It’s known as the “City in a Forest,” thanks to 100-year-old oaks, maples and magnolias that create a tree canopy covering nearly half the city.
But what may come as a surprise is that many of Atlanta’s residents don’t have easy access to a public park. One-third of Atlanta’s population lives more than a 10-minute walk from a green space, and the city ranks 42nd for park access based on an evaluation of America’s 100 largest cities by the Trust For Public Land.
Meanwhile, the city’s largest landowner keeps its doors closed after hours, on weekends and during the summer. Why? Because it’s Atlanta’s public school system.
In support of the initiative, the city of Atlanta, Atlanta Public Schools and organizations like Park Pride, Trust for Public Land and the Urban Land Institute are working together to open up schoolyards and increase green space for the city.
“We like to think that parks are the heart of communities, but those neighborhood schools are similarly that center of the community,” Michael Halicki, the executive director of Park Pride, an Atlanta nonprofit that works with communities to improve parks, told NationSwell. “It really has been an example of how bringing different partners together we can do things that, in isolation, would never be possible.”
The partnership is launching a pilot program where three schools will renovate their schoolyards and open them up to the public. Over the next three years, a total of 10 schools will open up a community green space.
The schools were chosen based on a variety of factors. But the main consideration was to assess which schools were within a 10-minute walk of residents who were farther than a 10-minute walk from a park. Based on that, about 20 schools were identified that fit this criterion, and 10 immediately responded with interest. From those, three were picked for the pilot, the names of which will be announced later this month.
“Our main responsibility is making sure all of the schools are high quality, but we see ourselves as a key player in the city ecosystem,” Rachel Sprecher, executive director of partnerships and development at Atlanta Public Schools, told NationSwell.
Research has shown that access to parks improves both physical and mental health. Researchers at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health found that spending two hours each week outdoors is tied to better health outcomes. Another study led by William Sullivan found that exposure to green space is associated with reducing aggressive behavior.
“Parks are places to build community and these schoolyards could also be places where people come together,” Halicki said.
Park Pride and the Trust for Public Land calculated that if every schoolyard was opened, 80% of Atlantans would be within walking distance of a park. With the first three pilot schools, 2,000 more Atlantans would have access to green space.
Each school will receive between $100,000 and $150,000 in schoolyard upgrades. The Trust for Public Land and Park Pride will bring in landscape architects to help design the space. Upgrades may entail everything from a new playground to accessibility paths to a hammock grove or pavilions.
Conversations are being held with the schools and community to pinpoint the needs and desires for each space. They will also work together to figure out details like maintenance and security, Sprecher said.
This fall, those three schools and neighborhoods will engage in conversation. Final plans will be decided, and construction will take place throughout summer 2020. The following fall, the new schoolyards will open — and stay open.
“We can serve both purposes of helping kids learn while they’re in school but then helping strengthen communities when kids are no longer in school. And that’s really the synergy of this space,” George Dusenbury, the Georgia state director at the Trust for Public Land, told NationSwell.
Renovating schoolyards will save money, Halicki said. The program allows the city to avoid purchasing new land for parks. Instead, Atlanta can put those funds toward renovations or other projects independent of the schoolyard initiative.
“In this day and age, where there’s not enough money to do all the things we want to do in our cities,” Halicki said, “this is a way that we’re getting more out of the resources we’ve got.”
All agreed that the goal of the pilot is to understand how to make this adaptable for other schools inside and outside of metro Atlanta.
“As with other initiatives that have started off as a pilot, we definitely look to scale and even provide support with our resources,” Sprecher said.
Atlanta Public Schools was built to serve between 100,000 and 150,000 students. But the district currently has about 50,000 students enrolled. That means out of its 150 properties, 39 facilities are closed and 19 are vacant land sites. So while the school embarks on an 18-month master planning facilities project, Sprecher said the school system might consider transitioning and opening some of those lots for green space.
“We understand the assets we have,” she said. “And we want to be really thoughtful about what we do with the vacant property.”
So as the city grows and changes, schoolyards serving as public parks may become a common sight. With it, more Atlantans will have access to that beautiful canopy the city is so well known for.
“We have complex, intractable problems in cities all across the U.S.,” said Halicki. “The way that we come up with innovative solutions is not by working in our silo but by really working across our silos.”