Lynn Osgood, landscape architect and urban planner, sits on the Art in Public Places panel and on the Parks and Recreation Department's board. For the past year, she's been working on the Urban Parks Workgroup Report, which was commissioned by Austin City Council to analyze public parks in Austin and recommend ways to improve and maximize Austin's green spaces.
We talked to Osgood about parks, New Urbanist principles and why city planning is like making sausage.
You're passionate about parks. Can you talk a little bit about the need for them?
As Austin is growing and trying to densify, it's every easy to get on that economic generation wheel where densification — you really just start eating up the open spaces and they are absolutely critical for our health, our mental well being, physically (in terms of obesity), for cognitive development for children. Public spaces hold that. Parks do that. But we have to be able to advocate for them, and make sure that they're there.
So as we develop transit corridors, we need to make sure that plazas are there, and other spaces are there for people to be to collect and be at. It's that white space on the page of the city, it's what holds our sanity. It's what holds our identity. Like Barton Springs, and so many other places in Austin, like the Greenbelt — all those places that we identify.
How do we make sure that these things are preserved, and more are incorporated, into Austin as it keeps developing?
Austin is in a very difficult spot because we've always had such large parks, which really have been natural assets. There's this mentality that the parks will take care of themselves. They don't need a lot of money for maintenance. The National Recreation and Parks Association recommends that there be one maintenance person per fifteen acres. The national average is one per seventy five acres. We in Austin are one per one hundred and seventy five acres.
We love our parks, but we don't know how much more they could be if we, as a city, understood the need to care for them. Unfortunately, there are some bad structural issues in place. It is almost impossible to raise money for maintenance and so that's what we're looking at in the report — what can we do structurally? Does that mean creating a parks district like a hospital district or a school district, where you levy taxes to help pay for maintenance?
Because right now, there really is nothing. It comes out of the general fund and most of it goes to police. We can get money to buy land and develop land through bonds, but we don't have an equivalent mechanism for maintenance and so things just fall apart. We have the issues of cemeteries now, which are in sad shape.
What would be the ideal in terms of park in Austin? What do you hope?
City Council made a directive that every citizen needs to live within a quarter mile walking distance of an urban park, or a half mile, outside of the urban core. We're really far behind — this would just be getting Austin up to speed. Now, Austin is amazing in the number of acres we have per capita, but in terms of the proximity of parks, over half of Austin does not live within walking distance of a park — defined as a quarter mile, which is a New Urbanist rule of thumb. So, I hope that we can have open space amenities within a quarter mile walking distance of everyone.
Some cities, like Seattle, they can go down to an eighth of a mile goal. I think we have to do that because in planning, in America, it's very much economically generated. That's who we are, that's what we do. So in that, it is sometimes very hard to fight for these spaces that will require money and not generate it. But we absolutely have to do that for our sanity and for our health. If we don't do it, it's going to be impossible to carve up this city to do that later, to find those spaces. Unless, God forbid, we become a shrinking city like Philadelphia, which has a lot of vacant space because their economy has crashed.
We don't want that. We want to plan wisely so that we can have sustained growth and the spaces that we need while we develop.
Do you see New Urbanist principles developing in Austin as Austin grows?
Oh, very much so. I think we have a very good checks and balance system. We work in a country that is very economically driven, in terms of its policies, but we have a very good checks and balance system in Austin, in that we have tremendous advocacy groups. In terms of citizen participation, it's off the charts. More than most other cities in the world, Austin is a participatory culture. It's not always through formal mechanisms, but conglomerations and groups — the bike community, or the music community — they really form themselves as a community, and then when policy measures start coming forward, they interface.
And that's critical. They do it, and they do it very well. Most groups in Austin have been around for a long time, and it really takes exactly that to get things to change. I think people get very frustrated, because things do move at a snail's pace. You feel like you're getting absolutely no results and feel like you're banging your head against the wall, but collective action eventually turns the wheels. And that's the way it works.
Making a city is sausage-making. There's no pretty way to do it. And so having a whole bunch of people who are getting into the mix and work with the city to try different ideas, even if they don't work at first, is what does it. I think we are strong in terms of our efforts for sustainability, bikes, transportation, open space — because we have so many people who care so much. It's the only way it will get done.