Urban Open Space Movement Takes Root in Atlanta Park

Olympic Park, site of unsolved 1996 bombing, enjoys a positive spotlight.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Atlanta park where a bomb disrupted the 1996 Summer Olympics, killing a woman and injuring 111 people, reopened this weekend as the largest urban US park built in the past 20 years.

For two days, tens of thousands of people thronged Centennial Olympic Park's fountains, open fields, and performance stages, celebrating its new life.

But while Centennial Park is first a legacy of the Atlanta Olympics, it also represents something larger nationwide: a new appreciation for urban greenspace.

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Since a group of citizens organized to restore New York's Central Park 18 years ago, and in response to the suburban sprawl that seems to be sapping energy from many cities, urban parks are increasingly seen as a way to revitalize a downtown and bring back a concept of public interaction that's been lost to shopping malls and long commutes.

"Parks are one of the most important community spaces," says Tim Frank, development director for People for Parks, a Los Angeles-based organization that has raised $1.5 billion for urban parks and the programs held in them over the last decade. "They're the places where we have parades and big celebrations. The park is the physical emblem of the collaborative community experience."

The resurgence in parks has been piecemeal, with older cities like New York and Washington focused on preserving the parks already in place, and newer places such as Boulder, Colo., and Portland, Ore., buying up land to ensure that as the city grows, it will have its green spaces.

But almost universally, park advocates say, good things happen once urban parks are reclaimed or built: Tourists and suburbanites are lured downtown, new housing and businesses spring up on the park's edges, and young people are given structured activities to take part in.

Take New York's Central Park. In the early 1980s, foot traffic was barely a trickle. Now, 20 million people a year visit its lawns, forests, and other facilities. In another telling statistic, concessions in the park in 1984 generated just $400,000. Last year, they pulled in $6 million, says Karen Putnam, president of the Central Park Conservancy.

"It's one of the top tourist attractions in the city, yet it also has a strong neighborhood and resident feel," Ms. Putnam says.

And the park works as a sort of glue for the city. "It's is a great equalizer," Putnam says. "When you enter the park, you leave behind your professional status, your economic status, your social status."

In Atlanta, Centennial Park is already sparking development downtown - hotels and high-rise residential buildings are in the works and a plan for new office space is being discussed.

BUT the most important mission of the park may be to unite Atlanta in a larger way. By drawing residents of a multitude of outer-lying communities into Atlanta, the park may serve as a vital link between city and suburb.

If scheduled with programs, music, and outdoor arts festivals, Centennial Park could become a big downtown draw for suburban residents, says Timothy Crimmins, history professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

But, he warns, the park is not a big enough draw in and of itself. "Just as if you build a stadium but don't have a team to play in it, people won't come, you're going to have to have events planned to draw people in. If done right, this could bring thousands of people downtown."

The new Centennial Park also carries with it a message.

"The last time we people of Atlanta gathered in this park, we gathered to take it back ... telling the world that no demonic act of violence would destroy the spirit of celebration in our hearts," says Atlanta Olympics chief Billy Payne. "This magnificent park was created to serve as the center of Atlanta's glorious future."

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