2017 State of Our Environment Report
Public Open Space
Parks provide a critically important oasis and respite in the midst of Austin’s rapidly growing urban area. The green spaces within parks provide a multitude of health benefits for individuals, and a growing body of research suggests that unstructured nature play in green spaces is essential for the healthy development of children. Perhaps less recognized are the powerful benefits of parks at the community level. Parks are associated with safer neighborhoods, decreased crime rate, more close-knit communities, and increased property values.
Austin’s 20,000+ acres of parkland provide opportunities and challenges. The Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) strives to facilitate meaningful experiences and programs that mitigate the effects of overuse. The state of PARD’s park system is a primary indicator of the value that the City and its residents place on their environment.
Figure 1. Austin Parks and Recreation Department environmental resources by the numbers
Status and Trends
Urban growth and engaged stakeholders require recreational programming that is adaptive despite limited resources. PARD units collaborate to maintain urban park environments, preserve greenbelts and nature spaces, and provide a diverse array of enriching programs.
Figure 2. Zilker Botanical Garden renovated a poorly functioning stream, creating a new riparian streambed that saves thousands of gallons of water daily and uses native riparian plants to create a new educational space and wetland garden.
Figure 3. More than 1,200 visitors enjoyed Monarch Appreciation Day, with many participants lining up to ride the Monarch Bike. The Zilker Botanical Garden partnered with Grow Green, the Austin Butterfly Forum, and other partners to present Monarch Appreciation Day.
Figure 4. Through unique, engaging environmental events such as the Woodland Faerie Trail, the Zilker Botanical Garden engages children and families in the wonder of nature.
Park Rangers are the face of PARD’s Leave No Trace initiative. The program aims to educate people about their recreational impact on nature based on the Leave No Trace principles. Every Ranger-led activity is focused on conserving Austin’s natural spaces and recreating responsibly.
Figure 5. In 2017, Park Rangers held 560 programs with 20,911 total contacts. Programs focused on the conservation of native habitat and wildlife, such as snakes, bats, and native flora. Here, Rangers Chaiken and Tucker represent the Wildlife Austin program, offering pollinator information and activities.
The Austin Nature Preserve System (ANPS) is comprised of 5,800 acres and faces significant pressure to balance population growth with the public’s desire for recreational green space. Unfortunately, this compromises spaces with overuse, and inappropriate use such as off-trail biking and dog walking within the preserves. Partnerships with the Austin Fire Department, Austin Park Rangers, and the University of Texas have provided essential resources to meet key maintenance and research needs in the preserves.
Figure 6. ANPS established an interagency partnership with AFD, which helps create fuel breaks and conduct prescribed burns such as this one at Indiangrass Preserve, mitigating the potential for wildfire and protecting neighborhoods.
The Urban Forestry unit recycled more than 1,300 tons, or 2.5 million pounds of brush in 2017. They also implemented quarterly Wood Reclamation Days, making logs available to the general public for art projects and milling.
Figure 7. The Urban Forestry program provided a Kid’s Climb at the 2017 Arbor Day celebration at the Austin Nature & Science Center, stimulating a fascination with trees as well as a novel physical challenge.
Figure 8. The new Climbing Tower at the Austin Nature & Science Center’s Outpost provides high adventure programming training teens for rock climbing in nature; support provided by Disney, ESPN and Austin Parks Foundation.
The Community Gardens Program partnered with the Austin Independent School District (AISD) to encourage the development of more community gardens at schools. This has provided neighbors with increased access to space where they can grow fresh, local, healthy, affordable food while strengthening community ties. Community gardens at schools help address challenges with garden sustainability as more neighbors are invested beyond teachers and parents alone. AISD works with the Sustainable Food Center to offer trainings for teachers on lessons and strategies for using gardens in their curriculum.
Figure 9. Green schoolyards offer a surprising array of benefits both to students and families and to the surrounding communities, with many uses in and out of school.
Green schoolyards provide a powerful opportunity to create community by addressing a wide array of community and environmental benefits simultaneously. In 2016, the City of Austin was selected as one of six cities nationwide to receive a planning grant from the National League of Cities and the Children & Nature Network for “Cities Connecting Children to Nature” (CCCN). The work conducted to identify how Austin might provide abundant and equitable nature access for all children in Austin. This resulted in the Austin City Council’s unanimous approval of the “CCCN Implementation Plan” and the “Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights”.
Figure 10. The Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights establishes Austin’s intent to insure that all children in our city have an innate right to be connected to and enriched by the outdoor environment in which they live. Photo by the ANSC.
One focus to bring the “Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights” to life is the implementation of a Green School Parks system on Austin’s public school grounds. This will provide daily access to rich nature environments for underserved students. As the backbone organization of the CCCN Implementation Plan, PARD is focusing on elementary schools with jointly used schoolyards. These new nature spaces will act as outdoor learning and nature play environments for students and teachers during the school day, and rich nature environments for the surrounding community to enjoy outside of school hours.
The first Green School Park pilot started in January 2017 at Barrington Elementary, and will be completed by March 2018, followed by Wooldridge Elementary and Cook Elementary. The program aims to expand the model across AISD over the next five to ten years. The “Nature Equity Score,” GIS mapping for identifying high-needs schools, is available at http://bit.ly/2CgGpqM.
Creating community with Green School Park systems helps expand the City of Austin’s park access for residents to enjoy a park within a quarter mile of their home - an Imagine Austin goal and an Austin City Council resolution. Greening schoolyards is an untapped solution for neighborhoods to help foster healthier, happier, smarter children, and to strengthen the community’s overall well-being. As Austin’s Mayor Adler said, “The vision guiding us forward is that children’s equitable access to nearby nature ensures future sustainability and environmental stewardship. Simply put, we take care of what we know and what we love.”