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Parks board homes in on outreach efforts as plans for Zilker march forward

Tuesday, May 3, 2022 by Elizabeth Pagano

The city’s Parks and Recreation Board tackled two separate presentations on the future of Zilker Park at its last meeting. Both presentations focused on outreach and questions of how to make moving forward with any plan a more equitable proposition.

Currently, the city is in the midst of a comprehensive planning process to guide future development of the park. The Zilker Metropolitan Park Vision Plan launched in November 2020 and is expected to continue through this year.

Parks department staff presented an update on their outreach and community engagement efforts while, at the same meeting, advocates of “rewilding” Zilker Park presented their own plan, asking the board to put a halt to the separate visioning process being conducted by the city until what they see as outreach issues are addressed.

Despite the fact that the rewilding plan was developed independently of the city’s process, organizers hoped it could be integrated into the city process. 

Robin Rather, who presented the rewilding plan to the board, said the city’s current vision doesn’t go far enough. She explained that advocates would like to see parking limited to the current 1,000 spaces. Instead of more parking, they propose implementing a free shuttle system that could bring people from other parts of the city into the park with less of an impact. 

“There’s nothing going on in the park today that couldn’t go on with rewilding. It would just be shadier, it would be better for water quality, it would be better for climate, and it would be cheaper than what we are doing now,” Rather said. “It’s important to let nature do what it does.”

Rather said she understood that the biggest issue with putting a vision plan together (aside from Covid and the various complications that have unexpectedly arisen over the last year) is that the parks department is “tragically, tragically underfunded.”

She asked the board to halt the vision plan until the “embarrassing and atrocious” equity and inclusion issues with outreach were addressed, noting that there was outreach into underserved communities, yet “not one speck of data” from them. As a group, they requested that city surveys ask respondents about their backgrounds in the future, and that the dataless pop-up events be redone.

“We have had a discussion about whether Zilker Neighborhood Association should boycott the Zooms (virtual meetings), because time after time, it’s all white,” she said. 

Greg Montes, who is a program manager with the Parks and Recreation Department, explained that the city had, in fact, focused on where communities of color were in an effort to reach out to them via pop-up information sessions. However, he acknowledged that might not be readily apparent.

“When our staff goes to a pop-up, it’s not about us collecting data,” he said. “We have discussions, we had maps, we could inform you. It was about bringing awareness to our process.”

Montes explained that those who attended pop-ups were able to participate in surveys and leave comments that were not necessarily associated with the events. 

Claire Hempel, who is the managing principal of Design Workshop’s Austin office, recapped the community engagement that has taken place around the visioning plan, in an outreach effort that launched in February 2021. Hempel said they were taking rewilding comments into consideration, along with all of the comments they were getting from the community. All of those comments – from boards, pop-ups and emails – are now in a shared city document that will be included in the vision plan as an appendix, she said. 

Since the outreach launch, the city has held four community meetings via Zoom and about 80 informational pop-ups around the city in addition to maintaining online surveys and holding group discussions. Hempel told the board they had made an effort to speak to residents of all 10 districts. She said about 5,500 people participated in their five surveys and the city had received almost 8,000 comments on the vision plan. However, after questioning by Board Member Sarah Faust, Hempel said the data did not show whether people had taken the survey more than once or whether multiple comments had been submitted by individuals. So the number of participants in the process could be much lower.

Claudia Conner, who headed up the parks department’s small group engagement, spoke about the efforts she has led.

“Austin has been stretched and opened through change. It is our hope for innovative thinking and open hearts to reimagine the spirit of an all-inclusive collaboration for our crown jewel, Zilker Metropolitan Park, to become greener and intentionally well-balanced for humanity,” she said. “I say, onward, PARD. Onward.”

“Did you know that there are Black women who kayak? There are. And we had a Zoom call with them. We had a small group with the African American Cultural Heritage manager … we have had conversations on KAZI,” she continued. “There are voices to be heard.”

In reviewing the engagement thus far, Board Member Rich DePalma noted that context is everything and said he would like to see historically disenfranchised voices given more weight.

“I’ve been arguing and crying for representation, access and equity,” he said. “As we go through this process, I’m heartened by a lot of the support that we’ve had from board members on making sure that diverse voices are heard and brought forward.”

Though public meetings are ongoing, none are currently scheduled. Comments on the vision plan may be submitted via email to the Zilker Vision project team or by calling (512) 974-9458. Project and engagement updates can also be found on the city website.

“I think everyone’s trying to grapple with a really hard problem,” Faust said. “It’s compounded by Covid, but it’s also a problem that Austin has had for a long time and we need to be dealing with it face-first.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license. This story has been changed since publication to clarify the number of unique users that participated by commenting and taking the survey.

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