Student project seeks to understand the Austin’s emotional connection to its waterways

Savana Dunning

Two phone stands have appeared on campus bridges overlooking Waller Creek, seeking information from passersby about how Austin’s waterways impact their well-being. 

The stands are a part of The Blue Index project, a two-year study conducted by architecture graduate student Kevin Jeffery looking into people’s relationships with Austin’s bodies of water. The project uses phone stands with informational placards, called stations, across 30 of Austin’s waterways, which prompt visitors to take a photo of the waterway and scan a QR code for a brief survey. The survey asks for the participant’s emotional reaction to being near the water, ranging from serenity to fear, and other demographic information regarding the participant. 

“It’s not enough to just sit and observe anymore,” Jeffery said. “Everyone has a moral responsibility to chip in, so this is my way of adding my power to the sustainability effort. This is how I choose to make it better.”

The project has received more than 1,000 responses since Jeffery started it in August 2017. Jeffery said he was inspired after reading Blue Mind by Wallace Nichols. The book theorizes people are more relaxed and happy when near bodies of water and that lack of water in a surrounding area can make people tense and stressed.

“Blue mind is a feeling where you’re more relaxed and calm,” Jeffery said. “It’s a calming state as opposed to red mind, which is aggressive, stressed, fight or flight instincts. Most urban cities don’t have so many natural waterways you can sit next to or hear or see. That’s why you get so many aggressive, stressed people around, because they’re in red mind all the time.”

To understand how these concepts can translate to Austinites, Jeffery partnered with the education division of the Austin Watershed Protection Department, which is dedicated to teaching Austinites about Austin’s waterways and how to protect them. The department helped Jeffery identify the waterways he could use for the project. When data collection ends in December, the department will use some of the data collected by Jeffery to improve Austin’s waterways.

Jessica Wilson, the department’s education manager, said Blue Index will help the education division gauge community perception of waterways.

“A lot of the feedback the city receives from the community is negative,” Wilson said. “A lot of people call into 311 when there’s an issue, and that information is vital to how we function as a city, but it’s very rare that communication comes from the community about what they’re enjoying. Blue Index can provide feedback on what people enjoy and we can use that to perhaps mimic the way we’re maintaining that site to other places.”

Architecture graduate student Stuart Scott, one of Jeffery’s classmates who helped him during the creation of the project, has participated in a few Blue Index surveys and said the survey can help start conversation around waterway protection in Austin.

“It’s a good way for the community to explore how nature can make them feel,” Scott said. “When you take the survey, it helps lead you down the path of (thinking about) ways to protect that source. It’s all about education. The more people get educated about something that they enjoy, they want to protect it.”