KEYNOTE FOR 2005 LANDMARK LUNCH
PIEDMONT PARK CONSERVANCY
The theme of this year’s Landmark Lunch is “A Picnic in the Park.” I’ve been
grateful for all the suggestions that have come my way on what thoughts to share with
you today. Clearly, as you look at this vista around us today, natural beauty and flowers
and matters botanical would be the order of the day. It is wonderful to be sitting here in
the middle of this vast meadow, looking at a green and thriving Piedmont Park. We are so
lucky to have this emerald jewel in the middle of our fast-growing city. It is truly the
green heart of Atlanta, a central place where we can congregate and relax and feel a
connection with the city and with each other. It is a place that makes us proud to live in
this eminently livable city.
But some of you sitting in this tent today know that fifteen years ago (or ten or
even five years ago) when you looked around, you didn’t see this. I remember my first
run in Atlanta’s premier park, six years ago. (I ran into Maria Sapporta and she
mentioned the marker for her father and shared with me some personal history so that I
felt that perhaps I must understand and put down some roots here someday.) But after
hearing about Atlanta’s pride, what did I see that day? Dying trees. Bare, packed earth.
A Lake Meer where “brackish” would have been a kind description. Really, Piedmont
Park was where a travesty was made of Olmstead’s vision. Whatthe Piedmont Park
Conservancy has done to turn the park around has been nothing short of remarkable and
not without controversy. Change is never easy, and you were fighting City Hall and local
attitudes. Lake Clara Meer. You have breathed life back into historical Piedmont Park
and made it a place of which Atlantans can be proud.
So what I would like to talk about today is not “Picnic in the Park,” by why “It’s
No Picnic in the Park,” when you decide to take on change. I admit to having thought
some about it, so I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about leadership. Not the
corporate sort, but ours as citizens. I want to talk not about our political leaders, but
about the responsibility we have to better our city.
Before doing so, let me start which a few observations. They will not seem
connected at the outset, but if you stay with me, then perhaps I can draw these threads
First, my experience with the contributions of Frederick Law Olmstead. I lived in
Boston earlier in my life and saw the magic of how the fen turned into a riot of beauty
each spring at the Gardens and Common. Like everybody, I’ve spent time in New York
at Central Park. My husband lives during the week in Seattle where, by their own
promotion, the city boasts that “Seattle’s park system is a public resource that makes
Seattle one of the nation’s most liveable cities.” I’m fortunate enough to live in Druid
Hills which is an Olmstead neighborhood. So I’ve been drawn to an appreciation over
the years of Olmstead’s work. He delivered a talk in 1870 in which he said,
We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s
work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling
nothing of the bustle and the jar of the streets, where they shall, in effect, find
the city put far away from them.
We feel that way about parks today. But let’s think for a moment about what our cities
looked like in 1870 – factories in the city limits, an overflow of immigration and crowded
tenements, dirty air. Despite how we are wont to complain now, surely, our city is far
more livable today than it was then. But remember that Olmstead planned the lineal
parks on Ponce so that the street car could co-exist with his natural backdrop. In other
words, he understood that the areas of natural beauty he created had to co-exist with the
Second, let me offer my experience with how we deal with controversy. When I
came here, my name – indeed, Atlanta Gas Light’s name – was in the paper all the time
and not in a positive context. We had no choice but to take the controversy head on.
(Matt Quinn formerly of the AJC had a good two year run following AGL. As he says,
“gaffes make the best stories.”) It was a tough time but we faced our problems and
improved our company’s performance. With the support of many people, including a
number of you here today, we are now the largest gas company in the eastern half of the
U.S., doing business from New Jersey to Florida to Texas and Louisiana.
Here’s the interesting thing. Once you get past the controversy, you tend to live
afterwards in the “safe zone.” In our energy businesses, I see decisions of government all
the time. But if our company isn’t directly affected, we don’t say anything. Who wants
one’s name in the paper needlessly? All the PR professionals counsel against visibility.
But just two weeks ago, we received an unfavorable decision in Georgia on Atlanta Gas
Light’s business which we are currently appealing. I see now it was a culmination of
things about which I didn’t want to make waves along the way and now there is a tipping
point effect. Not to overdramatize, but it goes back to the famous clergyman, Martin
Niemoeller, in Germany. He’s the one who talked about “First they came for the
communists and I wasn’t a communist, so I didn’t speak up.” Eventually, as you recall,
he observed that, “then they came for me and there was no one to speak.” So I think
about the validity of the advice that says, “Stay in the safe zone.” Fundamentally, the
contradiction goes to the heart of the issue of social responsibility.
