Time to dream big for the future of Atlanta’s parks and green space

By Maria Saporta

Part 2: This is the second in a two-part series about Atlanta’s parks.

The next mayor of Atlanta – whoever he or she may be – should make parks and green space a priority as a way to counter-balance the anticipated increase in density as more people move into the city.

Atlanta’s environmental community has come together to make sure we preserve, protect, maintain and increase our city’s natural green assets.

trees

A cluster of trees in Piedmont Park (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The organizations – Park Pride, Trees Atlanta, the BeltLine Partnership, the Trust for Public Land, the Conservation Fund, the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA), the Piedmont Park Conservancy, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Georgia Conservancy and the Nature Conservancy – are making sure the next mayor and the future Atlanta City Council are well aware of the challenges and opportunities facing the city.

“We believe we can all achieve more collectively than we can separately,” said Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride. “We have a common agenda that’s broader than just parks. The larger frame is the City’s Design process.”

Atlanta’s population is expected to increase dramatically over the next 30 years from its current base of about 465,000 residents to about 1.3 million by 2050.

The Atlanta City Design Project has made the preservation of green space as one of its top priorities. But it will take a strong commitment from City Hall for Atlanta to enjoy population growth without diminishing the city’s green amenities.

How can we develop our city without damaging our tree cover? How can we add to the amount of green space we have to better accommodate all the additional people who will be living in the city? And how can we best maintain our parks and green space to create a better quality of life for our residents?

These are all questions facing Atlanta’s future elected leaders.

As a way to answer these questions, environmental organizations are proposing that the next mayor and City Councilmembers form a Parks and Green Space Task Force – taking a page out of the administration of former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. The Task Force produced a report with a host of “Big Ideas.”

Those included:

  1. Create the Atlanta Park District;
  2. Double the number of park and green space acres by 2012;
  3. Increase the budget for Parks from $24.1 million to $35 million 2007;
  4. Raise $400 million over 10 years to support parks and green space acquisition;
  5. Partner with organizations to create a world-class park system;
  6. 6: Build a great park with an outdoor special events venue to relieve the burden on existing parks by 2007; and
  7. Make all parks safe by regularly enforcing current laws.

Obviously Atlanta was not able to implement all of those “Big Ideas,” but it did make progress in several areas.

park spendingIn 2002, the reported stated the City of Atlanta 3,122 acres of park space. By 2010, that had increased to 3,754 acres, and in 2017, Atlanta’s park acreage totals 4,805.

During the administration of Mayor Kasim Reed, the Department of Parks & Recreation acquiring 171 acres of land, which included 14 new parks.

Also, in 2006, the Atlanta City Council convened a Parks Technical Advisory Committee focused on achieving and maintaining a world-class park system for Atlanta.

But the budget for parks and recreation is a different story. For the city’s 2018 fiscal year, the budget for parks and recreation is $35.8 million. It has been increasing in recent years, but it is a significant decrease from what was being spent on parks in 1997.

That year, the parks budget was $37.6 million, but given inflation, in today’s dollars, that would translate into $54 million. So when adjusted for inflation, the actual annual in parks represents a 53 percent decrease, according to Halicki.Atlanta park acreage

The various green and environmental nonprofits also will be holding a major Mayoral Candidate Forum on Greenspace on the evening of July 13 at the Carter Presidential Library. The event is already sold out, even though there is a waiting list. (Full disclosure: I will be moderating that forum).

Halicki said it best. Speaking at a public meeting on the city’s budget for parks, Halicki summed it up this way:

“As we move forward towards the future and the next administration, I believe it is time for big thinking and big ideas for parks, greenspace and trails.”

Note to readers: The first column in this two-part series focused on the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore for the City of Atlanta. 

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

7 replies
  1. Melanie Pollard says:

    Increasing Atlanta’s parks and greenspace is a necessity if Atlanta wants to be the green oasis urban city that it promises to be. However, with the recent Commissioner votes of 12-2 to allow two developers- Isakson Living and Ashton Woods (who destroyed the Glenridge Hall and greenspace despite over 18,000 signatures in protest)- to cut Peachtree Hill’s PARK TREES in order to pipe their 23+ acres of denuded property stormwater in a 4 foot wide pipe into Peachtree Creek where it will add to already already flooding creek begs the question, “How on earth will they protect Park Tree Canopy”. This is the first time in 134 years that a Park Easement has been violated. Park Pride received $30,000 from the developers for their support in this destruction of Peachtree Hill’s 10% of total community canopy to be used elsewhere. In other words, Peachtree Hills was thrown under the bus for progress.

