Austin Water is implementing recommendations from a proposal by a UT-Austin community and regional planning student team dedicated to improving the racial equity of the city’s water utilities.
Miriam Solis, an assistant professor of community and regional planning, and a class of 10 graduate students teamed up with Austin Water and the Austin Equity Office staff last fall to create “Making Equity Flow,” a proposal that analyzes Austin’s racial equity challenges.
“At the onset, the class and I knew we didn’t want to work on a report that would sit on a shelf,” Solis said in an email. “We found that water officials were interested in doing more to advance racial equity but haven’t yet initiated dedicated efforts.”
According to the team’s report, the students recommended that Austin Water add multifamily housing in their customer assistance programs to include low-income communities of color, introduce flexible billing options and custom water-usage alerts, and implement a program to employ formerly incarcerated people, a population disproportionately composed of people of color.
Austin Water adopted the recommendations of the report by implementing a multifamily assistance program discount that will begin as soon as 2021 if approved by Austin City Council, Randi Jenkins, assistant director of customer experience at Austin Water, said in an email. Jenkins said the MyATXWater project automated water metering system is also planned to begin by early 2021, and later this fall, the Phoenix plan will provide training in interview skills, communications and basic computer skills for formerly incarcerated people.
“This study and research have laid the foundation for equitable approaches to the next 100 years of water service delivered to our community,” Jenkins said.
The students compared data from Austin Water to other cities’ data to create recommendations for how Austin Water could improve their racial equity, said Sari Albornoz, a community and regional planning graduate student.
“All of us there were really dedicated to racial equity and the idea that as planners, we will be able to integrate some more theoretical ideas about racial equity into really pragmatic planning practice,” Albornoz said.
“Making Equity Flow” won the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association’s 2020 Advancing Diversity & Social Change Planning Award.
“The award validated our enthusiasm in bringing together two lines of research and practice that are often perceived as separate: racial equity and water planning,” Solis said. “We hope that this project will form a conversation on how to operationalize racial equity in the development and maintenance of urban water infrastructure.”