There is an enormous amount being written these days on creating public parks and spaces – designing them and planning for their context within a community including connecting them to other things, like housing or schools. Just as important – and interesting from my view – is their management. How do you run a public park so that it is interesting, attractive and, well…public? Meaning devising a management strategy that attempts to serve everybody, not just one market segment or demographic group.
One of the things I like about the Piedmont Park Conservancy in Atlanta – the organization that partners with the city to improve, expand and manage the park – is their philosophy about being a partner to this very well-used and public place, and the enthusiasm and creativity that they bring to the job.
“This is what makes urban parks so interesting – thinking about their safety, service, upkeep, visioning, programming, branding – understanding what Piedmont Park brings to the rest of the city and working on a strategy that makes and keeps it a compelling public space,” says Yvette Bowden, Piedmont Park Conservancy’s President and CEO – and someone who gets the idea of a 21st century public park.
The so-called “Central Park of the South,” Piedmont Park has served as Atlanta’s gathering place since before its inception in 1904. It is the most visited park in Atlanta and is also one of Midtown’s most historic sites. The grounds of this park were originally used in the late 19th century as the driving grounds and racetrack of the Gentleman’s Driving Club before the city of Atlanta purchased the 185 acres for a park in 1904 – extending city limits to do so. Of course, Piedmont Park is also known as having been the site of the 1895 Atlanta Cotton and International Exposition.
The Piedmont Park Conservancy (PPC), founded in 1989, is the city’s primary partner, dedicated to restoring the Park; today they are responsible for park improvements, programs and 90 percent of the Park’s daily maintenance care and security. Piedmont Park’s history is much like that of other big city parks with a history of not always being safe and beautiful. PPC Chief Operating Officer Chris Nelson was quoted recently in the local press as saying, “If you were to look at the park in 1990, I think that you’d be pretty depressed. There hadn’t been trees planted in the park for decades, and most of the buildings were in disrepair.”
During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, many great parks around the country were in despair because cities had neither the capacity nor resources needed to maintain them adequately. The same was true for Piedmont Park, where large-scale concerts and years of overuse nearly ran the Park into the ground.
Then in 1989, a group of key citizens, along with members of the business and leadership communities from around the city formed Piedmont Park Conservancy. “They saw the park in disrepair – crime and trash; misuse of the property; driving on the lawn. Over our 20+ years of existence, the Conservancy has evolved to take on restoration of the park, development and facilitation of a masterplan vision, and now implementation,” says Bowden.
In 1992, the Conservancy signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the City of Atlanta, establishing a public/private partnership similar to that of the Central Park Conservancy in New York City; PPC also located its offices in the park as the city’s partner and manager. Central Park Conservancy didn’t sign its MOU with the city until 1993, although it had worked with the city since 1980.
PPC has several agreements: the MOU and five different facilities management agreements where PPC becomes the operator of public amenities; it hires staff to operate them, leases them out and keeps them in good condition. Many of the historic structures in the park contribute to it being on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places in Atlanta.
PPC has newer additional relationships since its efforts to improve and add new land to the park – efforts like adding WiFi in the park, making connections to the Beltline; and, working on watershed creek restoration. “I had no idea of how many partners in the city we’d be working with when I took this job. It’s everybody!” says Bowden.
What’s going on now?
Two decades, and two master plans later, look at the park now. Over 400 Trip Advisor reviewers rank it as #4 of 169 attractions in Atlanta. The park hosts 85% of city’s festivals. And PPC is taking the lead on a 53-acre park expansion – activating city land as real parkland.
As of June of this year, 40.5 acres are now finished – transforming what was once a lumber yard and later a green waste dump for the city – into fields for pick-up games, foot-bridges and new park entrances, a trail with easy connection to the Beltline, access to a 3-acre existing hardwood and a thousand new trees spread across the rest of the acreage.
The new area known as Piedmont Commons is nestled on the park’s northern edge on former Atlanta Department of Watershed Management property that now expands its footprint. It marks the completion of the first phase of Piedmont Park’s planned 53-acre expansion at a cost of $43.5 million.
