Monday, December 30, 2013

Playground Innovations

"[Playgrounds] are among the few remaining places within the city for non-purposive, spontaneous, and creative activity, for exciting physical challenge and discovery."
--Gabriela Burkhalter, curator of the Playground Project at Carnegie Museum of Art
The Thinkery playground in Austin
The Thinkery
I have playgrounds on my mind this month. The Thinkery--Austin's new children's museum--opened this month, and one of its best features is the new playground in the courtyard of the museum. Fun, unique, and engaging for kids.

And in Pittsburg, the Carnegie Museum of Art is showing the Playground Project exhibit, which chronicles some of the world's most outstanding playgrounds from the mid-to-late 20th century. The New York Times ran a write up of the exhibit earlier this year. As the write up for the exhibit explains, the playground is "a place where opinions about education, exploration, aesthetics, and the public space abound. . . Yet most playgrounds today are highly standardized and sanitized. A change is needed, but, as history shows, it is only possible if we engage in the revitalization not only of the playground but of the public space in general."

I have been collecting images of whimsical and inspiring playgrounds from around the world on my Pinterest page and agree with the Playground Project curators' conclusions that these types of playgrounds are few and far between. But I also believes that projects like the Thinkery playscape indicate a promising trend towards more innovative play structures. 

Here's to more projects in Austin's future that promote creative play, physical challenges, and discovery for kids of all ages.  Happy New Year.

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Promoting the Walkability of Austin and Ability of Kids to Play in the Streets

Neighborhood grassroots campaign in Austin to get city to install a stop sign
Neighborhood grassroots campaign in Austin to get the City to install a stop sign

In talking to Austin parents, many express frustration with how unsafe it is for their kids to walk to school, play in the streets, or access nearby amenities on foot. By no means is Austin unique in this regard. As a writer in the Atlantic Monthly lamented earlier this year: 
This is the point we have come to in much of the developed world: The freedom for a child to walk out the door and skip rope or play catch is something that has to be scheduled, organized, and officially permitted.

And for parents trying to get basic safety improvements installed, the process can be maddening, quickly leading to roadblocks and dead-ends.

Luckily, there are three great new developments that will help make our streets safer in Austin:

First, the Austin City Council has formed a new Pedestrian Advisory Council to help guide the City as it looks to improve walkability in the city. The Council, which is modeled on the City's Bicycle Advisory Council, meets for the first time this week on October 22nd, 5:30, at City Hall.

Second, Austin has a new grassroots coalition, WalkAustin, committed to transforming Austin into a pedestrian-friendly city.  Earlier this year, the coalition put on a walkability summit to launch a citywide conversation about promoting walking in the city.  As I understand it, the idea for creating the Pedestrian Advisory Council grew out of the summit.

Third, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) recently released a set of new urban street design guidelines. The guidelines include a range of cutting-edge design guidelines for making streets safer and more inviting for people of all ages, as well as opportunities to carve out more active play spaces. As the NACTO website states:
Growing urban populations will demand that their streets serve not only as corridors for the conveyance of people, goods, and services, but as front yards, parks, playgrounds, and public spaces. Streets must accommodate an ever-expanding set of needs. They must be safe, sustainable, resilient, multi-modal, and economically beneficial, all while accommodating traffic.
The NACTO guidelines and Austin's new citizen-led efforts to increase walkability come at a perfect time for Austin, with its high pedestrian fatality rate and low walkability score. The national site, Walk Score, ranks Austin in the bottom half of large US cities on walkability--based on how easy it is to safely walk to basic household amenities such as grocery stores and restaurants. Both Dallas and Houston have higher rankings. 

Some of the new policies and programs I would love to see Austin adopt to improve walkability--and  the ability of families to walk and play in their neighborhoods--include:
  • A pilot project to retrofit 10 neighborhood streets across the city into shared streets, also known as living streets or homes zones. Through their design, shared streets place an emphasis on pedestrian scale and traffic calming, permitting children to play safety in front of their homes. The shared street concept, which originated as "woonerfs" in the Netherlands, has been adopted by cities throughout the world. NACTO's new design guidelines includes a section on shared streets. The City of San Francisco also has its own design guidelines for shared streets. Chicago is in the process of designing its first shared street. Santa Monica finished its first shared street transformation last year in a residential neighborhood where residents were concerned about crime and quality of life, in an effort to bring about a stronger sense of neighborhood and to promote walking and cycling. Aukland, Australia is putting in place the shared street concept throughout the city. Great Britain has funded the retrofitting of dozens of shared streets under its "Home Zone" program.  We came across many shared streets in our travels to Europe last summer (see pictures below).
  • Redesign the City of Austin's Pedestrian Program to more closely resemble the City's Bicycle Program, which has been able to cut across city silos and dramatically expand the city's cycling facilities through strong leadership and integration of planners and engineers. The Pedestrian Program is currently focused primarily on repairing and adding sidewalks to comply with the Americans Disabilities Act. In addition to addressing the critical gaps in sidewalk accessibility, the Program should be looking at other opportunities to increase pedestrian-oriented environments. Similar to the role of the Bicycle Program director, a Pedestrian Program director could serve as "walkability" advocate, to cut through city bureuacracy, proactively seek out opportunities to improve walkability, and build collaborations across departments.
  • In this same vein, the City needs a pedestrian master plan, building upon the city's sidewalk master plan, looking at a fuller range of opportunities to not only address accessibility but to also promote walkability in the City.
    shared street in San Sebastian Spain
    Shared street in San Sebastian, Spain

