A greener future for Atlanta’s parks

After generations of neglect, the city’s park system is finally getting the attention (and resources) it needs

In April 1908, Dan Carey, clerk of the Atlanta Park Commission, wrote a series of “Atlanta Constitution” editorials intended to rally support for his beleaguered department. Atlanta, he noted, had fewer resources for its parks than any comparably sized city. “As a city of commercial enterprises and tall buildings, ours is spoken of,” wrote Carey. “But as a city of handsome streets and beautiful parks, it is not even mentioned.”

Well, Atlanta still falls short. In the 2014 ParkScore produced by the Trust for Public Land, Atlanta ranked 42nd out of the country’s 60 largest cities. The scorecard looks at several factors, such as how many residents live within walking distance of parks (65 percent in Atlanta, 94 percent in Minneapolis) and the number of playgrounds per 10,000 residents (2.5 in Atlanta, 3.5 in Boston). Amy Phuong, Carey’s contemporary counterpart, was appointed commissioner of the city’s parks and recreation department shortly after the report was released. “The [mayor’s] first question for me was, ‘How are we going to do better?’” she says.

Atlanta BeltLine
The Atlanta BeltLine project is creating new parks and refurbishing existing ones, such as Gordon-White Park, adjacent to the under-construction Westside Rail.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Carey might never have dreamed of the 248 parks and $30.7 million budget that Phuong manages, but she says that getting Atlantans to support public greenspace remains a challenge. “If you live near Piedmont Park or the Eastside Trail of the Atlanta BeltLine, you might feel, ‘Oh, this is fantastic, why would we want more?’” she says. Yet just 6 percent of our land is dedicated to park space.

The disparity, like so many others in Atlanta, is a legacy of Jim Crow segregation. In 1911 there were no parks open to African Americans. Four years later, there were two parks for blacks and 11 for whites. Despite the city’s claim of relative racial enlightenment, it took court orders to desegregate public parks and pools in the early 1960s.

After 50 years, the effects of segregation are still palpable. Atlanta’s lush jewels—Piedmont, Grant, Chastain—are on the historically white northern and eastern sides of town, which also are dotted with well-groomed expanses like the Olmsted Linear Parks along Ponce de Leon Avenue. Meanwhile the southern and western quadrants of the city contain fewer and smaller greenspaces.

The Atlanta BeltLine may be the panacea. Although the core of the project is a 22-mile loop of trails and transit, the plans also call for 1,300 acres of new greenspace—a 40 percent increase over what exists now—and refurbishment of 700 acres of existing parks. One of the most significant projects is the conversion of Bellwood Quarry into the first large-scale park on the Westside.

“In essence, [the BeltLine] is creating the possibility that everyone has the opportunity to walk or bike to a greenspace,” says Paul F. Morris, president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc. Part of that means converting some of Atlanta’s more than 950 potentially contaminated “brownfields”—ranging from abandoned gas stations to empty factories—into parks. Boulevard Crossing Park, for example, was carved out of kudzu-covered lots once used for auto storage and repair. In 2010 Atlanta received a $175,000 grant from the EPA as part of a pilot project to repurpose brownfields in southwest Atlanta. And this April the city received a $280,000 grant to continue greenspace efforts in the Proctor Creek area, a swath of brownfields and polluted waterways undergoing a major revitalization push.

Morris—who has worked on memorials at the World Trade Center, Columbine High School, and the site of the Oklahoma City bombing—emphasizes that parks have a deeper civic purpose than fun and relaxation. “What I learned, especially after the World Trade Center [attack] and the bombing in Oklahoma City, is when those events happened, everybody migrated toward public parks because it was a place where everybody felt equal. They could have gone to a church or a government building, but they chose to come to those public places, and they took on a much more meaningful role in people’s lives.” It’s a sentiment that Dan Carey surely would have endorsed.

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This article originally appeared in our June 2015 issue.