Tuesday, March 2, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

Parks board endorses push for more benches in city parks

On Feb. 23, Janee Briesemeister, who chairs the Commission on Seniors, sought the Parks and Recreation Board’s endorsement for a recommendation passed by the senior commission back in January.

The recommendation advocates for “the placement of benches on trails and other developed parkland areas” by promoting the Memorial Bench Program, a Parks and Recreation Department-run program that allows citizens to commemorate loved ones with engraved plaques on park benches.

According to Briesemeister, limited seating options at parks presents a barrier for many elderly citizens, and increasing seating “actually encourages walking and activities because it gives people who need a rest a place to take a rest.”

This push by the senior commission has its roots in the Age-Friendly Austin Action Plan, a set of objectives adopted in 2016 aimed at making Austin a more inclusive place for its aging population. According to 2017 data, 13.7 percent of the city’s population is 60 or over – about 100,000 people in total.

The recommendation passed in January is focused on the goal of increasing “access to and utilization of parks, open spaces and public buildings.”

As it stands, the efforts thus far don’t have any associated financial costs. As Briesemeister said during the meeting, her commission is “very mindful of the constraints on the city’s budget.”

This is one of the main reasons why the proposed method for increasing seating has revolved around memorial benches. For $2,400, Austinites can fund the installation and lifetime maintenance of a park bench. The fee would also include a plaque with up to three lines of text (with the specific language subject to PARD approval).

Briesemeister suggested that “expanding and promoting the Memorial Bench Program and also encouraging the community – including individuals, families, businesses and groups – to also sponsor benches” could help meet the goal.

According to the city’s website, benches can’t be installed on greenbelts or trailheads. Additionally, a number of key locations like Zilker Park, Barton Springs Pool and the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge are at capacity.

Briesemeister emphasized that the parks department has been exceptionally responsive and receptive to the needs of seniors, so her commission “felt it was better to let PARD work through the logistics of how to implement” the initiative.

The recommendation didn’t receive any opposition from the parks board, but it did spark some discussion about additional possibilities. Board Member Kate Mason-Murphy suggested that, in addition to accommodating the elderly, this push could expand to include children.

She suggested equipping benches with fitness or parkour stations that could entertain kids while adults relax.

“If you’re making things comfortable and inviting seniors, it makes sense at the same time to make it comforting and welcoming and inviting for our youngest,” she said.

Board Member Laura Cottam Sajbel saw the recommendation as adding to the renaming discussions the board is currently working through, noting that the benches offer “another opportunity to memorialize people and to honor people.”

The parks board voted unanimously to support the senior commission’s recommendations.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Commission on Seniors: The Commission on Seniors is an advisory board for the Austin City Council on quality of life issues for senior citizens.

Parks and Recreation Board: The city’s Parks and Recreation Board members deal with the acquisition, development, improvement, and maintenance of Austin’s parks and playgrounds.

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