Change is coming to downtown Kennesaw.

Amidst a population on the rise, two substantial mixed-use developments are planned that will add restaurants, retail, townhomes, and yes, even a couple more hipster breweries to the northwest city’s roster. City leaders are especially excited about a planned 15-acre project that will redevelop the vacant Martha Moore School, replicating its historic façade for a new generation.

Which raises the question: How to balance the future-oriented goals of pedestrian-friendly density with a sense of connection to a place’s roots?

In Kennesaw, a solution was found in the cemetery.

You could look at Kennesaw City Cemetery (whose first burial was one Lucius B. Summers in 1863, according to the Cemetery’s website) and see two things: a dead space (pun intended) smack dab in the middle of downtown. Or: a lively greenspace with the potential to re-connect residents in new ways while actively honoring Kennesaw’s past.

Kennesaw’s leaders are betting on the latter. They were guided by ARC’s Community Development Assistance Program (CDAP) — in which planning experts provide technical assistance to local governments and nonprofits in order to advance things like quality of life in the region.  Now, after getting feedback from residents, the city is planning to expand its roster of cemetery events — activities such as clean-up days and honoring vets on Memorial Day — to include a wide range of community activities, from arts events and fun runs to musical performances and costumed storytelling celebrating cemetery residents.


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The shift was inspired in part by places like Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta and Decatur Cemetery, which embody cemeteries’ increasing role these days as parks and places of civic connection — just as they were in the 1800s when they were first built.

“What makes Kennesaw’s plan great,” said Anna Baggett, a planner with ARC, “is how they were able to leverage the CDAP program to highlight this strength they already have in their midst — this amazing cemetery space. I really look forward to watching this evolve.”

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“Kennesaw is changing,” said Darryl Simmons, the city’s planning and zoning administrator. “Demographics are changing.” And as even more residents flock downtown, “the cemetery is going to be a gathering space, a centrally-located place surrounded by all this vibrant activity. And I have no doubt that all these things will cross-pollinate.”

At its heart, that cross-pollination is all about connecting the present to a rich past. Kennesaw City Cemetery’s eight acres are located on a portion of former Civil War training site Camp McDonald — and just a few miles away from Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. It’s an active cemetery today, but it’s also home to many of the city’s late notable residents. There’s a great deal to learn.

“We want to embrace all the new activity, but at the same time,” says Simmons, “part of the cultural heritage of any town can be told by the cemetery.”

And told in new ways.

“I mean, it would be cool for a generation to learn about that history while sitting on a green area, stargazing, or listening to a story, or even walking or running through as part of a race,” he said.

And the sense of quiet contemplation remains, Simmons added.

“There’s a reflection area where you can sit and reflect or just read some of the cool plaques and markers in there, and that too is pretty cool.”

What’s Next ATL, produced by the Atlanta Regional Commission, is a community resource that explores how metro Atlanta is growing and changing, and how the region is addressing its most pressing challenges.