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Parks board pushes against long-term reservation program for parks

Friday, September 25, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Every year when the weather warms up, the city’s parks and greenbelts fill up. This year, that trend has been amplified by the pandemic as Austinites flock to city parks, causing some of the most popular outdoor spaces to hit capacity, close their gates and begin monitoring the numbers of visitors.

This May, in an effort to encourage social distancing in its open spaces, the Parks and Recreation Department began requiring reservations for day passes to enter Emma Long Metropolitan Park, Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park and Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park from Thursday to Sunday. Reservations were also necessary when the Barton Creek Greenbelt reopened on Aug. 8. (Residents will only need to make reservations at the greenbelt until November.)

The reservation pilot program for the greenbelt, however, has not been as successful as the one rolled out for major parks. Amanda Ross, the natural resources division manager with the parks department, told the parks board on Sept. 23 that only 30 percent of those who make a reservation for the Barton Creek Greenbelt actually show up for their appointed time slot. That figure is 75 percent at Emma Long and Walter E. Long parks.

“It is a free reservation so there is a little less of a commitment,” Ross told the board. To compensate for the lack of residents taking advantage of the reservations, she said PARD is increasing the available number of reservations.

Even with an increase in the number of spots for reservations, parks board members expressed dismay that the city is limiting access to outdoor spaces.

“The notion of limiting access to a really important and special place like the Barton Creek Greenbelt is really troubling to me,” Board Member Nina Rinaldi said. She encouraged city staffers to “resist the impulse to shut off access to places like this” and instead mobilize those who use the greenbelt to be ambassadors for its care.

In addition to overcrowding and issues of social distancing, Ross explained that overuse of the Barton Creek Greenbelt has led to problems with littering, parking and other environmental impacts.

As part of the pilot program, the parks department will analyze the data collected from checking people into the natural space. That includes wait times for reservations, the number of people turned away, whether a reservation system is equitable, and whether this model can work in other city parks.

Board Member Sarah Faust questioned PARD’s choice to use data collected during the fall as a barometer for the anticipated use of the Barton Creek Greenbelt in the springtime. “I just feel like it’s a really different group of users,” she said.

Ross explained that the choice of the pilot timeline was informed by a yearlong data collection effort executed in 2013. During the course of the year, greenbelt use in September and October was just as high as April and May. Parks department Director Kimberly McNeeley added that the department needs to gather the data now in order to prepare any necessary budget items and staffing costs associated with implementing a more permanent reservation system in the future.

In addition to questions about the number of users, Board Member Laura Cottam Sajbel noted that the type of users coming to the Barton Creek Greenbelt during the pilot may not represent those who normally use the natural resource.

She said since the reservation system exists mostly online and the advertising comes primarily through social media, the program is inequitable in its reach. Faust also pointed out that the data collection done during the pilot excludes input from those who were discouraged by the reservation system as well as those who were turned away, since their contact information is not recorded for follow-up surveys.

The pilot program is currently ongoing, so Ross said that finalized data is not available. She said once the program is completed, the parks department will reach out to those who used the reservation system as well as routine users of the greenbelt, and launch a survey on SpeakUp Austin in order to better understand how the pilot affected their experience with this outdoor recreational favorite.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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