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5 Questions on the important role parks can play in social equity

City parks and recreation centers have long been places for families, friends, and neighbors to come together. And, parks are more popular and important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, as we all shelter-in-place and seek safe ways to take care of our physical, mental and social health.

Cities have invested in creative programs, such as ActivateATL in the city of Atlanta, to ensure all their citizens have equal access to these vital public spaces. So, we asked LaChandra Butler-Burks, the City of Atlanta’s Acting Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, to share more about their work in Atlanta and what parks can mean for social equity:

Why are parks and recreation centers so vital to cities and their residents?

LaChandra Butler-Burks: Parks and Recreation centers are vital to cities and to maintaining resident quality of life. In fact, they have proven to be essential services for communities during these unprecedented times. As the City of Atlanta works together to contain the spread of COVID-19, keeping all our staff, Atlantans and our loved ones safe and healthy is our greatest priority. As the pandemic continues to impact our daily lives, we are reminded of just how precious our greenspaces are for our physical, mental and social health wellbeing. Here in the City of Atlanta, we are fortunate to have over 400 parks and greenspaces and 33 recreation centers. These vital public assets provide opportunities for our residents to safely spend time in nature via our trails and parks, cool off in our indoor and outdoor pools, participate in an array of athletic activities, get free nutritious meals even when schools are closed and so much more. We know how much our communities depend on all these programs for their wellbeing and we remain committed to offering the highest quality services to our residents, especially during the crisis.

Atlanta is already one of the greenest cities in the United States. What made you decide to launch ActivateATL now?

LaChandra Butler-Burks: Yes, Atlanta is affectionately nicknamed the “City in the Forest,” but we aim to ensure that City experience is shared by all Atlantans! In fact, we’ve worked hard to earn the distinction of accreditation by the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA). This national accreditation is the highest honor that is bestowed upon parks and recreation systems, which sets us apart from thousands of other parks systems throughout the nation. We are up for reaccreditation in 2021, which presented a unique opportunity to reevaluate our parks and recreation system with an equity lens that aligns with Mayor Bottoms’ vision for “One Atlanta” – an affordable, resilient, and equitable Atlanta, for all. At the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), we are committed to delivering on the One Atlanta vision with an even better parks and recreation system that meets our City’s ongoing needs and dreams. Thus, ActivateATL: Recreation and Parks for All is fueled by unprecedented effort to reach and hear from all residents, especially those that are underrepresented in City planning processes, driving towards a more equitable future where all Atlantans enjoy access to world-class parks, greenspaces and programs that they love.

Now is the moment to imagine the Atlanta we will want to live in when we emerge from this crisis and to consider the role that parks and recreation play in that future. Even now, Atlantans still look to recreation centers and parks to serve the community and fulfill vital social and health necessities. Thus, we refused to let the pandemic derail our efforts for the broadest public outreach we’ve ever attempted. We were so lucky to have Bloomberg Associates agree to assist us in reaching our goals. They’ve been there with us since day 1, assisting to write the RFP to interview and select the consultant team, helping to define our objectives, scope and project plan for creating the master plan, helping us design and implement our public outreach strategy, building our narrative and messaging, designing our website and virtual meetings, and more. It’s been an amazing team effort!

What are some of the main goals and projected outcomes of ActivateATL?

LaChandra Butler-Burks: ActivateATL: Recreation and Parks for All is a comprehensive master planning effort that aims to envision and implement more of what Atlantans love, while addressing longstanding concerns about our parks and recreation system. The ten-year plan helps guide our investments by gathering quantitative and qualitative data about park and community needs that will be utilized to prioritize capital and program investments into our parks and recreation programs that need it most, and will have the greatest possible impact, enabling all residents—regardless of age, race, gender, ability, socioeconomic status, or zip code—to have equitable access to exceptional parks and recreational activities. ActivateATL aims to grow our parks and recreation system and connect residents to exciting activities and beautiful parks all within a safe 10-minute walk of their home, so that our greenspaces and programming become an integral part of the Atlanta experience.

ActivateATL is an equity-focused initiative. How can parks, recreation and open spaces be used to drive equity? How has BA helped advance or support the project in general?

LaChandra Butler-Burks: Equity is the driving force behind ActivateATL. To ensure that our planning process connected with a broad and inclusive range of community members, including underrepresented residents in historically marginalized communities, we mailed 8,000 statistically valid surveys, sent out more than 150,000 postcards soliciting participation, and hosted 12 Virtual Public Input Meetings to engage residents throughout the summer, including two completely in Spanish. The consultant team that we’ve been working with told us to expect between 20 and 30 participants in each meeting but as of today we’re happy to report that we’ve blown those initial projections out of the water with a total of 5,328 residents who joined into at least 1 of our 12 meetings and so far we’ve collected data from 1,867 residents via our online survey, which is in addition to the statistically valid survey results we’ve gotten!

Furthermore, we are working with Bloomberg Associates’ health equity expert to identify social and physical determinants of health measures to include in a parks equity platform and mapping dashboard, which are being utilized to help us prioritize park and recreation investments in the neighborhood parks that need them most.

Having Bloomberg Associates work alongside our team has been crucial to our success. From advising on the high-level strategy, survey methods and content to offering design, branding, and communications advisory for the direct mailings, yard signs, social media posts, website, and virtual meetings. With Bloomberg Associates’ help, we elevated our impact to reach well beyond what we initially imagined, and they will continue to support us as we gather and synthesize the public feedback to set priorities for investment. We’ve been fortunate for the unique opportunity to utilize their expertise working with Cities around the world!

Could other Cities use ActivateATL as a model? What will that look like and what challenges would they face? What is the future of ActivateATL?

LaChandra Butler-Burks: Absolutely! As much as we are of service to our residents of the City of Atlanta, we are champions of parks, public spaces and meaningful recreational programming. We hope this is a model that all cities can learn from and replicate.

Our greatest challenge so far has been the time and dedication required to prepare and produce a polished and professional participatory process. We put together a robust menu of strategies to reach and hear from more Atlantans than ever before. That included 40+ program components, from our website and the HappiFeet Atlanta Parks app to online surveys, 12 virtual public engagement meetings, 26 focus group interviews, 20 crowdsourced videos for our YouTube channel, social media targeted advertising, paid advertising, email marketing, yard signs, direct mailings, promotional merchandise, partnerships with CBOs, and many more. It took a lot of time to design a website, design the outreach material, and to plan for the public input sessions.

Although we pivoted to an entirely virtual public engagement strategy in light of COVID, this challenge turned out to be an opportunity to engage with even more residents, especially among the most underrepresented residents who would not usually attend an in-person meeting. In fact, this experience has taught us that any future engagement can be complemented beautifully with virtual components.

Bloomberg Associates’ knowledge and expertise was essential to creating a well-designed engagement strategy and resulted in much more robust community participation than expected. This required an enormous amount of dedication and enthusiasm from our staff, who committed their personal time to this effort. It’s going to take a lot of departmental energy and motivation, but we’ve found that the outcomes are really worth it because we’re building strong relationships with the community experts and we’ve become the face of public engagement for the City. Gaining the community’s confidence is assurance that we are listening to them and will continue to seek their feedback to incorporate in our implementation plans. We feel the effort has certainly been worth it— and we have the numbers, phone calls and input to show it!

If our work can prove that virtual engagement can be a highly effective tool to capture the opinions of a broad and diverse audience, then the future is looking green for not only the City of Atlanta, but for cities across the globe.