The courage to change – SaportaReport

By Michael Halicki, Executive Director of Park Pride,
and Rachel Maher, Director of Communications and Policy

Last Monday, Park Pride returned to welcome our 21st Annual in-person Parks and Greenspace Conference at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the first time since 2019. And wow—what an incredible and mission-affirming day. With nearly 400 people from the park in Atlanta, Georgia and the country (masked and with several Covid safety procedures in place!), we fully delved into the theme of the conference, The parks we need now.

First, a little background. The world has fundamentally changed from “the time before”, and there is no going back. We know that parks are essential urban infrastructure. Through the pandemic, America’s racial reckoning, and increased stormwater flooding, we’ve experienced the truly essential services green spaces provide that have helped us survive. And time keeps moving forward. Atlanta is growing, becoming denser. Demographics are changing. Climate change is not slowing down. The pandemic hasn’t quite taken a back seat and the adaptability of our parks and green spaces will be key to truly thriving in the years to come.

And with all that our city has changed and continues to change, is it reasonable to think that the “old” way of managing, funding, planning, engaging and activating parks is still effective? Will “how we’ve always done it” reduce it?

What we take away the most from this year’s Parks & Greenspace conference is that, no-we (government agencies, funders, nonprofits/park conservatories, and Friends of the Park groups) cannot maintain the status quo and expect success in providing great parks that meet the needs of people living in ‘Atlanta. We’ll share how we got here by highlighting the keynote speakers from the conference:

Neelay Bhat, Main, PROS Consulting, Inc..

“The most dangerous phrase in human language is ‘we’ve always done it this way'”
Grace Murray Hopper

Neelay has been involved in over 130 strategic/master planning projects for parks and recreation systems across the country including Atlanta, Los Angeles County, San Diego, Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, Indianapolis, Las Vegas , etc The belief that because something has always been done in a particular way, Neelay shared, that it should Continue being made that way is a belief that paralyzes efforts to grow, adapt, and change.

Have you heard these words spoken when a long-standing process is challenged? Pause and think about it for a moment. “We’ve always done it that way.” If no one said those words to you, Neelay pointed out the uncomfortable truth: you are those who say so. Think about that. Is this the way we’ve always done it, the better how to do now? Is it in your power to change it?

Our city is changingit is an undeniable fact. We have to adapt. A second uncomfortable truth revealed by Neelay’s presentation: resisting change and maintaining ways of operating that you’ve always had is putting your head in the sand. Have the courage to do something difficult.

Norma Edith García-González, Director, Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation

As Los Angeles (LA) County Parks Director (the first female and the first person of color to hold this position), we are impressed by the courage and leadership of Norma Edith García-González. Under his leadership, the LA County Parks Department changed its standard mode of operation to focus on fairness. It took a lot of difficult and uncomfortable conversations to get there: conversations about race, historical injustice, and divestment.

But, Norma persevered and did what was difficult. Which was apparently impossible! When planning the department’s budget, they wiped out the spreadsheet, started with $0 allocated, and wondered, “Where are the dollars?” necessaryAfter ensuring that each park and each community could be guaranteed a standard level of service, they established a budget based on need. They went beyond equality deliver true equity to the people of Los Angeles.

Akiima Award, Akiima Price Consulting

At the start of the conference, Michael shared that the “we” in The parks we need now, is more expansive than it has ever been: a cohesion among Atlanta’s environmental nonprofits that extends beyond the Greenspace Advisory Council, the formation of new groups of friends of the park and reserves in city parks, growing investment in parks and the Park Pride of Atlanta’s business community. But Akiima Price illustrated that even this expanded view of “we” is too narrow to include everyone with a stake in the parks.

Akiima Price is a thought leader at the intersection of social and environmental issues and the relationship between nature and community well-being. She recently co-founded the Friends of Anacostia Park in Washington DC and is innovating meaningful ways to use park experiences to address mental, physical, and social well-being in marginalized communities.

“Who are the users of the park? ” she asked. In our minds, and perhaps in yours too, we think of basketball players, dog walkers, joggers, picnickers, community gardeners, children and parents on a playground, elderly people who walk around, etc. In short, we tend to think How? ‘Or’ What people use the park. But Akiima challenged us to think deeply about WHO use the park.

When we (as park agencies, nonprofits, conservancies, or groups of friends) plan or activate parks, do we give full consideration to park users? are? Do we consider if they are poor, unemployed, immigrants, homeless, LGBTQ, depressed, or struggling with other health issues? Parks are places where everyone is welcome, but which is excluded from our definition of everyoneand what are we doing to support the parks their unique needs?

Again, these are tough questions Akiima asked, and the solutions are both difficult to identify and implement. But we will never succeed if we don’t try, and it takes courage to try.

Meghan Talarowski, Executive Director, Ludo Studio

As Founder and Executive Director of Studio Ludo, Meghan Talarowski’s research focuses on the impact of the design of play environments on physical health and social behavior. His keynote also got us thinking about our notions (and misconceptions) of who uses parks and park facilities.

Did you know that more than half of playground users are not children? Meghan’s studies indicate that most users are, in fact, teenagers and adults! Are the playgrounds we invest in and build in suitable for all who uses them? When we look around, 99% of the playgrounds we’ve experienced (both in Atlanta and beyond) are designed exclusively for kids (and able-bodied kids, at that).

Yes, it’s a challenge to reverse the trend, to do things differently from “how they’ve always been done”. But imagine how much more enjoyment we would get from our playgrounds, our parks, the time spent with our family, if play environments were built for us too? Where are we in a typical playground design?

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Times are changing and we have to adapt. Neelay said you can either be strength change, or you can be the first change. May each of us, whether we are with non-profit organizations, park agencies, other government agencies or elected officials, whether we are with conservatories or Friends of the Park groups, or foundations,let’s have the courage to be the first to change. Let’s ask the awkward questions, re-examine our budgets, build trust, expand our understanding of the role of parks and the people they serve. Let’s ask if how we have always fact, it still makes sense and is the better way to do it now. Only then can we provide the parks Atlanta residents need now.

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