Park experts and local leaders say the time is now to invest and activate Atlanta’s parks
Atlanta wants to live up to its nickname — the city in the forest — and local park organizations, city officials and residents are ready to help.
On Monday, March 28, Atlanta-based nonprofit Park Pride hosted its 21st annual parks and greenspace conference at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. This year’s theme was “The parks we need now,” a point driven home by local community leaders and experts from all around the country.
Seventy-two percent of city residents live within a 10-minute walk to a park, according to the Trust for Public Land, and the stakeholders at the conference are on a mission to reach 100 percent of residents.
The event — the first in-person conference since 2019 — brought together hundreds of park experts and enthusiasts to discuss access to local parks, the impact of COVID-19 and ways parks can serve the needs of the surrounding communities.
When the conference first kicked off 21 years ago, Executive Director Michael Halicki said the goal was “to get 100 people in the room.” Since then, the event has regularly been at maximum capacity with 550 guests.
Today, more people are turning to the outdoors as a space to convene, learn and relax. Experts are striving to ensure access for all. Residents are looking to their elected officials to make sure these goals are achieved.
“We are changing in a dramatic way,” Halicki said. “This [conversation] is no longer just the park people; this is looking at parks for all. People don’t want to wait.”
The catalyst for public desire and engagement, Halicki believes, connects back to the pandemic and recent social justice movement.
While COVID-19 sent more folks outdoors to find refuge, he noted that what people seek has changed. Before, “everyone wanted to go to the Eastside Trail or Piedmont Park on a Saturday,” but now, they are looking for a space to connect with nature and find some distance from their neighbor.
And it’s not hard to advocate for public outdoor space. Most people live overly sedentary lifestyles, dogs need walking and adding trees to a neighborhood offers health benefits equivalent to a $10,000 raise.
Conversations around access to nature — like which neighborhoods have it and which don’t — also came to the forefront.
“The intersection of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter looks at things like the higher rates of COVID in low-income neighborhoods and parks that aren’t meeting certain standards. This idea that everyone deserves access to a quality park has [more emphasis] on it than ever before,” Halicki said.
Engaging stressed communities and supporting constituents through their neighboring parks was the main topic at the conference.
Keynote speaker Norma García-González, director of the County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation, introduced youth development and intervention programs that the county has implemented in their local parks. The $90 million initiative engages the younger generation, connects them with mentors and the efforts have significantly reduced crime in the surrounding areas.
“Parks are about people, and they’re about programs,” García-González said. “We know that equity, when it comes to children, cannot wait. We cannot have another generation of children that are disengaged from programming, from human connection, and from mentors that can make a big impact in their lives.”
But how can local governments and organizations earn the attention and trust of marginalized communities?
Akiima Price, a co-founder of Friends of Anacostia Park in Washington D.C., says consistency is key. And consistency comes in many forms, including showing respect, being transparent, maintaining loyalty to the community and keeping promises.
“People are so used to people disappointing them,” Price said. “But when you show up and do what you say consistently — even if I say I’m going to bring some pencils next time, you know, starting small. Even doing those small things really builds that sense of trust with people.”
And with people in office who are dedicated to supporting park access and equity, Halicki feels like the timing is right to seek these collective goals in Atlanta.
Upon entering office, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens created the Greenspace Advisory Council, which Halicki serves on. The Green Cabinet considers parks and green spaces in the urban context, like their relation to housing and public safety.
“There’s a lot of excitement over our mayor,” he said. “[Dickens] is working on affordable housing and crime. He wants to know how this Green Cabinet can take different ideas on affordable housing and look at how that intersects with green space. We also look at crime issues, like Katie Janness, who was murdered in Piedmont Park, and how it relates to security cameras in parks.”
He added, “I feel like we’re reinventing our city and reinventing our region, and part of that is embracing the good things we have that other cities don’t have, like our rich tree canopy.”
The time is now to tap into the power of parks, and Halicki urges readers not to lose sight of that goal, and all the city has to offer.
“I think there’s something that we gained through the pandemic of valuing nature and a sense of being present and grounded in nature,” he said. “If people can get involved in their neighborhood and make things a little bit better where they’re at, that is really the way that we can make Atlanta great.”