Building awareness about greenspace
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 vision.
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.
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.
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 Atlanta.
“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 funds.
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 forward.
“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 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 renovations.
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.
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 that allocation.
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 help.
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 for optimism.
Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.