Imagine Austin priority program 4: Use green infrastructure to protect environmentally sensitive areas and integrate nature into the city

This post is part of a series on Imagine Austin’s priority programs, in light of Austin’s current CodeNEXT rewrite process. View the entire series here.

Imagine Austin discusses the importance of integrating nature into the city as the benefits of open space and nature are well-documented and widespread. Austin has always been a bit more “green” than the rest of Texas and many Austinites treasure the numerous parks and greenspaces throughout the city. As such, Imagine Austin called for a focus to preserve and protect this critical part of who we are.  Green infrastructure throughout the city is one important way we can do that.

A great approach to green infrastructure planning is to think about it at the city-level, not just the site level.  By investing in our city and growing our tax base, we can afford municipal infrastructure improvements like the Waller Creek Flood Tunnel, which will open up more of the former flood plain to development by redirecting floodwaters under ground.  Waller Creek itself is a great example of green infrastructure.  By connecting parks to each other via trails and great creek-facing experiences, the Waller Creek Conservancywill develop amazing infrastructure that will improve the city for decades to come.  

meanwhile, approaching green infrastructure on a site specific basis can lead to problems.  For example, in most parts of the city (except the Lake Austin overlay), the city has a standard impervious cover limitation.  However, it may be appropriate to consider topology of the surrounding area as part of impervious cover limitations.  For example, a steeper slope might allow less impervious cover than the standard, and a relatively flat area may allow more.  Investing in drainage in areas where we want to encourage density may be a better approach than restricting site area on a site-specific basis.  Finally, the easiest solution is to to allow more height on the same “footprint” of land. Instead of only allowing a 2 story building, a 4 story building doubles the density while maintaining the footprint and impervious cover. A four-story building remains “human scale” and can even provide shade to the sidewalk for those hot summer days.

Parkland is another critical issue for the city that should be reconsidered as we develop CodeNEXT, another critical part of Imagine Austin.  The Council recently instituted a 15% cap on the amount of land that can be required to be dedicated as parkland when a site is developed.  This balanced approach allows for more housing, offices, and other uses that can then create new users of that park.  Parks are a critical feature of our city – and we should allow more people to live near them to increase their accessibility.  

Green infrastructure is just as important on our streets.  Shade trees, benches, and landscaping can improve the pedestrian experience and even narrow lanes. Narrower lanes increase safety for all road users (drivers, pedestrians and cyclists) by slowing cars down. It also improves the experience of walking or cycling when cars aren’t flying by you at 45 miles per hour. A great milestone for all of Austin is the adoption of a “Complete Streets” policy in 2014. It calls for making all of our streets more inviting to users and includes many green infrastructure elements.

In a city known for its rapid growth and for its tendency to flood, Austin needs to acknowledge that we have to solve for both problems – and a growing tax base to pay for more infrastructure is a better alternative than pushing growth out into undeveloped land outside the city limits. Tragically, some of the worst flooding in recent memory has happened in *less* developed areas like Wimberly, with horrific loss of life and property. By encouraging sustainable growth based on data from the latest in ecological research, we can make a city that is greener and safer for all.Imagine Austin priority programs series