It’s a common refrain heard inside the Perimeter and out, a shared desire by city dweller and suburbanite alike: parks and public greenspace seem dear to residents’ hearts, and hopefully near to their homes.
In 2001, residents of Suwanee, about 32 miles north of Atlanta, voted to double their property taxes with a $17.7 million referendum that has increased the city’s open space from nine acres to approximately 300 acres. That includes what City Manager Marty Allen calls “the jewel of our system,” Town Center Park, an urban plaza and central meeting place for the community. Suwanee’s march to its outdoorsy goal — having 25 percent of the city devoted to open space — has helped land it on a number of “America’s Best Places to Live” lists.
More recently, the newly formed conservancy for Atlanta Memorial Park, which includes the Bobby Jones Golf Course off Northside Drive, got an idea how passionately neighbors felt about caring for the park’s 199 acres: When the conservancy organized a fund-drive seeking “founding members,” no fewer than 52 individuals and families sent in their checks of $1,000 (or more) apiece.
The pull of nature — and the clever curating of it around commercial and private development — resonates around the metro area. We love our civilized comforts, but we treasure the ability to get out and stretch our legs when we feel like it, preferably in some placid green setting. And we like to do it at a variety of venues, from Peachtree City’s multi-use golf cart paths to the Silver Comet Trail in Cobb and Paulding counties, from Atlanta’s Beltline to Woodstock’s new community garden and nearby dog park, appropriately named, Woofstock.
That said, parks hardly get a blank check: Two years ago, Dunwoody voters overwhelmingly rejected two $33 million bond issues the city proposed to use for parks. More recently, yard signs have popped up protesting, in part, the city’s approval of a $425,000 multi-use trail through Brook Run Park. (See related column below.)
Gwinnett County uses a portion of its sales tax for greenspace and Atlanta assesses park impact fees that fund acquisition and improvements. But there remain big challenges in keeping any greenspace momentum going, particularly at a time when governments are so stretched. Panelists at a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution Community Forum, sponsored by PNC Bank, stressed that aspirational goals for communties in terms of greenspace are important — Atlanta wants all its residents to be within a half-mile of public greenspace by 2020, says Denise Quarles, the city’s director of sustainability.
But nuts-and-bolts plans for maintaining what’s designed are crucial. There must be a real gut check on the grassroots level. “You’ve got to establish whether it’s truly a priority, or whether it’s just a statement of desire and wish,” said Suwanee’s Allen.
It helps to be low-maintenance, too, using innovations like solar-powered ballfield lights. Volunteers, too, are a must. Atlanta parks attract an average of 15,000 volunteer hours annually, as tracked by Park Pride, Quarles says.
Despite its reputation as a sylvan city lush with trees, Atlanta is comparatively under-parked. The Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore recently ranked it 31st out of 50 major American cities. (The top five? Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco, Sacramento and Boston.) That’s something to work on. The devil will always be in the details of park development, but the quest for communal, even spiritual, connectivity through established — and protected — outdoor spaces is one that deserves our most careful and persistent long-range planning.
– Tom Sabulis, for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial board.
By George A. Dusenbury
From Central Park to Boston Common to Golden Gate Park, iconic parks define cities. Great parks drive economic development, promote public health, strengthen communities and improve the environment.
In Atlanta, we have excellent parks like Adams, Grant and Chastain, as well as Piedmont Park, one of the finest in the nation, and the stunning Historic Fourth Ward Park, which represents the future of great parks in Atlanta.
At the heart of Historic Fourth Ward Park is the most magnificent water detention pond in the country, complete with an amphitheater, waterfalls and a meandering boardwalk. The pond has eliminated flooding of the old City Hall East Building, allowing for the largest office building in the South to be reborn as Ponce City Market. Anticipating the new park, surrounding neighborhoods approved the construction of more than 5,000 new housing units, creating a dense, new-urban environment.
Clean water, economic development and a stunning public space, all in one park.
Similar opportunity exists on Atlanta’s west side. Through a partnership between the Parks Department, Atlanta Beltline Inc. and the Department of Watershed Management, an old quarry will be transformed into a water reservoir, anchoring a park that will be nearly twice the size of Piedmont. This vast acreage could host whitewater rafting, equestrian trails and the largest sports complex in the City.
Other partnerships are driving the growth of Atlanta’s great public spaces. The Departments of Watershed Management and Parks & Recreation already have partnered to add more than 400 acres of green space. Cooperation with Atlanta Public Schools, the Atlanta Housing Authority and others can unlock hundreds of more acres.
Atlanta also will unlock the potential of existing parks and envision ways to make them world-class. Can we transform Adams Park in southwest Atlanta into the equivalent of Piedmont Park? Does a first-class mountain bike park lurk in the undeveloped woods of Southside Park in southeast Atlanta? Can Bankhead’s Maddox Park host an urban farm – complete with sheep, chickens and horses – all accessible by MARTA?
Connecting these parks and neighborhoods will be 33 miles of Atlanta Beltline trails, circling downtown and serving as a hub for trails extending from the Alabama border to Rockdale County. Residents will be able to walk, skate or ride their way around the city without ever leaving a trail.
Mayor Reed often says that Atlanta is a city that functions best when it aspires to greatness. In our public spaces, we aspire to nothing less.
George A. Dusenbury is commission of Atlanta’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs.
By Beverly Armento
Not everyone in Dunwoody is excited about the opening of Phase I of Brook Run Park’s new multi-use trail on Saturday. Some oppose the loss of hundreds of 50-year-old trees, mainly hardwoods, in the park’s Urban Forest. Others mourn the loss of habitat for deer, coyotes, snakes, owls and hawks. Still others say the price is too high: $425,000 for a .7 mile long, 12-foot- wide concrete trail.
Homeowners who live in adjacent communities, who have received flood waters directly from the two streams that flow through Brook Run Park, argue that insufficient actions are being taken to prevent additional rainwater runoff expected from the trail. And many feel that a plan for walking trails that they endorsed some two years ago was changed in significant ways without citizen input. They never envisioned a highway cutting through their park.
The 2011 plan called for an 8-foot asphalt trail that would be built following the footprint of an existing trail. Phase I for the trail would cost $130,000, with $100,000 coming from a Department of Natural Resources grant. By March 2012, however, when contracts were awarded to build the trail, life in Dunwoody had changed. Project Renaissance, a public-private enterprise, brought new opportunities to link various areas of the city. Internal decisions were then made to alter the Brook Run plan.
Now, the trail would be widened by four feet, made of concrete and, for about 50% of the path, would not follow the old asphalt trails, but would cut through heavily forested areas. No open meetings were held on issues such as the overall purpose for the trail, its size, composition or location. Cutting a wide swath through this environmentally sensitive park for what is essentially a concrete road drew controversy.
Trails enhance the quality of life in a community. However, citizens want a voice in planning and allocating their public and environmental resources. Should a trail foster communion with nature? Should it provide transit from one part of town to another? Should it provide recreation, education? Can it both preserve the environment and avert sediment, erosion and flooding problems already present?
The details of such economic and environmental trade-offs need to be aired openly, weighed fairly and finally determined with wisdom and vision.
Beverly Armento, Research Professor Emerita at Georgia State University, is a Dunwoody homeowner whose community is adjacent to Brook Run Park.