Report: Atlanta ranks No. 42 for city parks

On the plus side, green space and walkability are inching up, thanks in large part to the Atlanta BeltLine.

Atlanta sometimes is called “the city in the trees,” and certainly as you fly into Hartsfield-Jackson this time of year, a green canopy appears to cover the city. But deplane and explore at ground level and you’ll soon realize things aren’t quite so verdant. For the third year in a row we have earned a low score on a national assessment of city parks. But—in large part due to the Atlanta BeltLine—Atlanta’s gaining green space and serving more residents.

The 2014 ParkScore Index, released last week by the Trust for Public Land, ranks the 60 largest cities in the U.S. by the impact of their parks. The assessment encompasses a numbers of factors, including the total number of parks, investment, acreage, and access. Atlanta’s tally—44 points out of a possible 100, or two park benches on a five-bench scale—put the city at No. 42 out of 60.

At first glance, this appears to be a significant drop from last year’s score (2.5 benches and a spot at 31 on a 50-city ranking). But Matt Shaffer, spokesperson for the Trust for Public Land, says that the decline is partly due to an addition of 10 new cities to the assessment. In addition, he noted, our lower score (and that loss of half a park bench) is due to the city’s growth. Because Atlanta gained new residents but no new playgrounds, our score on one of the assessments—playgrounds per 10,000 residents—went down. On the plus side, Shaffer pointed out, “the walkable park access rose for the city by nearly a percentage point.”

That walkability increase was largely due to recent Atlanta BeltLine developments. But the positive impact of amenities like the Eastside Trail on our ParkScore is masked by a lack of accompanying swingsets (sigh).

Peter Harnik, director of the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, said ongoing work on the BeltLine, as well as other projects such as the Proctor Creek revitalization efforts, are not going unnoticed. “We know a lot of wonderful things are happening,” he said. “And that should affect [Atlanta’s] ParkScore.”

Harnik said that improving access to parks and addressing other factors on the ParkScore Index can mean addressing urban-planning history—back to World War II or earlier. “It’s hard to turn these scores around, but every percentage point is a step forward,” he said. It can be even harder in Southern cities like Atlanta, where Jim Crow segregation was accompanied by urban planning that kept parks out of black neighborhoods.

The Atlanta BeltLine project—which is planned to encompass 1,300 acres of parks when it is completed in 2030—already has created new greenspace in underserved areas. For example, Historic Fourth Ward Park repurposed a blighted industrial site in the Old Fourth Ward, while D.H. Stanton Park replaced a dangerous and dilapidated playground in Peoplestown. The BeltLine’s goal of 1,300 new acres would represent a 40 percent increase from the current amount of park space in the city, says Ethan Davidson, director of communications for Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

The BeltLine’s construction schedule got an accelerating boost late last fall with an $18 million federal TIGER V grant for the Westside Trail, which will run three miles from Adair Park to the West End and include four parks. The federal grant will cover about 40 percent of the total cost for the trail project.

The effort to raise private funds to complement the federal grant was jumpstarted last week with a $5 million grant from the James M. Cox Foundation. “We hope the grant inspires others to support development of the trail,” said Elizabeth Olmstead, a company spokesperson for Cox Enterprises. “This new trail builds upon the demonstrated success of BeltLine’s Eastside trail, which connects the new Historic Fourth Ward Park with the historic Piedmont Park.”

If you want to explore the detailed ParkScore analysis click here. You also can compare Atlanta’s score to that of other cities. In case you’re curious, we rank lower than Raleigh but higher than Charlotte.