shared street in San Sebastian Spain
Shared street in San Sebastian, Spain

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Austin Museum Day: Exploring Austin's Treasures with Kids

Austin's Bob Bullock Museum
This Sunday, September 22nd, is Austin's Annual Museum Day, a free, citywide discovery of museums in the area. I pulled up the list of participating museums and realized I had not heard of half of these museums. It looks like some are open just for this special day and are otherwise closed to the public.

Here are some of our family's favorite museums to visit with kids:

  • Texas Memorial Museum (this museum always reminds me of the 1970s; maybe it is all those dioramas lining the walls; it isn't the American Museum of Natural History or the Exploratorium by any means, but it's our only science museum for kids in the city so we'll keep happily visiting it)
  • Blanton Museum (offers several wonderful kids' programs)
  • Children's Museum (soon to re-open as the Thinkery)
  • Umlauf Sculpture Garden
  • Mexic-Arte Museum
  • LBJ Presidential Library (actually, I have been there but have not taken my kids yet; it is on our list!)
  • Lady Bird Wildflower Center
  • The Contemporary Austin

And here are some museums on the Museum Day list that I have never heard of before but am interested in checking out on Sunday with my kids:

2013 Austin Museum Day: List of Participating Museums

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Carving Out Urban Spaces for Parklets, POPOS, Pocket Parks, and More

When it comes to creating greater public access to parks and public spaces, there are lots of innovative things happening around the United States and world. Mexico City is transforming spaces under highways into public playgrounds and outdoor cafes, Pacoima, California, is transforming the lots of foreclosed homes into pocket parks, and Los Angeles has launched a "Streets for People" initiative to transform under-utilized areas of street scape into high-quality public spaces. The city is also working to create 50 new pocket parks in underserved communities.
Yerba Buena Gardens playground--built on the roof of the Moscone Center
Yerba Buena Gardens playground--built on the roof of the Moscone Center in San Francisco
On our family trip to San Francisco last month, we had lots of time to explore the city's wonderful parks, including the lovely Yerba Buena Gardens playground built on a rooftop (see above). (San Francisco, by the way, ranks second in the country on per capita spending for parks and recreation.)  I also had one morning to myself--a glorious 3 hours away from my kids--to observe first hand many other ways in which San Francisco has carved out dozens of new public spaces in a dense urban environment. This particular tour of mine focused on the city's parklets, POPOS, and alleys. More on alleys in a later post.

Parklets: San Francisco is the national leader when it comes to creating parklets--parking spaces that have been transformed into activated public spaces. Through the city's "Pavement to Parks" program, 38 parking areas have been converted into parklets since 2010, with the costs typically covered by the surrounding businesses. I visited about a dozen of these parklets during my walking tour, using a map created by SF Great Streets. None of the parklets I saw were being used as play spaces and did not seem targeted towards children at all. The primary uses for the parklets appeared to be extended outdoor dining and seating areas for adjoining businesses, along the lines of Austin's only parklet--the successful Royal Blue Grocery parklet on Congress Avenue. It seems like the parklet model is something that could also be used to carve out micro play spaces for children, along the lines of the pocket parks we saw in Barcelona last summer placed along major boulevards (see below), or the "urban" sandboxes I blogged about here.

parklet in San Francisco
Parklet in San Francisco
parklet in San Francisco Little Italy
Parklet in San Francisco--Little Italy
Pocket park for children in Barcelona
Pocket Park for Kids in Barcelona
POPOS: San Francisco has 68 POPOS, which stands for "Privately-Owned Public Open Spaces." I had never heard of this acronym before visiting the city. The open spaces range from parks and plazas to terraces, pedestrian walkways, and urban gardens--all of which are open to the public even through they are privately-owned and privately-managed. Many of the POPOS in San Francisco exist because of public open space requirements for new developments in the City's downtown plan. A local group has created a wonderful inventory of these spaces to raise public awareness about them, and there is even an interactive website (and soon-to-be app) with information about the POPOS. Here are a couple of the POPOS that I came across in San Francisco:
A Privately-Owned Public Open Space, or POPOS, at 555 Mission in San Francisco
POPOS pedestrian arcade and dining area at Embarcadero Center in San Francisco

