Celebrating the Development of Rodney Cook, Sr. Park in Atlanta, GA

August 19, 2019

Rodney Cook, Sr. Park in the Vine City and English Avenue neighborhoods of Atlanta, Georgia is just a stone’s throw away from Martin Luther King Jr.’s home on Sunset Avenue. While in Atlanta on NRF business, I had the opportunity to meet with one of NRF’s grantees, the Trust for Public Land (TPL), to get eyes on the construction of Rodney Cook, Sr. Park. NRF awarded TPL an $85,000 grant, because TPL’s development of Rodney Cook, Sr. Park aligns with NRF’s funding mission. NRF funding supports efforts that will develop a rich slate of recreational programming for disadvantaged youth, and Rodney Cook, Sr. Park will do so once it is fully constructed.

The development of Cook Park is not just a story about another urban park development project. The park will provide a green oasis in the heart of the community, as well as conducting important hydrological services. The development of Cook Park was influenced by the two adjacent neighborhoods, Vine City and English Avenue. These historic streets have witnessed many tourists who came to view MLK Jr.’s home, which was recently acquired by the National Parks Foundation. Now, these streets will also lead to Cook Park where community members may relax and recreate, and conversations surrounding race and equality will be encouraged.

However, coverage of any redevelopment efforts in these two neighborhoods must also recognize the inequity these communities have faced for decades. Subjected to racial segregation and economic segregation, as well as prone to flooding for over 100 years, these Atlanta communities rest on the lowest topographic point in the city. As a result, this area takes the brunt of damaging impacts from flooding, including sewage overflows.

In 2002, homes that once stood on the Cook Park site were devastated by a combined sewer system overflow that flooded homes with as much as six feet of stormwater and sewage. Many of these homes became uninhabitable.

TPL and Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management have partnered to improve the environmental infrastructure and economic prosperity of these communities. Cook Park is a prime example of how park development can hit two birds with one stone when it comes to city planning. Parks are not solely responsible for adding playgrounds, resurfacing lots for athletic courts, or installing benches and trails. Cook Park will certainly boast these amenities, plus much more. That said, TPL and the Department of Watershed Management also are using the construction of this sixteen-acre park to creatively solve flooding problems.

The picture below provides a glimpse of a new water feature that will be installed in the park. Directly above Kevin Naaman’s hardhat, viewers can see the beginning of a bridge that will traverse over a pond. The two-acre pond is a crucial aspect of this park, because it will filter and clean captured water. 

Left to right: Timothy Richardson (NRF), Jay Wozniak (TPL) and Kevin Naaman (NRF).
Left to right: Timothy Richardson (NRF), Jay Wozniak (TPL) and Kevin Naaman (NRF).

The overall sixteen-acre park (which includes the two-acre pond) will store and filter 10 million gallons of water. Jay Wozniak, Director of Georgia Parks at TPL, was able to put that sum of water into perspective by stating the following: “Imagine we turned a regulation football field into a swimming pool. Now, imagine that this single football field is 28 feet deep. That is how much stormwater the overall park will be able to store following a major rain event.” This pond will serve two important tasks: 1) act as a recreational destination, and 2) manage stormwater within Atlanta’s Proctor Creek watershed.

Some of the trees felled during construction will be milled into lumber and used for furniture, flooring, and wall paneling in the construction of other projects within the neighborhood. The City of Atlanta requires that every inch of tree lost due to construction is replaced. For example, a 36” tree will be replaced by nine 4” trees. This philosophy will allow for an even healthier canopy to flourish, which is important because trees are a precious commodity in urban areas. Trees manage stormwater, reduce heat islands, and create habitat for wildlife, among other important ecological and aesthetic services.

The updated water and soil infrastructures are intended to enhance the Vine City and English Avenue neighborhoods, but community members know that this park alone will not resolve long-standing racial and economic injustices. These neighborhoods have been the focus of many prior redevelopment efforts. Promises have not always been kept. Consequently, the community can be understandably skeptical of enhancement projects.

TPL and its partners intend to change that script. They have delivered on their promises and are making visible progress with construction efforts. Millions of dollars are being invested here to ensure these communities receive enhancements that are long overdue. Ultimately, Cook Park will be Atlanta’s fourth largest park.

The inclusion of recreational programs and amenities were based on community input. Neighbors provided ideas and input on the development plans and receive regular updates on the development’s progress via local newspapers, meetings, and various collaborative efforts. NRF is proud to have supported TPL with a grant. This support facilitated the development of recreational programs and opportunities for the local youth. Once fully operational, Cook Park will offer neighborhood health and fitness programs, a fitness zone, a bouldering (free climbing) area, sport courts, open green spaces, and a splash pad.