Here’s one way old suburbs are changing in the 21st century: parks.

When Boyd Leake was growing up in Sandy Springs and Buckhead a half-century ago, neighborhood playgrounds could be hard to find. There were the big parks salted across the map — Chastain Park in Atlanta, Hammond Park up north of the Chattahoochee River, Murphey Candler Park over in DeKalb County — but not a lot of little neighborhood parks that a kid could easily walk or bike to.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is editor-at-large at Reporter Newspapers and has lived in metro Atlanta for over 30 years. He can be reached at joeearle@reporternewspapers.net.

Kids played in their yards. “We were lucky living in a suburban area,” Leake said. “Everyone had a big back yard.”

That was then. Now several of his old neighborhoods are seasoned with community parks.

Leake likes what has happened and wants to see it continue. He recently took a job as executive director of the Sandy Springs Conservancy, a group that has promoted local parks and trails since before there was a city of Sandy Springs. “Our goal,” the 57-year-old said, “is to build out more parks and trails in Sandy Springs.”

Leake sees his new job as a comfortable fit. He has a thing for the environment and for local history. And he knows the area pretty well: he went to The Lovett School, has advanced degrees in history, and started and oversees a Facebook page for “Buckhead Natives.”

One of his first jobs was volunteering for Trees Atlanta, a nonprofit that promotes the metro forest. Through the years, he’s worked for a nonprofit that planted trees to pretty up Atlanta for the Olympics and for a city of Atlanta office dedicated to improving the city’s “resilience.” For the past couple of decades, he worked as a private consultant specializing in composting.

When a friend suggested he take a look at the conservancy job, he liked what he saw. “I looked at what they had done, at the almost explosion of parks in Sandy Springs, and I saw where [the city] had passed the trail plan,” he said. “It really appealed to me. They were really building something, and they were helping the city build something.”

Boyd Leake, executive director of the Sandy Springs Conservancy. (Special)

Two weeks after Leake started work at the conservancy, the coronavirus caused everything to shut down. “We’re having to bob and weave and change what we’re doing” because of the virus, he said. These days, much of his job is done at a distance – on the phone, in Zoom meetings – and often from his home in the north Georgia mountains, he said, rather than the conservancy’s office near Morgan Falls Dam.

There’s plenty to do. The conservancy reaches its 20th anniversary next year, so there’s a celebration to plan.

Then there’s that Sandy Springs trails plan, which city officials adopted last October. It calls for years of work by various groups to add to the network of trails knitting the city together and to surrounding communities.

Leake said the conservancy’s biggest job will be helping the city promote the plan and build a consensus around it. He said conservancy members sometimes can serve as intermediaries with property owners or businesses that might not be comfortable dealing with city officials.

“Sandy Springs is a new a city and for a long time was very busy in getting basic stuff done,” he said. “Now things are filling out a little and I think the conservancy can help the city get things done. There’s an even greater need for these kinds of green spaces. I think that’s been reinforced by COVID-19. People are just aching to go outside.”

The conservancy also is joining with other local groups to try to convince residents to get out and walk more on the area’s existing trails, he said. The group will promote the use of public trails in places as varied as Morgan Falls Overlook Park in Sandy Springs and the Blue Heron Nature Preserve in Buckhead.

Some of the places to be highlighted didn’t even exist until the 21st century. It’s just another sign of how things have changed over just a few decades in these old suburbs.

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