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Austinites discuss creating great public spaces

Monday, June 29, 2009 by Michael Mmay

The Austin chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism held a forum last week where city leaders (including Council Members Randi Shade, Chris Riley and Bill Spelman), academics, planners and activists discussed ways to create new public open space in Austin, and to make the ones we have more interconnected and user-friendly.


There’s a difference between protecting open space and creating public space, a point that is vividly illustrated by Austin’s own experience. Garner Stoll, the Assistant Director of Neighborhood Planning and Zoning, spent much of his career working in communities around Denver where they prioritized buying land for trails that have made them tourist destinations. Austin has bought a lot of open space, but with different priorities. “Austin has focused on protecting endangered species and water quality.” He said. “These are laudable goals, but neither one deals with public use.”


The forum explored other cities, like Boston, that have managed to use parks and streetscapes to create miles of connected, pedestrian-friendly areas. In contrast, most of Austin’s open space is on the outskirts of the city, and the few open public spaces downtown, aside from the Lady Bird Lake hike and bike trail, are not really connected in a coherent, walkable way.


Participants at the forum have high hopes that the Waller Creek project could be the kind of “great public space” participants are looking for. Dave Anderson, a member of the Waller Creek Citizen’s Advisory Committee and the Planning Commission, painted a picture of Waller Creek as a sort of central park for Austin. “It could provide a place for people to gather at Palm Park, cafés, or music venues,” he began. “It can be used as a trail to connect UT to downtown, and east and west of I-35. And it can be used as a venue to display art and music, to communicate what Austin is all about.”


Bobby Garza, an aide in Mike Martinez office and member of the Live Music Task Force, said the city needs to think strategically about ways to make that happen. “The mayor of London put pianos at train stations with laminated song books, to encourage people to come together and make music,” he offered as an example. “We need to think of ways to activate spaces like Waller Creek, perhaps allow and even encourage busking by providing space for people to play. City can raise barriers to make this happen. We could allow art to be displayed public spaces.”


And public space doesn’t just have to be downtown. Steve Zettner, a member of Sustainable Neighborhoods of Central North Austin, is trying to create public space in his car-dependent neighborhood. His group did a study, and found that less than 2 percent of Central North Austin streets are pedestrian friendly. They are starting, one step at a time. The group has identified a trail that follows a gully through the neighborhood, and they would like to make it safer and more appealing for families to walk along. It passes by the library, grocery stores and possible transit hub. “We have had very little opposition so far,” Zettner said. “We hope to get neighborhood groups with us, and then we’ll present our vision to the city.”


Zettner said he’s feeling optimistic about the project. “I’m seeing change in attitude in city leaders over last 6 months or year,” he said. “I’m feeling a lot more optimistic about the possibilities.”


Participants talked about creative ways to use public space the city already owns. Anderson noted that the water-quality buffers around creeks could be used for trails, and Kathie Tovo, from the Families and Children Task Force, said that school playgrounds and fields could be opened to the public, and “even computer classrooms can become open and used by neighborhoods.”


The challenge, especially during a recession, is how to find money to pay for public space improvements, maintenance and programming. Alex Tynberg, representing the local chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism, said that Austin needs to pass a bond for recreational measures. He said that it’s not historically what the city has raised money to do, but he called on the audience to push for it.


Charlie McCabe with the Austin Parks Foundation said that public space could even be part of the transportation bond that Mayor Leffingwell has talked about creating. McCabe said we could think about transportation broadly, and include “bike lanes, trails and other connectors.”

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