There’s a grassroots
group in Atlanta, Ga., that has done more for city parks than irrigation
has. This nonprofit, in cooperation with hundreds of local citizens, has
given the city a countywide vision for parks and has helped implement that
The ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s were not
pretty decades for Atlanta’s parks, according to George Dusenbury.
Parks were neglected and underfunded, and the city, by 2000, had only 4.5
percent of its area in greenspace. That was the lowest percentage among
America’s top 25 cities in population, and many of the parks that
were there had deteriorating ball fields and untended turf. The mowing
cycle was 21 days. More and more parks staff were laid off over the years.
|From small to large, parks have sprung up everywhere and become a part of the Atlanta consciousness.
In 1989, concerned citizens formed Park Pride, a
501(c)(3) nonprofit organization destined to change the face of Atlanta.
The group had some early success, but languished. Despite its vision of
creating world-class greenspace in the city, the group had limited success.
It did, however, create an advocacy group that began to build awareness
about parks, with another surge in interest in 2000.
|Photos courtesy of Park Pride.
|The secret to Park Pride’s success is
in finding grassroots advocates in
neighborhoods and getting them involved in the design and renovation of parks.
When Dusenbury became the executive director in 2004,
this former legislative director for Congressman John Lewis continued the
revitalization of the organization. He brought in the political savvy that
he says such a group needs in order to work with both local parks activists
and city and county sources of political power. Since that time, Park Pride
has fulfilled its mission of establishing more park acreage in the city, as
well as increasing funding for the city parks department and facilitating
renovation of existing rundown parks. The organization has tripled its
funding during that period, which has enabled it to reach out to even more
community groups. Since 2001 it has helped add over 1,000 acres of parks to
“We were founded as an adjunct to the parks
department,” Dusenbury says of the organization’s early years.
Though he wasn’t with Park Pride at that time, he says one of the
problems during the early part of the organization’s existence was
that it was perceived as part of city government. It had a solid advocacy
role, but less credibility in the community and much less ability to raise
Dusenbury has focused on establishing an independent
advocacy group based on grassroots support in the community and committed
partners in private industry. The backbone of the work of its nine staff
members is to help create and then to collaborate with Friends of the Parks
groups. Park Pride identifies citizens in each neighborhood who are
advocates for local parks or greenspaces and empowers them to move
“People were upset about their parks, but
weren’t organized,” Dusenbury says. Since Park Pride got
active, that situation has changed. He cites as an example one of many
Friends of the Parks groups. Adamsville, on the west side of Atlanta, is
not an affluent area, but it had a handful of activists who were working to
get money to beautify the Triangle, which is the gateway into the
community. Dusenbury says that Park Pride was able to locate those people
and work with them to qualify for one of the nonprofit’s micro grants
through its Community Grant Program, which awards $20,000 to $100,000 to
groups for park projects. Not only did the small Triangle project go
through successfully, the local Friends group kept going. It proceeded to a
larger, 10-acre park renovation project.
Currently, the Adamsville group has utilized a
landscape architect to come up with a larger parks and greenspace plan, and
it has achieved its primary goals of installing a toddler playground and
placing senior citizen exercise equipment along a trail in the park. This
gave the community momentum in planning other parks projects, focusing on
recreation, such as turfed ball parks, as well as structures such as
restrooms and bleachers.
“They raised money internally, but we also helped
them develop other funding,” Dusenbury says. It is a point of pride
that Park Pride was able to empower the Adamsville Friends group to acquire
$300,000 in grants for their green areas.
|The use of community partners, for both volunteer work and funding, has allowed the city of Atlanta to add over 1,000 acres of new parks since 2004.
“The important thing is to take the enthusiasm
and make it effective,” Dusenbury notes. Once you harness the power
of that local group of interested citizens—he calls them
“stakeholders”—you have a powerful force. He says that
most park renovation or creation projects start with four or five activists
and maybe a dozen volunteers who will show up at city council meetings or
plant trees. Park Pride knows how to find volunteers once the leaders are
located. It will place notices in parks, use local newspapers or
newsletters, go to planning meetings, and canvas schools and churches for
people who have an interest in healthy parks.
The result is that sizeable amounts of money are being
directed toward parks in Atlanta, and it is being done in all parts of the
city. Park Pride’s Visioning program, which completed its first
project in 2004, now has $4.5 million that has been committed to park
The organization’s Take Back Your Park program
appeals to citizens who want to reduce the vandalism and crime that takes
place in rundown parks. It offers literature and advice on how to organize
a park group, raise funds, hold park support events and publicize its
efforts. Park Pride will organize a seminar in the neighborhood, using its
staff resources, that provides more information and support as well as
political direction. Similar programs are the group’s Adopt-A-Park
and Adopt-A-Community Garden programs, which also rely on grassroots
involvement as a foundation.
With all of these efforts, a lot of quality turf has
been reclaimed or added to the city. Dusenbury says one of the primary
deficits in parks was
good ball fields where kids and adults could take part
in sports. One of the focuses of the group’s efforts has been to not
only add many new ball fields, but also to upgrade the maintenance efforts
and add new irrigation.
“The city of Atlanta was not aerating,
fertilizing or applying pesticides to its parks,” Dusenbury says, and
that went on for decades. A major coup was the reinstatement of funding for
that in 2007.
|Parks are being created or renovated in Atlanta as Park Pride gains
influence with decision-makers.
Park Pride has also been one of the guiding forces of
the Atlanta BeltLine project. This is a massive parks addition project, the
idea initiated by a local university student, which will utilize abandoned
or little-used railroad corridors that circle the city to create hundreds
of acres of new greenspaces and connect existing ones. Again, Park Pride
played an organizational and advocacy role in order to generate political
support. The result was a complicated tax revenue allocation, based on the
projected increase in property values that will result from adding parks to
existing neighborhoods, which will amount to $1.4 billion over many years.
There are also public transportation and affordable housing components to
Working closely with the Atlanta City Council, the
Fulton County Board of Supervisors, as well as corporate partners such as
Georgia Power, Starbucks and Oracle Consulting, the nonprofit is now a
dynamic organization that holds an annual Parks and Greeespace Conference,
has a golf tournament as a fundraiser, hosts a parks tour every year, holds
workshops on subjects such as xeriscaping and has a variety of activities,
including its Park of the Month dedication, that shine a light on community
participants. It has also become a model for other parks supports groups,
with representatives visiting Atlanta to see how this kind of
transformation takes place.
All this with a staff of nine and an annual budget,
this fiscal year, of less than $900,000. That money comes from several
sources, not the least of which is direct donations. It gets $50,000 from
the parks department, in addition to office space and utilities, but most
of the money comes from fundraisers and a 5 percent fee charged to Friends
groups based on the amount of money they take in with Park Pride’s
Dusenbury says that the goal is to double
Atlanta’s percentage of parklands to 9 percent by 2010. A big part of
that is the BeltLine project. He says that the group may not meet that goal
entirely, but just the fact that it is making such huge strides is cause
Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent
contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.