Let’s Make Earth Day About People
George Dusenbury, state director for The Trust for Public Land in Georgia
Every profession has its busy season. Accountant friends work overtime as Tax Day looms. Educators in my family scramble when a new term begins. For the environmental community, that season is now–around Earth Day. My calendar is full of conferences, luncheons and parties – all highlighting the land we have protected, the streams we have improved, the wildlife we have helped. For me, Earth Day is about people. My people-centric philosophy aligns with The Trust for Public Land. I’m proud to be a leader in a national organization that is completely dedicated to preserving land and building parks for people. But getting here was a journey.
Before The Trust for Public Land, I served as the executive director of Park Pride for six years. If I’m being honest, I struggled early on in that role to identify how to turn the charge I had been given—to advocate for parks—into action. Something was missing, and I could not articulate what it was. The answer presented itself on a January morning months after I attended a meeting of Neighborhood Planning Unit H in Adamsville, a southwest Atlanta neighborhood. I was making my way to meetings of all of the city’s NPUs to introduce myself and Park Pride to local leaders. I stood at the mic in front of NPU H and said I’m here because Park Pride cares about parks, and if you care about parks, we want to talk to you—we want to help you with your park. Like I had done during similar meetings for other NPUs, I handed a business card to the chair of NPU H, Mrs. R.R. Harris. I left believing that I would never hear from anyone in the room.
I was wrong. Mrs. Harris called the very next day. She shared that her mission is to improve the lives of the people who live in her community, and she asked me to join her in that pursuit. She and other local leaders had their eye on a little triangle of land that, if given some attention, could inspire pride and serve as a welcoming gateway into their neighborhood. Our team at Park Pride met with Mrs. Harris and residents to design the space, and we gave the community a grant to improve Adamsville Triangle through landscaping and a new fountain. We had a ceremony on a cold January day to mark the project’s completion. I brought my children, and Mrs. Harris, other local leaders, and residents all turned out. As we shivered and celebrated together, I realized that although this patch of green space was small, it represented something much larger: the idea that for land to be a park, people must care about it. It must have champions for its existence and improvement.
This experience gave me the answer I was looking for and the confidence to focus my work with Park Pride—and everything else since—on people. Of course the trees, the benches and the swings matter—but only when they are the fulfillment of the needs and hopes of the people who will enjoy them. If we’re going to work together, to roll up our sleeves and fight the good fight, it has to be personal.
I have carried that learning through my career and into my role today with The Trust for Public Land. We proudly collaborate with many outstanding local organizations, including Park Pride, bringing resources and decades of expertise creating and improving parks across the country. People who live near parks know more of their neighbors, have more friends and are happier with where they live. They’re happier in general. That’s why The Trust for Public Land works to bring parks within a 10-Minute Walk of every person’s home. We are uniquely positioned to tackle complex opportunities that address multiple needs, require numerous partners and offer a long list of benefits.
For example, later this year, we will join the City of Atlanta and local residents to open Rodney Cook, Sr. Park around Vine City and English Avenue. For too long, residents of these neighborhoods have had their lives disrupted by flooding, pollution and sewer overflows. In 2015, The Trust for Public Land began working with the City to build Cook Park, which features a 1.5-acre pond that can store up to 10 million gallons of stormwater during a 100-year storm event, alleviating flooding in 150 acres surrounding the park and reducing flood risk further downstream. The park will also provide a playground, splashpad, a great lawn and public performance space to this deserving neighborhood. As we have worked mightily to build Cook Park, I have had the opportunity to reunite with old friends like Byron Amos, “Able” Mable Thomas, Tillman Ward, Carrie Salvary, Makeda Johnson and the late Councilman Ivory Lee Young. And I am getting to know new community leaders like Bishop John Lewis, J.R. Murphy, Reverend Wright and Monique Prather. These are the people in “parks for people,” the people who first proposed Cook Park nearly a decade ago. People like Mrs. Harris, who relentlessly advocate for their beloved communities.
These fellow parks-for-people advocates keep me going. Join us! Get outside this Earth Day. Take a friend along and explore a new park. Volunteer with your family in your local park. Bring a colleague to the Georgia Trail Summit in Columbus on May 5-6—a gathering designed to help communities build trails that connect parks and bring people together outdoors. And support and share your commitment to organizations like The Trust for Public Land that are working to provide the places where life happens, for you and for future generations.
Photo top: Mrs. R.R. Harris (center, blue suit) and George Dusenbury (to her right, blue shirt) at a ribbon cutting for Collier Heights Park, another collaborative project. Photo courtesy of the Friends of Collier Heights Park