This $100 Million Project is the Latest Example of the Boom in Parks Philanthropy

 photo:  f11photo/shutterstock

photo:  f11photo/shutterstock

A major parks project is moving forward in Atlanta, fueled mainly by philanthropy. As usual with these efforts, there's a lot to like, as deep-pocketed donors pay for green space that improves the quality of life in a major metropolis. And, as usual, this parks project raises questions about the use of private funds to pay for public goods, and how to ensure that urban development is truly equitable. 

In the past decade, Atlanta has made strides in rehabbing its reputation for car-centric sprawl, embarking on ambitious efforts to expand green space and walkability. 

The city is still a far cry from such park paradises as the Twin Cities or San Francisco, but has become known in particular for its visionary BeltLine project, a growing loop of trails and parks along an old rail corridor. Parks have, overall, been a priority under former Mayor Kasim Reed, and local corporations and wealthy donors have played a big part in funding improvements. 

As the latest major example, and one of the last acts of his administration, Reed announced a $100 million expansion of the city’s beloved Piedmont Park, just outside of downtown, and said that 80 percent of its funding would come from private sources. The city made a deal to purchase land to expand the park to the north, including additional trails, access, and a connection to the BeltLine.  

The city is putting up $20 million toward purchasing the land, while a private fundraising effort will bring in the remaining $80 million to buy the remaining property and cover design and building. To bring in the funding, the city is turning to Carol Tomé, CFO of the Home Depot and a member of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, a partnership of city and private sector leaders.  

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But judging from one interview the mayor gave, it sounds like the cash is all but in-hand. Aside from a $2 million anonymous donation that’s official, Reed told a local news outlet that “all of the leading philanthropies have come to the table to say ‘We’re in.’” That, along with rising real estate prices, and the fact that the land was at risk of development, he said, triggered the purchase. 

It’s not clear who those donors are, but some of the usual suspects that have given to the city’s green spaces are corporations like Cox Enterprises, Home Depot and Coca-Cola, and funders like the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, and the Kendeda Fund. 

Aside from Piedmont and the Beltline, which has received at least $39 million from philanthropy, we’ve seen some big support for sites like the Atlanta Botanical Garden and Centennial Olympic Park. The city also has an interesting ally called Park Pride, a nonprofit advocate that channels smaller matching grants from area funders to support a variety of green spaces—a nice counterbalance to the higher-profile projects. 

And yet, the city has also suffered the common problems around economic inequality that have trailed big city parks projects and other redevelopment efforts. Such efforts, which can significantly boost quality of life and make a city a destination with help from philanthropy, can also supercharge displacement. Such projects are also often unequally distributed across neighborhoods of different income levels. 

In Atlanta, the city’s economy has rebounded dramatically, but with that redevelopment, serious concerns about gentrification have followed. Booming real estate values around the BeltLine are pushing out lower-income families and people of color, and the project is falling far short of its promised affordable housing targets. In recent years, Atlanta has led the nation in income inequality. Even as outgoing Mayor Reed announced the Piedmont Park expansion, he acknowledged one of his big regrets is that he didn’t do more to secure affordable housing. 

There are certainly some valiant efforts out there, but we’ve yet to see whether parks philanthropy can be an effective force, or at least avoid being a negative one, when it comes to city equity. Atlanta is one of the most important cities to watch in that regard as projects like the BeltLine and now Piedmont Park’s expansion charge ahead.

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