Build it and They Will Come

By Phil Hayward | Posted on May 11, 2011

Like the baseball field in the movie Field of Dreams, a new park is as much a dream of its creator as its users, since they essentially are one and the same. How could it be any other way? After all, the best parks are the creation of the people who will use them. Our cover story this month on the resurrection of a run-down, closed park in Atlanta’s Fourth Ward demonstrates this payoff when community constituencies sit down to map out the ideal park. In the case of Selena Butler Park, Fourth Ward residents had a lot to work with, including generational wealth. As long-time resident and community activist Helene Mills tells PARKS & RECREATION, “I am over 80, I have been here a lifetime, and I have always been very, very involved in the neighborhood. Mills, who formed a 501(c)(3) group to better her neighborhood, steers by memories of a vibrant, connected community. “I can’t understand how you can get to the new without coming through the old.”

It’s natural, if not inevitable, that new and different people should be moving into the Fourth Ward. With its proximity to Georgia Tech University, downtown Atlanta, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District, dormant Selena Butler Park was bound to catch the imagination of these diverse, young urban enthusiasts. Perhaps in another time and place, these parties would never have come together if not for the common denominator of a belief in the community-building qualities of parks.

Getting from a neglected, closed-off park that residents deliberately avoided out of concern for personal safety to what will be this fall a three-acre wonderland featuring a playground, tennis courts, a ball field, community garden, walking trail, and community garden began with small steps. Residents, city officials, government leaders, and local business owners met a number of times to design a park that met all their needs and wishes. Then they voted on it. But it was a slow process that involved a lot of collective pushing. Their aspirations got important traction with the involvement of the National Recreation & Park Association.

Fresh off its success last year with its inaugural Parks Build Community project, the Playground at Marvin Gaye Park in Washington, D.C., NRPA found a natural candidate in Selena Butler Park. Like Marvin Gaye Park, the Atlanta project has demonstrable community benefits that can be captured in university studies and packaged into park- building toolkits. “The Parks Build Community initiative is based on the principle that good parks create a level playing field for all community members,” NRPA CEO Barbara Tulipane told PARKS & RECREATION.

The research conducted by George Mason University on usage patterns following launch of the Playground at Marvin Gaye Park showed dramatic positive results. Construction on Selena Butler Park began this spring for a fall opening. Everything we learned from Marvin Gaye Park and for the our cover story this month on Selena Butler Park indicates the Atlanta edition will succeed tremendously. Build it right, and they will come.

Phil Hayward is the Editor for Parks & Recreation magazine.