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Report finds Austin lacking in parkland

Monday, January 31, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Austin may pride itself on being a green city, but statistics show that the city lags far behind its urban counterparts when it comes to usable family-friendly parkland.


Community members Lynn Osgood and Heather Way presented an update to the Planning Commission last week on the Urban Parks Stakeholders Group, which is focused on, among other things, determining what it would take to put a park in Austin within a quarter-mile of residents living in the city core and a half-mile of those outside that core.


The results are rather stark. Almost 60 percent of Austin’s inner city residents don’t live within a quarter-mile of a city park, and Austin lags behind Boston, Denver, Seattle, and even Minneapolis when it comes to parkland accessibility.


In fact, in Minneapolis, 99.4 percent of all inner-city residents live within a six-block radius of a city park. In Boston it’s 97 percent. Austin, by comparison, still struggles to meet its goal of a one-mile distance for urban parks, a goal set out by city leaders in 1983, Osgood said.


In terms of national statistics, Austin fails on any number of park metrics. It contributes just under half the amount, per resident, to parks as most park-centric cities; it puts far less money aside for park maintenance; and it pushes current parks staff to cover maintenance for acreage that far exceeds that of parks-friendly cities.


When the urban parks stakeholder group presents its recommendations to the Parks and Recreation Board and City Council, Osgood expects to recommend a commitment of at least $20 million toward parks in each of the city’s next three bond elections.


Osgood did say city-owned land could be used to meet the urban parks goal. A recent analysis suggested that city-owned land could help meet about 12 percent of the goal for inner- and outer-core urban parks.


The stakeholders group is also concentrating on park acquisition and park use, noting that the new family-friendly park model often focuses more on using the natural environment for innovative park design. The new urban playground is both more vibrant and more inclusive of the existing environment.


“Often the natural environment can become a playscape itself,” Osgood said.


As has been suggested in the city’s current open space and Waller Creek efforts, public-private partnerships will likely be the key for long-term funding. Tax levies and public-private partnerships can leverage the long-term goals that will be needed to make the city’s urban parks system successful, Osgood said.


Urban parks need a 10-year action plan, Osgood said. Logistically, that could entail the hiring of two people: one to oversee the implementation of long-term parks expansion and one member of the Parks and Recreation Department staff to seek out new partnerships and investments in parks.


Commissioner Saundra Kirk noted the issue goes beyond what the city spends. It goes to the heart of how the city spends its money and sets its priorities.


“A lot of the land that we’ve acquired has been for conservation purposes,” Kirk noted. “I think that we lean so heavily on that side of it that we haven’t yet balanced out the use of our parkland by people and families.”

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