    Is this how this going to be done? Since, Atlanta’s total canopy exists on residential property by over 75%, how on earth will they protect the city canopy without more drastic changes to the entire city management process? They could start with a couple of things: (1) having a Tree Ordinance that actually preserves existing specimen trees and forest canopy; (2) valuation of property that includes specimen trees and canopy; (3) create a building envelope that is flexible and factors the tree canopy into the equation at the beginning of the permit process; (4) establish a stormwater ordinance and billing structure that is based on actual usage (you want big, you pay for big); (5) establish a more canopy sustainable ratio of lot to building structure and impervious coverage size; (6) Establish a Soil ordinance that protects the soils- particularly older-growth soils that are high-value since trees cannot be planted back without a healthy amount of soil for trees to grow to full size and health; (7) Establish a new CRZ (critical root zone) formula based on Georgia’s top soil square footage and not a generic formula that applies more to top soils of greater depth on top of limestone or other high-mineral bedrocks; (8) Create a network of NPU and citizen-based systems across the metro area of multiple municipalities that is educated on tree canopy protection and actively enforces it at the community level; (9) enforce the canopy protection without the swiss cheese of variances/zoning changes and MIA that results in what we see today: Tree Canopy Apocalypse; (10) establish a “three strikes and you’re out” approach to the fines that is truly punitive and not just a cost of doing business used by developers today.

    The silver lining in the “urban sprawl” of the 70’s is the larger tree canopy was valued more than the monster mansions that are creating the stormwater, canopy reduction, and quality of life reduction in communities today. That silver lining gave us the green oasis we became known for yet contributed to the traffic grid-lock that is accelerated without adequate public transportation. To truly grow our city, we must find a way to protect tree canopy in our parks AND our residential properties. It can be done, but not without a paradigm shift in how much we need to live. Trees are going to have to be valued above the mindset of “property rights” as an essential in city codification- just like water, electricity, and air. We cannot live without them.Report

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  2. Melanie Pollard says:

    Read the risk analysis report on Georgia is this outstanding study by Bloomberg. Be sure to download the report and go to page 38 to read projections for Georgia. This is why it’s more then ever fiscally critical for all of the metro Atlanta to protect their tree canopy. A “high-value read” for those investing in Atlanta’s future. http://riskybusiness.habitatseven.work/report/come-heat-and-high-water-climate-risk-in-the-southeastern-u-s-and-texas/Report

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  3. Robert Johnson says:

    And it is not just increasing the Parks Dept budget. Staff has to be hired and trained to be horticulturalists. That is currently not the case as many staff are seasonal and there is really no standard of qualifications for the positions. Right now even Parks staff will admit that they do 2 things really well…..mow turf and collect trash. Our parks need to be way more than thatReport

    Reply
    • Wormser Hats says:

      Actually, the Department of Public Works empties the receptacles in at-least my neighborhood park.

      Getting the Parks Department to cease scalping the turf down to bare soil continues to be an ongoing challenge. So there’s really very little the parks staff does well or with a modicum of pride.

      Moreover, our recreation center isn’t staffed by the city, but it leased to a non-profit youth program that scarcely even serves the youth of our-own community and is tough to share their occupancy of the building with the rest of the community. Hizzoner even used our facility as an example of a “center of hope” to campaign for reopening the other recreation centers after they buckled under the Franklin administration’s necessary budget cuts. Ours; however, remains a facility that is difficult for the community to use.

      Most parks in our city are not large-enough to warrant the formation of tax-exempt conservancies. It’s tough-enough for Park Pride to empower the small army of Friends of the Park groups, so they are continuously effective.

      As much as I want to the city to demonstrate fierce stewardship of these important public assets, the present condition makes a good case privatizing the care and maintenance of our parks and recreation facilities. After-all, there’s obviously too much job security among these city employees to indicate they care about delivering value to the communities that pay their wages.

      Mayor Reed has been a great champion for all kinds of real estate development, especially intown and downtown redevelopment. However, the dismal state of our city parks, particularly where executive leadership is concerned, is a legacy that I hope the next mayor and city council will work hard to erase.Report

      Reply
  4. brainstar8 says:

    Strong article. But Franklin’s task force’s #7 (security) needs to be moved up several notches. If parks aren’t safe, and many in the city believe they are not for various reasons, there’s no reason for them to exist.Report

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