The Biophilic Cities Network welcomed Austin, Texas as a Partner City and celebrated the city’s dedication to preserving its rich natural heritage to benefit both people and nature. Austin has taken significant steps to protect and promote its wildlife, water bodies, and urban tree canopy. Not content to rest on previous achievements, the city has also emphasized green infrastructure and other impressive initiatives in its newest planning policies. City officials see many reasons to integrate natural ecosystems into Austin’s urban fabric.
“Cities like Austin serve as engines for innovative and forward-thinking policies such as the Biophilic Cities Network,” said District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool, who chairs the Council’s Open Space, Environment & Sustainability Committee. “Our community has historically placed high value on preserving and promoting our natural environment.”
The programs, policies, and projects are numerous and continue expanding as Austin looks toward an even more nature-ful future. Many of Austin’s biophilic features, such as its extensive urban wildlife efforts, green infrastructure network, and innovative plans and policies, are worth a deeper look.
Flora and Fauna
The scope of Austin’s wildlife programs exemplifies its commitment to even the diminutive members of central Texas ecosystems. Monarch butterflies can find more habitat on their migration route thanks to a City Council resolution to incorporate milkweed plants into city landscaping and parks. City residents can learn more about the butterflies’ habitat needs at the annual Monarch Appreciation Day, or through the city’s Wildlife Austin program. The Grow Green program also provides a wealth of free information to help citizens and landscapers design gardens that benefit water quality and all manner of wildlife.
The city works to raise conservation awareness about three endemic species of aquatic salamander that occur nowhere else in the world, including the Barton Springs Salamander, Austin Blind Salamander, and the Jollyville Plateau salamander. The Jollyville Plateau salamander is threatened while the Barton Springs salamander and the Austin Blind salamander are endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The Barton Springs Habitat Conservation Plan outlines the threats to both the Barton Springs Salamander and the Austin Blind Salamander and how the city is reducing its impact through monitoring, education, and breeding programs. The city also provides curricula for students of all ages to learn about the different salamander species.
The city’s departments of Parks and Recreation (PARD) and Watershed Protection (WPD) are designating “Grow Zones” along streams in city parks where natural vegetation can occur. This reduces flooding issues while creating new habitat and increasing biodiversity, achieving many benefits through one program. In the city’s application to the Biophilic Cities Network, they noted their intention to increase the number of National Wildlife Federation certified habitats in the coming years.
Additionally, Austin protects habitats in and beyond the city boundaries so humans and other species can find respite and room to move! For 20 years, the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, jointly managed by the City of Austin, Travis County, and non-profit partners, has provided habitat for threatened local species as well as hiking trails and conservation activities. In total, the city currently owns and manages 20,000 acres of parkland, 30 miles of urban trails, 38,361 acres of Water Quality Protection land, and 13,610 acres of Balcones Habitat Preservation land. City educational programs, such as Wildlife Austin, complement these natural amenities to connect residents with nature where they live, work, and play.
Green Infrastructure Network
Austin’s latest comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin, outlines goals for protecting and promoting the green infrastructure network. Green infrastructure can provide benefits for wildlife, reduce air pollution, control soil erosion, and reduce flooding. Currently, the green infrastructure network connects not only parks, urban forests, gardens, urban agriculture and open spaces, but also creeks, rivers, and lakes. The plan explicitly states that their goal is “to protect environmentally sensitive areas and integrate nature into the city.” There is both public and private investment, and inter-departmental collaboration to work towards this goal. To coordinate this development of more integrated urban and natural ecosystems, a Green Infrastructure Priority Program cross-departmental Implementation Team was formed.