And a donor has contributed funding to start the design of the second and final phase of the expansion. Phase II will activate the last 12.5 acres as a watershed treatment function with related programming amenities – a community garden, outdoor classroom and new playground.
PPC is involved in all aspects of the projects from design to construction. In 2005 they took the lead on a masterplan vision with city council blessing. Fifty different local groups were involved in design. PPC selected and hired design groups and the construction team and oversaw construction. And they had to find funding for and implement $43.5 million worth of improvements. A major milestone for them, they are taking a deep breath before looking ahead and moving forward to complete the plan.
How does PPC get it done?
Over the years, the Conservancy has taken on more of the City’s daily duties, now fulfilling nearly 85% of Piedmont Park’s maintenance needs.
“We have a very heavy schedule. We watch the city’s mowing schedule and develop a supplemental plan that supports and anticipates the park’s heavy use. For example, the city has no financial capacity to deal with invasive plants. So through volunteers we deal with mulching and address invasive species. We inventory and help to maintain the tree canopy in the park. All of this takes a lot of coordination. We meet monthly with the Commissioner of Parks and our operational team is on the phone with city staff 1-2 times a day and meets weekly to deal with volume of activities at the park.”
PPC’s full staff is 27 people working on maintenance – one horticulturalist, 6 full time maintenance staff; management which oversees marketing, development and coordinates the volunteer projects; and, programming staff who oversee the Green Market, summer programs, the children’s garden, and facility rentals.
And PPC benefits from 10,000+ hours a year in volunteer time – some just for a day, and some for extended projects. In 2008 the city’s drought meant it depended on those volunteers to help water and mulch 1,000 new trees when the city took the park off of potable water. Later, PPC implemented a well and irrigation project that has virtually removed the park’s lawn and tree irrigation needs from the city’s potable water supply. This is both a sustainability effort and a way to contain costs.
Revenue generation is an absolute necessity. “When you take on a masterplan that grows the park then you have to figure out new ways to manage upkeep in this economy. You have to be nimble with your business model making sure you can take care of everything you open. Part of our commitment to our donors, supporters and members is that we’re not going to take our eyes off the maintenance factor,” says Bowden.
PPC has had to dabble in several unconventional areas for a nonprofit: facilitating licensing deals, operating concessions, managing events – all while keeping costs modest and staff size flat.
“Many park leaders would agree that things would be simpler with an admission gate but that’s not what parks are about,” says Bowden. “We are constantly looking at the ways people use parks and finding the ability to raise the money that will keep the space accessible, clean and safe.”
For example, a donor gifted the conservancy building some years ago. PPC has now taken a portion of that building and turned it into a tenant location for a restaurant that abuts the park – it looks like it is part of the park but it is actually land owned by the conservancy. “It makes the visitor experience better but also gives us another source of income,” says Bowden. “The diversification of our revenue stream helps convince donors that we’re here for the long term.”
The nuance of a partnership is that it evolves, and Bowden says:
“…it has to be in balance. I’m always listening to my partner. We want the park to be open to everybody. Part of what I have to do in my job is communicate to the city supplemental maintenance needs of the park so they can understand and appreciate the true investment it takes to handle our degree of visitation. We are aware that the city has many other spaces to care for. We are not asking for disproportionate funding but I want them to understand a thriving partnership’s needs. We want Piedmont Park to stay on top of the city’s ‘best’ list. How can we stay true to our mission and implement the city’s vision, too?”
PPC is in the middle of putting together a new strategic plan for the next five years. It will probably be heavily focused on the financial viability of the expanded park and the kind of partnerships that will be necessary to keep the park successful.
Bowden says, “We are constantly listening to what people want and watching how the park is used. Many things we had not imagined are being embraced by others, for example, how many people love the park in winter. Parent groups are great for feedback about playgrounds. We watch what images of the park people post on-line – favorite trees, favorite paths, photos, etc.” This knowledge helps PPC drive community stewardship and keeps the organization’s work relevant.
And the conservancy is thinking about the level of service that it can continue to offer even after the expansion is complete. So many people have thought about the park in terms of seeing new capital projects every year.
“Once the ribbon cutting is done,” Bowden says, “you have to focus on the visitor experience every day.”
Kathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.