Building Parks and Trails with Creativity and Collaboration

June 4, 2021

By George Dusenbury, Georgia State Director for the Trust for Public Land and Commissioner

Early in the pandemic, it became clear that the outdoors was the safest place to exercise, play and interact with friends and family. Many of us have found solace in nature. In fact, green spaces have seen record usage over the last year. One year into the pandemic, all signs indicate they will stay that way.

Growing appreciation of the outdoors has increased residents’ expectations of municipal leaders to provide high-quality, accessible outdoor spaces. Investments in parks, trails and natural areas will ensure that Georgia’s cities and towns continue to be the kinds of places where people want to live, work and play.

Communities are more vibrant, more connected and safer when residents are outside. People are healthier and happier when they have easy access to well-maintained parks with diverse amenities. According to the American Heart Association, every $1 spent on walking trails saves approximately $3 in medical expenses. Natural areas help reduce flood risk, filter stormwater, keep trees clean and cool the air. Recent research from The Trust for Public Land shows that parks—especially those with lots of trees—can counter urban temperatures exacerbated by heat-trapping buildings, pavement and concrete. Across cities and towns nationwide, areas within a 10-minute walk of a park are as much as six degrees cooler than areas beyond that range—which means less energy consumption and lower risk of the health impacts from extreme heat.

Despite the positives, creating new parks and natural areas can seem out of reach as city budgets are stretched thin, particularly as local economies recover from the pandemic. But with creativity and collaboration, this could be a defining moment for Georgia.

Creativity: Use What You Have

Schools and parks are gathering spots where friendships are made and social bonds strengthened. The Trust for Public Land brings these two spaces together through our Community Schoolyards program. We work with local leaders and schools to invest in existing schoolyards so that they can serve as public parks when school is out. Creating schoolyard parks is a cost-effective approach to increasing recreation amenities because it uses land already owned by the public. By combining resources and opening school grounds to the community through shared use agreements, municipalities and school districts both can better serve their constituents.

Across the country, The Trust for Public Land has transformed hundreds of schoolyards, which has helped us hone a design process that invites students, teachers, neighbors and local groups to envision how a schoolyard can become a place that reflects what’s important to the whole community. Designs include features such as native gardens, shade structures and benches to encourage more frequent outdoor education opportunities for students and for neighbors to sit and get to know each other. Reimagined schoolyards also include more trees and plants to make spaces more welcoming, and they offer the added benefits of reducing stormwater runoff, cooling and cleaning the air, and attracting pollinators.

Many of Georgia’s cities and towns would benefit from this approach. Of the 100 million people in the United States who do not have a park within a 10-minute walk of home, almost 20 million of them do live that close to a public school. The Schoolyards program is already improving communities in Georgia, with six schoolyard conversions in Atlanta and several other jurisdictions beginning the process.

Collaboration: We Can Do More, Together

In addition to on-the-ground efforts to increase access to public spaces, we also need to invest in collaborative planning, like creating a statewide trails master plan. States that have taken on this initiative are working across city, county and state agencies to plan for using resources efficiently to connect people and communities. Access to walking and jogging trails consistently ranks among the top amenities sought by U.S. homebuyers.

In 2019, The Trust for Public Land convened representatives from cities and regional commissions, nonprofit leaders, outdoor retailers and others to launch the Georgia Outdoor Recreation Coalition. The Coalition aims to tackle statewide initiatives such as developing a trails master plan. We will gather in Augusta on Nov. 7 and 8 for the Georgia Outdoor Recreation and Trail Summit to inspire new partnerships, share resources and tools and grow the movement toward a cohesive vision for connecting Georgians. We invite Georgia’s Cities readers to join us.

The challenges of the past year have pushed cities to innovate and people to seek solace in the outdoors. Collaborative, creative investment in public spaces exist at the confluence of these two trends. The resulting social, environmental and economic benefits will improve the quality of life for all Georgians.

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2021 edition of Georgia’s Cities magazine.

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