Third, let’s talk about vision and change. While “blessed are the peacemakers,”
we also know that nothing worth doing is done easily. The Piedmont Park Conservancy
has a vision that will produce many more improvements and expand the park by 40
percent. The Conservancy wants to add gardens and fountains, even a skate park, in the
North Woods. These projects will make Piedmont Park a world-class park, a “must-visit”
for both Atlantans and visitors. So now we face the issue of great controversy: the
parking deck. But sitting hand in hand with it is transportation policy. We really need to
build the parking deck, take that energy, and move on to the larger issue of public
transportation for our region.
Last, let me observe something about Atlanta more broadly. As wonderful as the
recovery of Piedmont Park has been, Atlanta is one of the most “under-parked” cities in
the United States. Less than four percent of Atlanta’s acreage is devoted to parks, which
puts us at the bottom of the list of the nation’s top 25 cities. The national average for
urban parkland is 11 percent. New York, that concrete canyon, puts Atlanta to shame
with 18.9 percent. Even Charlotte, a city more sprawling than Atlanta, has more park
space. Atlanta has just 7.8 acres of park per one thousand residents while Charlotte has
23.7 acres! Before coming to Atlanta, I lived in Houston. People rarely think of Texas as
being green, and yet the Bayou City is home to 18,000 acres of parks. And yes, they
drive to their parks, but the parks are oases from urban life.
Park space has not been a priority for Atlantans for many reasons. We think of
ourselves as living in a forest. The common perception is that we have plenty of green
space. Homeowners have large yards with big trees. We can look out from our high-rise
offices and see a canopy of green.
But there are disquieting signs that that our protective green canopy is
disappearing. American Forests, a conservation group, says that Atlanta has lost 60
percent of its natural tree cover in the past 20 years. A recent satellite survey by the
Georgia Forestry Commission shows that metro Atlanta loses 54 acres of greenspace
every day to development and highway construction. Fifty-four acres a day!
This loss of Atlanta’s precious tree canopy is why it is more important than ever
that we look ahead and plan for parks now. We need to replace our lost trees. All the
surveys that are done – by the Metro Atlanta Chamber to numerous other economic
development organizations, show that people value parks and want to live in areas where
they have access to parks. In order for Atlanta to be a first-class city with a high quality
of life, we need to make sure that there are places here for future generations to play and
enjoy nature. Think of the world’s great cities … and their parks come to mind. Rome
has the Borghese Gardens and Paris, its public gardens. In London, one thinks of Hyde
Park. San Francisco, a city I called home for many years, is home to the 74,000 acre
Golden Gate Park, the world’s largest urban national park. Atlanta spends just $58 per
resident a year on park operations and maintenance, well behind other cities. Seattle, for
instance, spends $160 per resident, Minneapolis $144 and Chicago $125. When it comes
to investment in parks, Atlanta lags far behind. It’s hard to call ourselves a world-class
city with these statistics.
So now, I’ve made four observations. Let me see if I can draw them together.
First, Olmstead knew that parks had to co-exist with the modern scheme. Second, we all
have a responsibility to speak up for what’s right. Third, change is never easy and while
it’s tempting to deal with one issue, there are many interconnected issues in a complex
world. Fourth, we know our path to greatness involves great public works, greater green
space, and the support for them.
What does that mean for us today? It means first, we need to get the parking deck
built and get that controversy behind us. But second, as citizens of this metropolitan area,
we must galvanize our political leadership at the state and regional level to pay attention
to public works and particularly transportation. Mayor Franklin has not received the
support she needs nor have we properly addressed the issues with Marta or building
roads. These issues go on and on and we just don’t break the cycle. Moreover, we know
that Atlanta lives the incredible contradiction between gentrification and affordability –
which is a racially divisive issue. But can we afford not to gentrify and create a more
profitable tax base for the greatest city in the south? Shouldn’t we have a more coherent
master plan for an affordable component within a gentrifying city? Can we also continue
to ignore regionalizing government?
We sometimes ask our political leaders for too much. We ask them to weave
through this complex web of issues where we don’t seek to coalesce our own political
beliefs. In the end, we do what’s right, but it’s all that in-between.
The Conservancy always wants your money and I would be remiss not to ask you
for more of it. But I would also ask you for your involvement. Call the City Council
members, call your County Commissioners, call your state representatives. Engage our
governor – he is incredibly approachable and is eminently dedicated to all of Georgia, not
just rural Georgia. You are the opinion leaders. I encourage each of you to contact these
public officials and let them know that not only do you support the expansion of
Piedmont Park, or that Atlanta needs more parks. Once you have them on the phone or
email, talk to them about breaking the logjam on public transportation, the reduction in
governmental units with overlapping jurisdiction in the metro area, and the commitment
to making Atlanta great in every way. Let’s get the mainstream of political thought back
into the process. Really, this park is a metaphor for building a great city. So let us
rededicate ourselves to our community knowing there’s no picnic in the park until we
fulfill our responsibilities as citizens of this great state and this lovely metro region we