Activating Atlanta

I attended Park Pride’s Parks and Greenspaces Conference on Monday, but unfortunately I could not see all of it. Aside from the multiple keynote speakers throughout the day, there were breakout sessions with multiple speakers in the morning and afternoon. As usual, Park Pride threw a great conference with superb speakers and  enthralling content set in the beautiful Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Tulips and towers.
Tulips and towers.

Across all of the presentations and speakers I listened to however, one unifying concept became clear: parks can provide enormous benefits to a community, if they are just activated. But what the hell does that mean?

An empty lot in the heart of Midtown, Atlanta's alleged "walker's paradise."
An empty lot in the heart of Midtown, Atlanta’s alleged “walker’s paradise.”

Historically, most parks were private tracts of land belonging solely to the wealthy; but with the rise of Romanticism in Europe and the United States during the early half of the Nineteenth Century, appreciation for nature percolated from the upper classes down to the masses in mills and factories. As the States expanded westward, more and more land was conserved for public use, most notably due to John Muir’s activism and President Teddy Roosevelt’s adoration of the outdoors. Unfortunately, parks during that period were still mostly playgrounds for the rich, until the atmospheric rise of the automobile; by the 1960’s, camping, hiking, and visiting parks were staples of American culture. Simultaneously, many parks in urban neighborhoods across the country declined in use as population growth shifted to the suburbs. Parks in city core’s, such as Woodruff Park in Downtown Atlanta, fell into neglect until very recently.

Daffodils Downtown.
Daffodils Downtown.

Now, planning parks is a process of multiple practices. Planners use what’s called “The Rule of 10” when planning a park: Ideally, a park will provide 10 or more destinations, uses, or reasons for people to come to it, such as nearby shops and restaurants, exercise areas, food courts or places for food trucks, sitting places, playgrounds or other child-friendly element, reading areas, access to nature, performance spaces, connections to alternative transportation (bike paths, walking trails, or public transit), or simply shady spaces.

“Activating” is simply the process of attracting new users to a service or product by providing them with an experience that compels them to use the product again on their own. It’s most commonly used in marketing and played a large role this year at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. But in terms of parks, it just means attracting people to parks and giving them a reason to come back.

 “Great places start with people and end with people.”

Parks, as Denise Starling, Livable Buckhead’s Executive Director, told us, are fundamentally attractive to people. Neighborhoods with parks are more valuable than those without and property value decreases on a gradient the farther a property is from that park; homes within 100 feet of desirable parks are valued 23% higher than the market average for that area. In the real estate community, this is known as the “Approximate Principal.”

Using the Rule of 10, planners and the Approximate Principal, landscape architects, and city officials can activate the potential of a place or pre-existing park by designing park spaces that are flexible in their nature and overlapping in their use. Doing so allows people to use parks not only for their originally designated uses, but also to creatively use that space in their own ways. “People are creating their own programs and bringing it to your parks,” said Cynthia Nikitin, Senior Vice President of the Project for Public Spaces, during her presentation on the multi-dimensionality of public spaces. “Great places start with people and end with people.”

Depending on the context of the place, activating a park can result in increased community engagement, increased economic activity, healthier lifestyle choices, increased transit ridership, and, as stated above, increased property values. The additional greenspace parks provide is also key to disrupting the Urban Heat Island Effect.

So, the broad theme of the conference was that, when properly activated, a park isn’t just an accessory to a city, it is the home of a community’s soul.


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