How Much of Zilker Park Can Austin Return to Nature?
Balancing ecological preservation and the human element in city's Zilker Park Vision Plan
Austin has parks, and then it has Zilker Park. With more than 2 million visitors a year, the crown jewel of Austin's parks system has immense cultural importance, but those millions of feet are quickly eroding Zilker's unique natural assets. To stabilize and secure Zilker's health for generations to come, the city is at work on the first-ever long-range vision plan for the century-old park. And while that work is yet to bear its first fruits, there's already a rift emerging over how wild a new Zilker Park should be.
The city planning process, which began in February, has included virtual community meetings, followed by surveys, small group discussions, and in-person pop-ups in each council district. We're now in the third round of this process; earlier rounds introduced the planning goals and focused on in-park programming. This one, beginning with a community meeting Oct. 19, has rolled out some initial design concepts to provide more transportation options to and within the park and to create more ecological restoration and preservation.
On this last point, a community stakeholder coalition is pushing the Parks and Recreation Department and City Council to make a bolder commitment. "There are people who see Zilker as a huge commercialization opportunity," says Robin Rather, former chair of Save Our Springs Alliance and vice president of parks and environment for the Zilker Neighborhood Association. "I love this park. But it's not what it should be for a city of Austin's innovative and supposedly green brand."
Bill Bunch, Rather's successor (and predecessor) at the helm of SOS, is also the current ZNA president. The two groups, joined by the adjacent Bouldin Creek and Barton Hills neighborhood associations and the local Sierra Club, have released a plan of their own: "Rewilding Zilker Park: A Vision for People and the Planet." The rewilding plan, authored by Elizabeth McGreevy, a natural resources consultant and restoration ecologist, offers a more aggressive vision for restoring bigger swaths of the park than what's included in the city's visioning to date.
The latter is encapsulated in a 200-page report, authored by principal Jonathan Ogren of Siglo Group, commissioned by the city and Barton Springs Conservancy and released in May of this year. "I think his report is a great inventory. But it's not a great rewilding plan, in our view," says Rather. "The recommendations and the conclusions are very milquetoast, they're very timid."
Ogren's report catalogues all plant and animal species found in Zilker, and describes the park's mix of meadow, savanna, upland woodland, and riparian woodland, all threatened by high erosion, invasive species, low plant diversity, and compacted turf. In the Oct. 19 community meeting, Ogren discussed mitigation strategies including canopy enhancement, reduced mowing, green stormwater infrastructure to mitigate runoff, and planting understory plants to reduce dust dispersion.
McGreevy's rewilding plan includes all of these strategies; it just goes further, proposing that 75 acres (21%) of Zilker be rewilded, compared to Siglo Group's 49 acres. "They recommend restore/reclaim/reforest, we recommend rewild," explains McGreevy. "Rewilding is a different approach that allows nature to take the lead. Restoration/reforesting is more expensive and involves planting heavily, irrigating, etc. [Rewilding] is a slower process, but much more ecologically and economically sustainable."
Protected From the People?
All of the city's visioning reflects an underlying calculation of how to best protect Zilker from the people who use it. Rewilding or restoration at any scale means placing limits on Zilker's ability to sustain the programming that has made it the main stage for Austin entertainment and tourism – most obviously the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival and the subsequent holiday Trail of Lights, which contribute to erosion and make much of the park inaccessible to other users for two months out of the year.
Zilker's programming in turn shapes mobility patterns to and through the park, and ecological restoration could or should involve shifting more of that travel away from roads and out of private vehicles. The Siglo report points out that "much of the existing park infrastructure would not be allowed to be built today based on current floodplain and water quality regulations," and that reducing impervious cover – mostly asphalt, for roads and parking lots – is the best way to maintain the park's health.
Rather says ZNA isn't concerned about conflicts with ACL Fest: "Our strategy is to assume that they'd be just as interested in working on the rewilding plan as we would be." She calls ACL's parent company Live Nation Entertainment's climate plan "impressive," and points out that the festival might provide a blueprint for addressing parking and mobility: "ACL manages to keep it car-free for something like 450,000 people every fall. It's an incredible example of what's possible – I think part of what we're asking is, what can we do with the other 10 months of the year?"
When ACL Fest and its plethora of shuttles and bike racks aren't in place, getting to and around Zilker without a car, especially on a weekend, is rather sketchy. Barton Springs Road within the park is unsafe to cross, but is crossed by thousands headed to Zilker destinations such as the Botanical Garden. Only one Capital Metro bus route (Route 30) serves the park; while multiple trails converge near Zilker, there are no trail connections within it. Overflow parking in grassy areas contributes to erosion.
