We’ve Come a Long Way — What’s Next?
George Dusenbury, Executive Director, The Trust for Public Land in Georgia
Where will you spend the sunny, warm days of spring? I hope you will visit Atlanta’s iconic historic sites, relax in your neighborhood park or bike on the trails that traverse our city. Those amazing public spaces are the backdrop of our lives. Have you ever wondered just how they came to be?
As a lifelong advocate for parks and greenspaces, there are many examples I could share to illustrate the collaboration, tenacity and support it takes to create and preserve the places we all love. For me, the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site is at the top of the list. Congress had authorized creation of the historic site, but because of limited resources and bureaucracy within the National Park Service, the project wasn’t moving. The city didn’t have the capacity to lead the effort. But some congressional leaders were anxious to see progress, so they asked The Trust for Public Land—which didn’t even have an office in Georgia at the time—to get the momentum going.
The Trust for Public Land took on the charge and quickly purchased five historic shotgun houses that were in the shadow of Dr. King’s birth home, saving them from demolition, and then donated the houses to the National Park Service. A ribbon-cutting ceremony officially opened the Historic Site in 1983. When land was needed to build the Visitor Center, The Trust for Public Land invested more than a million dollars to acquire land for the center, working alongside many partners to put our city’s history front and center during the 1996 Olympic Games.
Working in conservation over the past 25 years, I have seen a metamorphosis of the way Atlantans interact with their city, and I think the work to create the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site was a seminal moment in that transformation. It is one example of the importance of seizing opportunity and making substantial investments in historic sites, parks and trails and conservation lands, even when there is ambiguity about the future. Those public spaces make us all happier, healthier and more connected.
In 2000, The Trust for Public Land released an analysis of the park systems (today known as Parkscore) in America’s 25 largest cities. Atlanta ranked last, with merely 3.6 percent of its land dedicated to public parks. Local leaders and residents were concerned, and many got involved to make a difference. That number has almost doubled today, and I am proud to be a part of an organization that played a role in protecting many of the spaces that account for that increase. Across the country and right here in Atlanta, The Trust for Public Land and many others continue to take big risks, investing to create the spaces that define our communities.
Perhaps the most well-known example of Atlanta’s upward trajectory is the Atlanta BeltLine. The Trust for Public Land took a chance on this transformative idea to connect Atlanta neighborhoods and parks. Many years ago, we began acquiring property and collaborating to develop Historic Fourth Ward Park, Boulevard Crossing Park, Enota Park and what is now becoming Westside Park, ultimately acquiring $47 million worth of land. Thanks to significant investments and the ongoing work by The Trust for Public Land, the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, the Atlanta BeltLine Inc., the City of Atlanta and many others, millions of residents enjoy these parks every year.
We are building from the past and applying that same “go big or go home” approach to our work on the Chattahoochee River, the vital resource that provides drinking water to much of Metro Atlanta. Over many years, we raised funds and led an effort to preserve 18,000 acres and 80 miles of riverfront land. Those investments were a big down payment towards our vision of creating a continuous greenway along the Chattahoochee from Helen to Columbus. Working with the City of Atlanta, Cobb County, and the Atlanta Regional Commission, we are developing a master plan for 100 miles of the Chattahoochee River to reimagine how people interact with Georgia’s defining body of water. We have not figured out exactly what that will look like or how the pieces will come together, but with the help of our partners and engaged citizens, we know they will, and we know it’s a risk worth taking. When leaders and community advocates come together around a big, bold idea, the results can be astounding.
From Cook Park, The Stitch, the Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry, new trails in Gwinnett County and beyond, there are many exciting projects in the works that will re-shape how we live, work and play around metro Atlanta. Get outside and enjoy our city’s parks, historic sites and trails this spring, and become a part of the conversations that will define the future of our shared spaces.
The Trust for Public Land is a national organization that creates parks and protects land for people, ensuring healthy, livable communities for generations to come. Since 1972, the organization has completed more than 5,000 park and conservation projects across the country, conserving more than three million acres of land.
George Dusenbury has served as Georgia State Director for The Trust for Public Land since 2016. Previously, he led Park Pride and served as commissioner of the City of Atlanta Parks and Recreation Department.
Featured photo credit: Kim Link Photography