Atlanta Shines a Bright Light on Parks and Play

by  Guest Blogger Lianne Epstein Deren

Recently I had the delightful and rewarding experience of attending Park Pride's 15th Annual Parks and Greenspace Conference at the beautiful Atlanta Botanical Gardens. I was overwhelmed by the hope and inspiration I found there, especially in the face of a world that all too often seems filled with nothing but anger and sadness. This was my first year attending the conference, and as an architect, artist, designer, mom, and advocate for play, this year's theme of Parks & Play:  A Conversation for All Ages was especially close to my heart.  The line up of passionate speakers, who work tirelessly to make the world and their communities a better place, made for a day that filled me with joy thinking of the great possibilities that could lie ahead for Atlanta’s children.


James Siegal, the new CEO of KaBOOM!, jumped right in during the opening session discussing the concept of "playability" and how we could and should reimagine our cities with kids in mind. Parks and playgrounds are a much-needed oasis for our children and communities, but kids deserve more than an oasis. To children the world is their playground and with a quickly growing percentage of the U.S. population living in urban areas, cities must innovate and prioritize families. Cities must become safe and playable for children. This means making non-playground spaces such as sidewalks, bus stops, and public art playable. When our cities prioritize the needs of families, we will all benefit. It is time to design our cities for all.


The next speaker that morning was Barbara Tulipane, President and CEO of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA).  She took us on a journey through the history of parks in our society and the roles they have played.  But it is where we find ourselves today that is daunting. Today, one in three children are obese and outdoor play has been on the decline. Childhood illnesses including diabetes, anxiety and depression have been on the rise, and over 13 million of our country's children are living in poverty. With this as our reality, parks serve an ever-increasingly critical role in our communities by positively impacting conservation, health/wellness, and social equity. We must all come together to help our underserved communities gain a voice.

 These opening sessions moved me and brought tears to my eyes.  I was in a room full of people who "get it".  These incredible leaders "get it".  It was like coming home.

 There were several great morning breakout sessions to choose from, but I went with one where three incredible women - Cynthia Gentry, Jodi Lox Mansbach, and Jamie Simone - discussed their experiences and visions for play in the city - Atlanta, and beyond.  My partner in play, Play Atlanta's Founding Director Cynthia Gentry, took us on a vivid journey focusing on children's essential right to play and sharing wisdom from our little play experts.  "Ask the children for ideas.  They know what they are talking about."

 Jodi Lox Mansbach, Principal of Urban Design Matters, gave a wonderful sneak peek into some of the playful developments happening in and around Atlanta - the renowned Ponce City Market's soon-to-open rooftop amusement area with miniature golf, boardwalk-style Midway games, and an amazing slide. She also spoke of Chattahoochee NOW's exciting work to help Atlanta discover that we really do have a riverfront, provocatively asking "Where the F*** is the River?".

 Finally, Jamie Simone, Chicago Urban Parks Program Director at Trust for Public Land, gave us a view into Chicago's new 606 trail, a 2.7 mile trail which transformed a dilapidated elevated rail line into a bustling greenspace filled with runners, cyclists, and families. This rail line which once served as a boundary and barrier separating economically and ethnically disparate communities, is now a connecting force bringing together their communities for urban play.

 The mid-day session opened with the Inspiration Awards honoring some of our best local parks and play heroes (including our own Cynthia Gentry). Following the awards, Public Workshop's dynamic founder Alex Gilliam took us on an amazing journey where the medium of building becomes a mode of conversation within communities. His methods are sometimes unconventional and wacky, like the six foot long chocolate cake study model for the master plan of a neglected Austin, TX park and waterway. But, where their work seemed to really shine was in underserved communities like Camden, NJ where, through the process of building skate parks, swingsets and benches, seemingly unlikely young leaders rose to serve as bridges to their neighbors. These "non-experts" used hammers and nails and power tools, to become "Agents of Change" in their communities.  Each one became a "Building Hero". These guerrilla constructions were a way of sketching at full scale, making mistakes and adjusting and correcting, making and doing, building on each other's ideas and needs.  They proved that a bench and play could lead to so much more.

The afternoon session I attended was "Playful Spaces as Catalysts for Urban Transformation" where experts Candace Damon and Connie Chung of HR&A Advisors and James Siegal of KaBOOM! joined local community leaders Ken Edelstein of the Candler Park Conservancy and Carrie Sagel Burns of the Castelberry Hill Neighborhood Association. Here they shared their projects, their successes, challenges and struggles, all the while exchanging support and ideas to solve problems, including getting input and ideas from the audience.


Finally the afternoon's closing session took us through two fast paced PechaKucha-style talks from Play Atlanta's Cynthia Gentry and Atlanta's goddess of lanterns and queen of civic play Chantelle Rytter, the creative force behind Atlanta's beloved BeltLine Lantern Parade.  Sandwiched between these two fast, fun talks, the impressive and immensely knowledgeable expert on nature play, The Natural Learning Initiative's Director and NC State University Professor Robin Moore, took us through a beautifully rich and contemplative presentation on "Greening Childhood by Design". He imparted to us the critical, interdependent relationship between the health of humankind, animals, and the biosphere, and illustrated the importance for children to be engaged in nature - both for the health of our children and the health of our planet.  He shared beautiful examples of designed, playful, natural environments he has been a part of including multiple works in North Carolina, and even our own local Play Chastain.  The imagery was evocative and inspiring.

In conclusion, the conference reminded us that play is how children learn and explore their world, grow skills of problem solving, cooperation, empathy, community, care for nature and the planet. Just as importantly play is fun and that in and of itself is enough. Play brings joy into our lives and brings people together.  Kids have the inspirational ability to see the world as their playground with the amazing gift of discovering play everywhere, even in the most stressful and heartbreaking of environments.  

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child’s Article 31 identifies play as an essential right of all children. Play is critical to the physical and mental wellbeing of our children. We must do a better job providing our “future generations” with a world today that supports them and encourages play, to ensure a better, happier, healthier world today and tomorrow. With the leaders I listened to at the Park Pride conference, I am confident we are on the right path.  I am proud to stand with them as an advocate for play.


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Tags: alex, atlanta, barbara, chantelle, conference, gilliam, james, moore, park, play, More…pride, robin, siegel, tulipane


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Ethan's grandmother gave him a gift of $25. He gave $20 to ATOP so more Atlanta kids will have great places to play. He kept $5 to get something cool for himself. We think Ethan is pretty cool!

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