Mobility consultant Jonathan Mosteiro laid out tentative plans in the Oct. 19 meeting for a park circulator with connection to Downtown, a bike/pedestrian trail network within the park that would also connect the Butler (lakeside) and Violet Crown (greenbelt) trails, and a shared parking plan (which SOS and ZNA support as well) to access existing parking spaces from businesses near the park during their off hours, which often coincide with Zilker's peak hours (evenings and weekends). The space not devoted to parking could be rewilded.
Unfilling the Landfill?
In addition to the parking strategy, the two ecological experts, McGreevy with SOS/ZNA and Ogren with Siglo Group and the city's team, agree on the need for increased canopy cover and immediate restoration efforts at Lower Barton Creek (though McGreevy adds that increasing the riparian buffer upland is also important). McGreevy's plan goes further than Ogren's to remake another area highlighted by the planners on Oct. 19: the Butler landfill, inactive since the 1960s, which has 17 acres of waterfront land along Stratford Drive that's being used currently as a parking lot.
Ogren put forth three restoration scenarios: 1) Extract the landfill material underneath and restore the land; 2) "bury" the landfill by putting a clay cap on it, and be able to use the land on top; and 3) maintain it as a surface parking lot. The extraction scenario provides the most opportunities for green infrastructure, enhancing tree canopy and an improved user experience, but Ogren stressed that the process will be slow. "It's a complex issue, and it's something that will need many approvals and many additional evaluations."
McGreevy says a more efficient response would be a technique called phytoremediation. The Butler landfill doesn't have a clay cap now, so trees can be planted that will filter any remaining toxins. It's more cost effective, says McGreevy, and should be easy to do, since areas surrounding the landfill have already "rewilded themselves. They've done phytoremediation on old petroleum fields where it's just sludge everywhere, so this would be a walk in the park [in comparison]."
The Butler landfill is one of several locations where McGreevy's plan calls for removing existing parking. It also eliminates 15 spots near MoPac, and an 80-space lot adjacent to Barton Springs Road (which McGreevy says "could easily be added back" on the east side of the playground) and halving the overflow parking area by the polo fields. McGreevy says the goal is "to take advantage of the infrastructure that's already there while reducing impact on the park; it should be a park, not a parking lot."
But the rewilded areas, McGreevy and Rather both note, would not be completely off limits for outdoor activities. "About two-thirds of it would be forest, and one-third would be open woodland," McGreevy says. "It's not just this thicket. Those [areas] would be rewilded, but they would still have mowed areas within them for picnicking, hanging out, that kind of thing." Rather adds that the plan "is not incompatible with soccer, it's not incompatible with Frisbee golf, it's not incompatible with families doing their barbecue thing. The rewilding plan doesn't prohibit a single person from doing what they love at Zilker Park; what it does is provide more shade, which I think almost everyone would agree would be great."
Beyond the Neighborhood?
The ZNA/SOS rewilding plan references a citywide survey that revealed 82% of respondents support expanding natural areas in the park, a consistent theme in public feedback throughout the community engagement process. But the whole city is not actually providing this feedback. In particular, white respondents are overrepresented and Latino respondents are underrepresented, despite the consultant team's efforts to host pop-up events in every council district. The highly organized ZNA and surrounding neighborhoods are not the demographic the city is trying hardest to reach.
Greg Montes, PARD program manager, calls the rewilding plan "important input" but stresses that "we need to continue to reach out to the rest of Austin's 10 districts. How does the rest of the city feel about the environment and restoration and rewilding for ecological uplift? There are other stakeholders involved in this process as well." Ogren himself says the rewilding plan "contains a lot of really good information. We are excited to see where public input aligns with that information."
Zilker NA and SOS plan to gather community input on the rewilding plan and release a second version. Rather says many lobbied for an even bolder approach, but "this was where we thought we could reasonably take it and have a really good community dialogue. We want to be a great partner to PARD."
That's not to say they don't have notes. In the Q&A section of the Oct. 19 meeting, Rather asked for specific metrics and detailed analysis that Claire Hempel, principal at Design Workshop, the lead consultant on the city team, said would be included in the next set of materials released; Rather says ZNA and SOS were disappointed with the vagueness. "That meeting was supposed to be where they rolled out their scenarios," she says. "I'm almost thinking they just weren't ready for prime time. You wouldn't really call what they presented even back-of-the-napkin-worthy yet."
The city team launched a new survey this week with detailed questions about different scenarios (see publicinput.com/zilkervision4); the next round of community engagement, to begin in February, is titled "Zilker Park Plans," suggesting more specifics are to come. "There are a lot of people in the environmental community and in the neighborhood associations, this is not their first rodeo, right?" Rather continues. "We've all learned the hard way that the devil's in the details, so we'd like to look at the details so we can see what the vision really is."
Community meeting No. 4 will take place in February and No. 5 in March, after which a final draft will be released in April pending Council approval, and adoption by June. To learn more, participate in surveys, and attend pop-ups or small group discussions, visit austintexas.gov/zilkervision.