Tree Canopy and Food Security
In 2014, the City recognized that there was an intersection between the need to increase tree canopy in urban and suburban areas and decrease food insecurity. To help tackle these complex and multifaceted issues the existing NeighborWoods free tree program was expanded to include edible fruit and nut trees. Currently, the NeighborWoods program distributes 4,200 shade, ornamental, and fruit and nut trees annually throughout Austin including households, community organizations like churches, and small businesses. Edible trees in front and back yards, and along right-of-ways are slowly turning Austin into a citywide food forest. NeighborWoods is a model of how Austin seeks to meet multiple goals through nature-based initiatives. It provides nature where people live, work, and play, and brings people in closer contact with nature and the seasons through an increased awareness of fruit and nut production. Additionally, it helps meet the City’s long term goal of increasing tree canopy and related ecosystem services, and reducing food insecurity.
There are many programs in place across the city to strengthen community member’s interactions and connections with nature. The Connecting Children with Nature Initiative is one example of a collaborative partnership working to ensure that all children have the opportunity to play, learn, and grow in nature, from city parks to the great outdoors. Nature in the City – Austin uses social media to bring together multiple city programs and partners to engage with the community about upcoming nature based topics, events, and resources. The Community Trees Division of the city provides funding through the Urban Forest Grant, which pays for projects related to tree education, tree planting, care, and maintenance, and invasive species removal. The city also participates in a variety of celebratory days, such as Arbor Day and Monarch Appreciation Day, which help support a culture of stewardship.
Plans and Policies
Austin’s Comprehensive Plan, ImagineAustin, was adopted in 2012 and sets a vision for Austin’s future to be a “beacon of sustainability, social equity, and economic opportunity”. Many of the environmental concerns facing Austin, such as increasingly extreme temperature shifts, flooding, decreasing greenfields, and more and longer periods of drought provides opportunities for innovative initiatives aimed at improving environmental concerns while also increasing resident’s connection to nature. Austin’s City Code is being updated to reflect a desire for more vegetation, continued protection of Austin’s watershed, and increased ecosystem function. Part of the proposed updates will include something called Functional Green, whereby developing properties with 80% impervious cover will be required to provide the same level of ecosystem services through vegetative cover as other, higher pervious cover properties. The Waller Creek Master Plan intends to revitalize a creek that stretches through Austin’s downtown urban core with more than 37-acres of newly designed and connected urban parks and public open space, three miles of new hike and bike trails, and installations and educational programming. Austin’s 20-year Urban Forest Plan, and the Watershed Protection Master Plan are other plans that seek better long term ecosystem function in and around the city.
The Future of Biophilic Austin
As part of the Biophilic Cities Network, Austin has pledged to monitor its progress towards achieving five indicator metrics for fostering biophilic connections between people and healthy ecosystems, such as tracking the percent urban tree canopy cover across the city, supporting wildlife habitats and native gardens, and the familiarity of city residents with common species of local flora and fauna. The city is also set to make progress in providing more equitable access to natural areas through its Cities Connecting Children to Nature Implementation Plan (CCCN Plan), which has identified school sites in underserved areas to pilot a project that will infuse nature into school grounds.
“Since research shows that children who learn and play in nature are healthier, happier and perform better in school, Austin’s CCCN Plan will focus on greening schoolyards and creating a new network of School Parks,” says Children in Nature of Austin (CiNCA) co-founder, Hayden Brooks. “Austin’s CCCN Plan seeks to provide daily access to rich nature environments for tens of thousands of underserved students and strengthen communities with nearby nature across our entire city.”
Austin has a long history of working to protect environmental features, such as Barton Springs and their watershed, and supporting biodiversity within and around the city. Efforts across Austin are being made to increase coordination and collaboration within the city and through leveraging of partnerships with local non-profits and institutions. As Austinites look forward to the city that will exist in 50 years, they see: nature integrated seamlessly into the city’s legal, and planning and design process; development and redevelopment that prioritizes vegetation, ecosystem function, and the human experience; and access for all Austinites to a healthy dose of daily nature.
Special thanks to Leah Haynie for her assistance with this article. Leah is an Environmental Program Coordinator in the Community Tree Preservation Division at the City of Austin. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with Nature in the City – Austin on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.