In the years after the 2002 tragedy, residents teamed up to ensure the devastation Ms. Hood and her neighbors experienced would never happen again. Through dozens of community events, meetings, and in-depth conversations over 18 months, residents articulated their priorities for future public spending on flood prevention, identifying nine sites throughout the neighborhood that could be transformed into public green space that could double as stormwater management infrastructure. Together, the community identified the land that is now Cook Park as an area of vast potential.
The plan they put forth is another example of west side residents driving the change they know their communities need. “There has been a history of activism around environmental issues in Atlanta, from illegal dumping to water quality,” says Dr. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks. She chairs the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, a community-based nonprofit that works for environmental justice and stewardship. The organization cut its teeth in the mid-1990s with a campaign to overturn the sort of discriminatory development and wastewater treatment practices that led to the 2002 flood.
Addressing the causes of flooding—like an archaic combined sewer and stormwater system that can’t handle the burdens of a growing population and bigger, more frequent rainstorms associated with climate change—calls for big investments. And Trust for Public Land and the City of Atlanta are working hard to prioritize those investments where they’re needed most. But how, exactly, can new parks help stop the flooding that had so long plagued the neighborhood?
“Instead of only building big vaults and installing pipes and drain inlets, which are expensive and really only serve the aim of flood control, we look for opportunities to use parks and natural systems to manage flooding and improve water quality,” says Jay Wozniak, landscape architect and Georgia director of urban parks at Trust for Public Land. He’s talking about green infrastructure, or stormwater management systems that rely on natural processes to reduce flood risk, while providing all the other benefits of a great city park.
To see the effects of well-designed green infrastructure in Atlanta, all you need to do is look a few miles east. In the 1990s, Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, a neighborhood just east of downtown, was struggling with frequent flooding. Engineer and community organizer Bill Eisenhauer saw a win-win solution in vacant land in the floodplain of Clear Creek. He envisioned a system that would channel stormwater into a pond—which would in turn form the centerpiece of a brand-new park, all while bringing beautiful green space to a neighborhood that sorely needed it. Trust for Public Land helped the city buy the property, and by 2010, Historic Fourth Ward Park was managing stormwater—and welcoming neighbors to play—throughout the neighborhood. “Community activism changes public policy,” says Eisenhauer of the years-long campaign to create the park.
“The City of Atlanta is dedicated to managing stormwater, and we’ve invested significantly in green infrastructure to support these goals across the city,” says Todd Hill, a deputy commissioner with the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management. Hill’s department was planning a green infrastructure project to reduce flooding in Vine City, and joined forces with the Department of Parks and Recreation to create a space that would meet the neighborhood’s need for a park, too. Guided by the plan put forward by English Avenue and Vine City residents, in 2015, the parks department approached Trust for Public Land to tap the organization’s proven expertise with community engagement, fundraising, and construction management.