November 5, 2018|By Stacia Turner
Protecting the environment in urban spaces is as crucial to natural resource conservation as wilderness conservation—especially as the global population increasingly moves into cities. However, many vulnerable urban communities lack access to greenspace within their neighborhood and/or robust community engagement in deciding how to sustainably use the environmental resources that do exist.

The Conservation Fund’s Parks with Purpose program is working to address these concerns. The Parks with Purpose vision is to support environmental justice and resilience through the continued development of equitably planned parks and urban greenspaces. Fueled by an emphasis on community engagement in the decision-making process, Parks with Purpose partners with local organizations and residents to ensure that those who have been the most impacted in these neighborhoods are given an opportunity to participate and benefit from improvements planned for their communities, and that these new park spaces are designed to meet the needs of the community who built them. 

11 5 12185311 500289386816600 4743040156590405950 oPhoto by Stacy Funderburke.

Our Peer Exchange conferences specifically exemplify the spirit of the Parks with Purpose model by highlighting the role community members play in the decision-making process of Parks with Purpose projects in Atlanta. Peer Exchange brings together community members from different locations to collaboratively learn and share experiences about the unique and similar challenges that their own communities face. Recently, representatives from six cities with ongoing Parks with Purpose projects—Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C., Raleigh, North Carolina; Durham, North Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; and Chicago, Illinois—gathered to learn about challenges and successes in our Atlanta work. Through the peer exchange, participants from different cities get a chance see how Atlanta residents are realizing the triple-bottom line benefits of the Parks with Purpose projects in their communities.

11 5 Lindsay Street Sign11 5 Kids on slide Lindsay Street Park Ribbon Cutting c Whitney Flanagan 059 copy

Children and families are able to enjoy Lindsay Street Park, one of Atlanta’s Parks with Purpose. It is so much more than just a playground—with raingardens to capture storm runoff, native plants, as well as providing job training and educational programs through partnerships with local organizations. Photos by Whitney Flanagan.

Over the course of the two-day Atlanta Peer Exchange, participants exchanged stories and information about the environmental and social challenges that their individual Parks with Purpose projects seek to combat, and shared relevant tools and resources. The trade of information about how each community is working to address environmental inequalities and collaboratively attack these issues head on fostered a spirit of solidarity and network building across geographies. Participants were able to learn best practices, as well as mistakes and ongoing obstacles, from Atlanta and other city projects. Sharing experiences across city projects allowed the teams to brainstorm strategies to apply in their Parks with Purpose project. Additionally, each lead city team was sent home with a toolkit of materials to build on the Atlanta Parks with Purpose model. 

image.pngPhoto by Robin McKinney. 

Participants had the opportunity to see firsthand the markers of uneven development that plague West Atlanta, including the consequences of discriminatory housing and development practices that have resulted in Black communities being placed in Atlanta’s floodplains. The tour also showcased neighborhood challenges of excessive flooding and mold growth, housing vacancies, and neighborhood blight, while also demonstrating how strategically planned Parks with Purpose have started to rewrite development inequities by providing a beacon of community empowerment. 

They visited both completed and ongoing Parks with Purpose projects, including Lindsay Street Park, Matte Freeland Park, and the plot for the Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park. Community members shared their experiences in the park and with the green infrastructure development process. They reflected on the impact these projects have had on their collective sense of empowerment in the face of environmental vulnerabilities and toxins. 

11 5 Juanita Turtle Biological Sampling Project

“You meet people, and as you grow in the community, other people grow with you. I got involved with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, and now I take (water) samples from the creek every Thursday. I’m helping to find out what’s going on, and if there’s any toxicity in the water.” 

- Peer Exchange remarks from Ms. Juanita Wallace, Community Scientist, regarding the collaborative efforts to protect Proctor Creek, a stream she’s known since childhood and was baptized in.

The Atlanta hosts also demonstrated their commitment to environmental stewardship in their neighborhoods and watershed by educating the visitors about their ongoing environmental challenges, and demonstrated the productive potential of building an ever-expanding collaborative partnership model across neighborhoods, organizations, and municipal agencies. 

11 5 2018 ParksWithPurpose Peer Exchange Atlanta ZhivkoIlleieff11Peer Exchange tour of Lindsay Street Park, guided by a talk from neighborhood resident Mother Moore. Photo by Zhivko Illeieff.  

The most poignant aspect of the Atlanta Peer Exchange experience for me was the genuinely collaborative learning experience this conference facilitated. Participants were able to draw connections between the social and environmental challenges of Atlanta and their own cities. The community-driven focus of the conference activities allowed participants to experience what it looks like on the ground when community members are engaged and empowered to tackle the issues facing their city and their neighborhoods through a Parks with Purpose project. 

The Peer Exchange also provided an opportunity for participants to bond and relate over environmental topics, which I can personally say, was a rewarding and therapeutic consequence of interacting with community members and environmental professionals who all share a passion for protecting their local environments and natural resources. 

There was something immensely instructive and powerful about hearing the narratives of community members representing some of Atlanta’s most environmentally vulnerable neighborhoods, and observing them take action among an extended network of partners organizing for environmental justice. We are grateful to all of our participants, and are eagerly preparing for the next Peer Exchange in the spring of 2019.

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Read our other Parks with Purpose blogs to find out more!

Greening Youth Plants Equitable Roots by Kelsi Eccles

Bringing a Kansas City Community Together Through Parks by Ginny Moore

The Power of Partnerships and Parks by Michael Halicki and Shannon Lee

Lindsay Streeet Park Is a Park with Purpose by Shannon Lee