that is an undeniable fact. We need to adapt. A second uncomfortable truth revealed through Neelay’s presentation: resisting change and maintaining methods of operating that you’ve always had is burying your head in the sand. Have the courage to do something that is hard.
Norma Edith García-González, Director, County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation
As the Director of Los Angeles (LA) County Parks (the first woman and the first person of color to serve in this post), we are in awe of the courage and leadership of Norma Edith García-González. Under her leadership, the LA County Parks Department upended its standard mode of operating to center on equity. Many difficult and uncomfortable conversations were required to get there: conversations about race, historical injustice, and disinvestment.
But, Norma persevered and did what was difficult. What was seemingly impossible! In planning the department’s budget, they cleared the spreadsheet, started with $0 allocated, and asked themselves “Where are the dollars needed?” After ensuring that every park and community could be guaranteed a standard level of service, they built a budget based on need. They moved beyond equality to deliver true equity to the people of Los Angeles.
Akiima Price, Akiima Price Consulting
At the beginning of the conference, Michael shared that the “we” in The Parks We Need Now, is more expansive than it has ever been: a cohesion between Atlanta’s environmental nonprofits that extends beyond the Greenspace Advisory Council, the formation of new Friends of the Park groups and conservancies in parks across the city, the growing investment in parks and Park Pride from Atlanta’s business community. But Akiima Price illustrated that even that more expanded view of “we” is too narrow to be inclusive of everyone that has a stake in parks.
Akiima Price is thought leader at the intersection of social and environmental issues and the relationship between nature and community well-being. She recently co-founded the Friends of Anacostia Park in Washington D.C. and is innovating meaningful ways to use park experiences to address mental, physical, and social wellness in marginalized communities.
“Who are park users?” she asked. In our minds, and perhaps in yours too, we think of basketball players, dog walkers, joggers, picnickers, community gardeners, kids and parents on a playground, seniors enjoying a stroll, and so on. In short, we tend to think of how people use the park. But Akiima challenged us to think deeply about who uses the park.
When we (as park agencies, nonprofits, conservancies, or Friends groups) are planning or activating parks, are we taking into full consideration who park users are? Do we consider whether they’re poor, unemployed, immigrants, homeless, LGBTQ, depressed or dealing with other health concerns? Parks are places where everyone is welcome, but who is being left out of our definition of everyone, and what are we doing to ensure parks support their unique needs?
Again, these are difficult questions that Akiima posed, and the solutions are both challenging to identify and to enact. But we’ll never succeed if we don’t try, and it takes courage to try.
Meghan Talarowski, Executive Director, Studio Ludo
As the founder and Executive Director of Studio Ludo, Meghan Talarowski’s research focuses on how the design of play environments impacts physical health and social behavior. Her keynote address, too, got us thinking about our conceptions (and misconceptions) of who uses parks and park amenities.
Did you know that over half of playground users are not children? Meghan’s studies indicate that most users are, in fact, teens and adults! Are the playgrounds in which we’re investing and building appropriate for all who are using them? When we look around, 99% of the playgrounds we’ve experienced (both in and beyond Atlanta) are exclusively made for children (and able-bodied children, at that).
Yes, it is a challenge to turn the tide, to do things differently than “how they’ve always been done.” But imagine how much more enjoyment we’d get out of our playgrounds, out of our parks, out of time spent with our family, if play environments were built for us too? Where are “we” in a typical playground design?
Times are changing and we need to adapt. Neelay stated that you can either be forced to change, or you can be the first to change. Let’s each of us—whether we are with nonprofits, park agencies, other government agencies or elected officials, whether we’re with conservancies or Friends of the Park groups, or foundations—let’s have the courage to be first to change. Let’s ask uncomfortable questions, re-examine our budgets, build trust, expand our understanding of the role of parks and who they serve. Let’s ask if how we’ve always done it still makes sense and is the best way to do it now. Only by doing so will we be able to deliver the parks that Atlantans need now.