Increasing development and population growth drive Atlanta's green space wave

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In years past, city parks arose largely from unused land. But today, because community leaders and planners understand the quality of life and economic benefits that green spaces provide, projects from community gardens to new city parks are flourishing. 

From a general sense of well-being and lower stress levels to access to recreation and exercise, the health benefits of being near nature have been well documented. Parks, town center greens and the growing network of walking and biking trails also provide social opportunities to meet neighbors and connect communities.

Green areas also positively impact property values and attract economic development. The economic impact of the Atlanta Beltline is a success story known around the country. And since 2006, the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District has spent $3.2 million, or about $265,000 per year, towards maintenance, programs and capital for Woodruff Park, with a payoff of an influx of over $200 million in real estate investment for the surrounding neighborhood since 2015. 

While the benefits are clear, what’s driving the green space trend now, experts say, is increasing development and population growth. “Focus on the quality of public spaces becomes higher as areas become more dense and urban,” said Matt Cherry, senior associate at Lord Aeck Sargent and president of The Georgia Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. He added that residents and companies alike are demanding amenities like green spaces. 

Although Atlanta is well known for its lush tree canopy that is its most defining ecological feature, considering one guideline that suggests people should be able to walk to a park in10 minutes, Park Pride Executive Director Michael Halicki says that for its size, Atlanta is “under-parked,” and the city’s sprawling land use patterns make creating enough accessible green space a challenge.  But a proliferation of projects — from temporary pop-up parks to transformative regional concepts like the 22-mile Atlanta Beltline and the extensive network of trails and greenways being developed by the PATH Foundation — demonstrate efforts to bring much more green public areas to Atlanta. 

Park Over GA400 will add a unique open community space in the densely built Buckhead area, known for its retail and office towers, by inventively constructing a 7- to 9-acre park spanning GA400 and the Buckhead MARTA station between the Atlanta Financial Center and Lenox Road/Buckhead Loop. It would also connect to the PATH400 trail.

Jim Durrett, executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, says the project, designed by the Rogers Partners architect and urban design firm, would greatly improve the walkability of the district, create an outdoor gathering space, and even replace a gap in the area’s tree canopy. 

So far, $1.8 million has gone into the concept’s development. An estimated total cost for final design, engineering and building the project of $200 - $250 million will be raised by a nonprofit board that will seek private sector contributions, and agreements between the CID and prospective public sector partners. If the project remains on schedule, a ribbon-cutting could take place by year-end 2023, said Durrett. 

Set to open in three to five months, Westside’s 16-acre Cook Park sits where 160 homes in the Vine City and English Avenue area were irreparably damaged by a flood 15 years ago. Cook Park will not only be a recreational area in a community in the process of revitalization, but it also has been designed to solve the neighborhood flooding problem, according to George Dusenbury, state director of The Trust for Public Land, which has contributed $13.5 million toward the project, along with $20 million from the city of Atlanta.  

South of downtown, Finding the Flint is a long-term project working with several jurisdictions aimed at benefiting residents living in communities near the airport by rediscovering and revitalizing the Flint River through clearings and new trails.

Private developments are also embracing the green trend. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is devoting more than 20 acres of green space including parks and trails into its new campus on North Druid Hills Road. And Marie Sims Park is a public park being built within a private development in Buckhead. It is the centerpiece of AMLI’s City Place four-tower apartment complex that will welcome all for its setting and events, according to Bob Hughes, president and principal of HGOR, the project’s designing company, who believes that more common green space will be created through more public-private partnerships in the future. HGOR is a member of the Urban Land Institute's Atlanta chapter.

Public or private, the best green spaces “create a sense of place,” said Hughes. Good design components, he said, address safety, have good accessibility, feature “active edges” like restaurants or retail components, and allow for a variety of uses.

For Cherry, who is working on projects with organizations like the Margaret Mitchell House in Midtown, the Pullman Yards re-development in Kirkwood and Camp Twin Lakes, community participation in the design process not only builds excitement, but contributes to success.

Upkeep is an important cost of green space. The City of Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation spends $39 million annually to maintain parks. Piedmont Park Conservancy raises and spends $3 million annually for the preservation and enhancement of Piedmont Park. In addition, the 185-acre historic park benefits from over 10,000 hours of service from more than 3,000 volunteers.

Halicki is hopeful that parks and other community spaces remain a priority. “We live in a city that has nature overflowing in many respects,” he said. “We have a great asset there, and I think it’s something that will certainly reward Atlanta in the future, the more that we’re protecting that nature and making sure that people have access to it.”