Feature Article - April 2019
Find a printable version here

Conservation Conversations

How to Get Your Department and Community More Environmentally Aware

By Chris Gelbach

According to The Trust for Public Land's 2017 City Facts Report, city parks have seen a 40 percent increase in volunteer hours since 2008.

In Atlanta, Park Pride is a 501(c)(3) organization that first began as a committee from the parks commissioner 30 years ago before splitting to become a nonprofit. To this day, it functions in an embedded model, working in the same environment as the parks department.

"Our job is to engage communities with the goal that every park should have a friends-of-the-park group or a conservancy," said Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride. The group also manages larger-scale service projects that bring in church groups, corporate groups and other partners for volunteer efforts that can bring in 50 to 200 volunteers or more.

The organization's community-focused approach includes other components, such as matching grant programs that ensure that communities have some skin in the fundraising game, and a fiscal partners program that enables community groups in Atlanta and DeKalb County to raise funds for park improvements without forming their own 510(c)(3). As a nonprofit, the group additionally provides a means to access money for parks improvement that governmental entities cannot access.

Park Pride even has a park visioning program that includes two on-staff landscape architects. "It's more typical for landscape architects to be the park professionals who will show the community what they need," Halicki said. "Our approach is to come in with a blank sheet of paper and try to get the community to prioritize and articulate their wants and needs to work with us to come up with what their vision is."

Halicki believes this bottom-up approach has been a key to the organization's success. "It's really an interesting model," he said. "When you partner with the community not just to check the box in terms of engagement, but you actually involve them as collaborative partners, you can do far more than you can do working from a top-down approach."

McCabe noted that The Trust for Public Land has worked with the Natural Areas Conservancy on a survey of the largest 100 cities that will soon be released, and that shows that more cities are employing specialists inside their parks departments, both to manage natural areas and to draw on volunteer resources.

He also recommends engaging community residents through things like park tours for residents during different seasons to get people more knowledgeable about their local public lands, what's going on in them, and how they need to evolve. "Just getting people on the land and learning how to read and understand it is a big thing," McCabe said. "And seeing it in different seasons is also a big thing."

Leveraging Community Expertise

Expertise in conservation is often outside the core expertise of many parks departments, and these departments can often accomplish more in the area by partnering with outside groups. Halicki noted that this has been the case with a few nature parks in Atlanta that do educational programming.

One is the Outdoor Activity Center (OAC), a 26-acre urban forest preserve and nature center operated by the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance. This all-volunteer organization led predominantly by African-American environmental scientists, ecologists and environmentalists first arose from community efforts to halt discriminatory wastewater treatment practices in West Atlanta. Today, it also protects green space while educating residents about important environmental issues that affect their communities.

The OAC works to engage local youth through environmental education programs that include field trips and interpretive hikes through the old-growth forest that teach participants about the importance of their role as stewards of a healthy and sustainable environment.

Also in Atlanta, the Blue Heron Nature Preserve in the Buckhead neighborhood conducts environmental education, including immersive outdoor play and learning experiences for younger children, field trips for all grade levels, camps and nature weeks, and scouting programs.

"These are examples where the city has been able to leverage the ecological assets on that public area, but the kinds of programming that those groups do is not conducive to the culture within the parks department, nor are they playing to the strengths of what the parks department does well," Halicki said. "Similarly, a lot of these groups, if they had to wait until they could actually purchase a building and an environment with rich ecological resources, would still be moving around and working out of their homes because they couldn't afford that kind of thing."

Recreation departments can also boost conservation by partnering with subject-matter experts who are willing to help manage and sustain programs in their knowledge area. This can include partnering with your local Audubon chapter on creating bird habitats or with your local river-focused group on tactics for better stormwater management. It should include calling on environmental experts at your local universities, local agricultural extension offices and local branch of the Forest Service.

It can also make sense to look beyond these natural partners to think more unconventionally. "We've found that sometimes the best partnerships are the ones that are least like us," Leinbach said. "You should be thinking broadly."

Given the Urban Ecology Center's focus on making nature-based environmental education more accessible, Leinbach found such a partnership with an economic development group that wanted to figure out how to use some land it had. "That ultimately led to a $25 million greenfield redevelopment where we together built a 26-acre park, a new ecology center and seven miles of bicycle trail," Leinbach said.