The Austin Chronicle

Developing Stories: Great Public Spaces Summit

Dancing in the streets, singing odes to streetscapes

By Katherine Gregor, July 10, 2009, News

When should a park be more than grass and trees? When it's in the urban core and needed for respite 24/7 by workers, walkers, families, dogs, lovers, loiterers, lunching lawyers, and everyone else. Now that Austin is a big city, it's time to provide properly for great public urban spaces, as well as natural green spaces.

That's the essential takeaway from the June 25 Great Public Spaces Summit, organized by the Central Texas chapters of the Congress for the New Urbanism and the American Planning Association. "We need to create dynamic public urban spaces – not just passive green space," was how Austin Design Commissioner Eleanor McKinney, a landscape architect, put it. "Austin is at a crossroads," she said.

Why a "summit" now? Seems we've got unparalleled opportunities to create new public spaces now, in rethinking Waller Creek, Green Water Treatment Plant, Seaholm, future rail transit stations, a new Downtown library, and Lady Bird Lake shoreline areas. Within the Downtown Austin Plan, the historic squares and parks and creekfronts are getting fresh attention. Let's not forget Great Streets, a pedestrian-friendly Drag, and neighborhood needs. In fact, why not make great parks and public spaces – the ultimate egalitarian amenity – a theme of the new comprehensive plan?

The full-day program was long on inspiring examples, if frustratingly short on the specifics of funding, policy, governmental action, and public-private partnerships needed to make happenin' places. Council Member Chris Riley noted that "successful urban space resonates with us, draws us in, has appeal," with a vitality that reflects the community. Later, Council Member Bill Spelman talked up opportunities within the Waller Creek District Master Plan. Other speakers included design professionals, nonprofit executives, private developers, and community activists. A large crowd heard talks on Why Public Space Matters, The Do's and Don'ts of Public Space Design, Public Spaces in Private Developments: Why, What, How, and Policy Tools: Best Practices in Public Space Strategies. One of the best: Lessons from San Antonio River Improvements Project, in which panelists shared a wealth of info about the ongoing $279 million project, spanning 13 miles of the waterway – a timely model for Waller Creek.

"Make Austin Weirder" was the rallying cry of Alex Gilliam, director of the nonprofit PublicWorks. Great public spaces need great programming, so Gilliam showed fun ideas for how other "creative capital" cities have created urban play spaces – some zany, temporary, or created by kids. Could Aus­tinites also get happier and healthier with a hula-hoop dome (Milan); treasure hunts; hot-pink, inflatable furniture; a traveling playground-in-a-box; or a mobile karaoke-and-ice-cream truck? Panelists suggested low-tech solutions, such as painting the pavement to transform a blighted cul-de-sac, to quickly improve an affordable housing project in Northeast Austin, a public space plan undertaken by Green Doors.

Besides all the urban plans in play, an important backdrop was the recession – a once-in-a-generation chance for government to assertively forge public-private partnerships and actively shape public spaces around community needs and values. Plus, new Parks and Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley is shaking PARD out of its doldrums, calling for fresh ideas on how to improve, fund, design, and program parks – including PARD-owned urban spaces. McKinney contrasted neglected Brush Square (a full-block Downtown park at the terminus of the Red Line) with Jamison Square in Port­land, Ore., and Paley Park in NYC – a tiny, well-designed urban respite that offers food, movable chairs and tables, shade trees, and the relaxing white noise of a waterfall. "The best public spaces are eccentric, unique, and of their time," said McKinney.

Architect Larry Speck pointed to the example of Discovery Green, a 12-acre park created out of a parking lot on the east side of downtown Hous­ton. He cited how the "phenomenal transformation" had immediately resulted in the construction of a new residential tower (100% occupied in a down market), a new office building (fully leased), and a 19% increase in bookings at the adjacent convention center – all directly tied to the creation of the new park. Throughout the day, we heard repeatedly that great public spaces deliver measurable economic benefits and shore up real estate values. Developer Tom Terkel discussed the revelatory New Urbanist "journey" that was the Triangle, then urged, "We have to create political will in the community to create great public infrastructure."

But at the end of the day, frustration erupted over why Austin can't seem to fund and build the great public spaces for which the audience was salivating. "Dedicated funding sources are the key," said CNU member Alex Tynberg. "The best thing this group could do is pursue what's available and achievable." Planning Commissioner Dave Anderson observed, "There's no mechanism to allow this to happen all over town." A new Austinite asked: "Why has it been so hard to get funding in Austin? What is it? What's getting in the way?" Hmm, given a coalition of developers and Downtown/neighborhoodies now demanding great public spaces – seems any savvy politician worth their rowing rights on Lady Bird Lake would jump on this one and pull hard.

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