Park space should be reserved for local recreational activity

Emily Mixon

Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified Mixon as the current director of the Campus Environmental Center. She served in that capacity last year.

Editor’s Note: Continuing our Friday point/counterpoint series, this week two Plan II students take a look at the recent plans to commercialize green spaces in central Austin. To view the opposing viewpoint, click here

1,200; 35,000; 46. These numbers may look like code, but they’re actually a few straightforward figures you should keep in mind as the City of Austin considers a new proposal for re-designing the ever-popular Auditorium Shores Park on Lady Bird Lake. A few of the latest amenities proposed by Chicago-based Tur Partners — the same company that was involved with the design of Lollapalooza Music Festival venue Millennial Park — include 1,200 underground parking spaces costing more than $40 million to build, while research done by the Outdoor Foundation reveals that 46 percent of outdoor participants  in the U.S. are from households with incomes of $75,000 or more.  Why is that last statistic important? It means that the upper middle class — arguably the same group that will benefit most from the re-designed venue’s “pay to attend” operating model (festivals, concerts, etc) — is already the one most benefitted by the parks system. It means another often limited access space in a city already wrought with affordability issues, and, in a broader sense, it means a re-defining of parks — one that may not be for the better. 

Great American designers from Frederick Law Olmstead, the father of Central Park and to many the father of American parks, to Jane Jacobs, journalist, activist and champion of Greenwich Village in the 1970s, have called on public spaces to be reflections of democracy and places of solace from the general bustle and fatigue of urban life. From Olmstead’s desire that parks be “a ground to which people may easily go when a day’s work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour … where they shall, in effect, find the city put away from them” to Jacobs’ call for “a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space” in the name of social peace, American urban parks have long been regarded as equalizers. With each new commercialized venture on city or state land, we are changing that equalizer, and capitalizing something that traditionally has been intended for all. 

This re-defining is happening at a startlingly rapid pace in Central Austin, both with the design tendencies for Auditorium Shores and the State’s impending no-strings-attached sale of 75 acres of undeveloped land on the corner of Bull Creek and 45th Street — a tract already eyed by Stratus Properties and HEB for mixed use development — plans seemingly set to ignore the calls by local neighborhood associations for a 30-acre parkland buffer between any development and the fragile riparian corridor. The tract will of course be offered to the City, AISD and other public entities first, but at $90,000 an acre, can we expect green space to prevail over green paper? Likely not. 

I find it necessary to say at this point that I am not against the arts — as a lifelong citizen of Austin I would love a sparkling new Dougherty Arts Center, and as a fan of public transportation I would much rather attend a concert downtown than out at the Loop 360 Amphitheater — I just believe such improvements shouldn’t come at a municipal cost of $35,000 a parking space when citizens are already facing tough spending and living decisions in light of Austin’s real estate boom and population pressures. Furthermore, it’s important to note that I’m a capitalist consumer just like everyone else, so on some days, an HEB or Alamo Drafthouse a few blocks closer to my house sounds swell, but therein lies the blurring of Jane Jacobs’s line and the loss of truly public space. The space that is for the use of all promotes the enjoyment of nature and healthy activities, and the binding of communities. 

In short, the loss of democratic space to the cost of consumerism — the loss of affordability in the name of improved conditions. I’m not naive enough to think that Austin isn’t growing and doesn’t need new stores, developments or venues. I’m also not naive enough to believe that one can truly escape the hustle and bustle of the city while still within city limits — but I am hopeful enough to think that the city, state and our citizenry can recognize the need for green space in an age of obesity, the need for access in a time of growing affordability gaps and the necessity of natural pockets within our 24/7 digital lives — pockets free for expression from public protests to yoga to family reunions to community gardens and beyond.

Mixon is a Plan II senior from Austin. She was the 2013-14 director of UT Austin’s Campus Environmental Center.