A member of the Piedmont Park Conservancy operations team landscaping along the edge of Lake Clara Meer, with the Midtown skyline in view behind him.
BY ELLIE HENSLEY
During a typical year, Piedmont Park regularly welcomes festivals, cultural and sporting events nearly every weekend. The pandemic brought a temporary pause to these large gatherings, but Atlantans have found they need the park’s wide open spaces more than ever — for exercise, for fresh air and for their mental health.
Last year, the park saw 4.5 million visitors, down from 6 million the previous year when large events like Music Midtown and Atlanta Jazz Festival commanded massive crowds. Maintaining a place beloved by so many people is not a responsibility the Piedmont Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that has managed the park for three decades, takes lightly.
“It takes a lot of work to coordinate all the efforts in the park, between the staff, the City of Atlanta and contractors in order to maintain it,” said Piedmont Park Conservancy Director of Operations David Esslinger. “We all care about the park and take pride in it. We want to see a clean, safe park as much as everyone else.”
David Esslinger, Director of Operations at the Piedmont Park Convservancy.
We spoke with Esslinger about how his staff of 10 keeps the park looking beautiful, how their task list has changed since the pandemic began, and what it’s like to have 200 acres of green space as your office.
Keeping the City’s Largest Green Space Open
For Esslinger and his team, work begins just after sunrise with a stand-up meeting to discuss which tasks need to be accomplished for the day.
Some of the operations staff’s tasks include:
- Shrub work
- Tree work that is 12 feet off the ground or lower (contractors are brought in for higher jobs)
- Trash pickup and removal
- Pine straw replacement and other landscaping
- Janitorial duties
Every day on the job is different, Esslinger said. He might spend one day in meetings and the next on a boat clearing trash out of Lake Clara Meer.
“We wear a lot of hats,” Esslinger said. “The great thing about my job is it’s rarely boring. I might be in the office all day one day, and the next day I might be out in a boat in [Lake Clara Meer], picking up trash.”
Although the total guest count was down in 2020, the year and the pandemic brought a whole new set of challenges. The operations team has seen a large increase in the amount of trash left behind, and it worked with the City to have sanitation crews begin picking it up seven days a week — and twice each weekend day.
“I think this is because of increased traffic we weren’t used to seeing,” Esslinger said. “It’s like every day is a weekend, and weekends have even heavier traffic than usual.”
Festivals and event organizers were required to leave the park as they found it, and this extra level of clean-up help has been missing. The upside, Esslinger noted, is that the park’s landscaping has been able to recover after a year without heavy foot traffic from crowds.
COVID-19 has also necessitated a few protocol changes for the operations staff. Arrival times in the morning are staggered to limit how many are in the office, and each staffer is assigned a different area of responsibility in the park such as the Meadow or Oak Hill.
Extra care is paid to the restroom soap dispensers to ensure they are kept full, and the conservancy also switched to a new disinfectant and sanitizes each restroom multiple times a day.
“[The pandemic] did kind of change our mindset and how we do things, but each of these guys did a great job adapting and I’m proud of them for doing it,” Esslinger said.
When Tropical Storm Zeta came through Atlanta last October, it brought down a more than 100-year-old oak at Piedmont Park. The conservancy is grateful for the help of volunteers to help clean up after storms these large.
Preserving a Green Sanctuary
Another recent challenge for Esslinger’s team was cleaning up after Tropical Storm Zeta last October, which caused lots of damage in the Metro Atlanta area from downed tree limbs. The biggest loss in Piedmont Park was a 100-year-old oak tree. The park’s operations team was astonished to find the fallen tree fell straddling an old monument and a rock wall without damaging either.
With a little help from Piedmont Park Conservancy volunteers, the operations team had the park restored to its pristine condition within a couple of weeks.
“It’s a big park, there is a lot to do and there is no way we could get it all done without the help of volunteers,” said Esslinger. “They play a huge role in the park for us.”
Esslinger, who owned his own landscaping business before working for the Piedmont Park Conservancy, understands the connection people feel with the park. He finds sanctuary in it himself.
“I spend most of my time outside,” he said. “I tell people I have the best office in Atlanta.”
To volunteer at the park, email Erica Glasener, Piedmont Park Conservancy Community Involvement and Events Manager or visit the park’s website.
This story is the second in a series Midtown Alliance is developing on “second responders,” organizations that are hard at work supporting Atlanta’s post-pandemic recovery and resiliency. We’re checking in to see how the Piedmont Park Conservancy and others are adding to the big picture on urban issues like transit, greenspace, economic recovery and more. Subscribe to our newsletters to make sure you catch future installments in the series.