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Austin's New Budget for Parks

Little Zilker Park
Little Zilker Park
The Austin City Council adopted its 2013-14 budget today. Good news on the parks front! The adopted budget includes $3.6 million in additional funding for parks, trees, trails, and swimming pools, thanks in large part to the grassroots advocacy of Great Austin Parks and supporters such as Councilmembers Tovo and Morrison. In the Trust for Public Land's most recent park survey, Austin ranks #54 in per capita spending for parks and recreation, with funding at $68 per resident, compared to the national median of $82. Even with the increase in parks funding adopted today, Austin will still likely rank in the bottom half of cities when it comes to per capita spending on parks and recreation. But with the vote today, we can hopefully nudge up a couple notches on the list (and since the new budget includes an allocation for 49 more police officers, maybe the existing parks will at least feel safer??).

Unfortunately, the budget adopted today does not do much to address another huge need in the city: creating new parks in underserved low-income neighborhoods. More than half of Austin residents are unable to access a park on foot (or wheelchair or stroller), including thousands of children in low-income areas of the city. Hopefully we can take greater strides to address that equity gap in next year's budget.

Tomorrow I will be posting on what some other cities, most notably San Francisco, are doing to creatively carve out new public open spaces.

Butler Park in Austin
Butler Park

Zilker Park kite day
Zilker Park
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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Discovering San Francisco's Public Art with Children

A second post on our recent San Francisco trip--this time on the delightful child-friendly art we found all over the city in public places and museums. In prior blog posts, I have written about the elements of child-friendly public art, including art that is tactile and interactive, engages a child's imagination and sense of wonderment, and is loved by people of all ages. Along those lines, here are some of the child-friendly art installations that we happened upon and fell in love with during our San Francisco trip:

Jonathan Borofsky Human Sculptures in San Francisco
Jonathan Borofsky's Human Structures
Plaza at 555 Mission Street
Shaking Man Statue in Yerba Buena Gardens
Terry Allen, Shaking Man Statue
Yerba Buena Gardens
Children flocking to touch the Shaking Man Statue

Trash Sweepers Clock at Exploratorium
Maarten Bass, Sweeper's Clock;
Exploratorium (must watch the video for this) 
Tinkerer clock at Exploratorium
Tim Hunkin, Tinkerer's Clock;
Exploratorium (see this website link for more info on this enchanting clock) 
Exploratorium musical lockers
Exploratorium's musical lockers
Yin Yang public art heads on Embarcadero in San Francisco
Robert Ameson, Yin Yang
Embarcadero in Justin Herman Plaza
Ugo Rondinone  Moonrise Sculptures
Ugo Rondinone's Moonrise Sculptures: March, October, and December
Public Plaza at 555 Mission
Rolling through the Bay toothpick exhibit at Exploratorium
Scott Weaver, Rolling through the Bay at the Exploratorium;
made with over 100,000 toothpicks over the course of 35 years;
the video for this piece has gotten over a million hits

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Friday, August 9, 2013

Cycling in San Francisco with Kids

The Which Way blog has been offline in vacation mode these past few weeks but is back now. After wrapping up a four-day visit to San Francisco, there are tons of things I am excited to post about the city. First up, cycling in San Francisco with kids:

Yesterday, our family went on the most gorgeous city ride we have ever been on before, cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge. In the morning, we rented bikes at the Embarcadero and then followed a popular and well-marked route, which took us along the waterfront, past Fisherman's Wharf and Crissy Field and then across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. We took the ferry from there back to the city.

There were a few parts of the ride that felt unsafe--those parts where the lanes were not buffered from a busy street or towards the end where we were sharing the road with cars--but otherwise the ride was glorious and very friendly for kids ages 8 and up if you are fine with walking up the steeper hills. Unmatchable views, great stops along the way, and no finer way to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. On the ride there we got to view the America's Cup boats in the bay, and we even came across a large group of kids participating in a week-long summer camp for exploring the city on bikes. Very cool! The only downer (aside from my kids bickering along the way) was at the end when we had to wait in line with hundreds of other cyclists for more than an hour to take the ferry from Sausalito back to San Francisco. Apparently, the key is to get to the ferry terminal earlier in the day to avoid the crush of cyclists arriving. As it was, we barely got back in time to return our bikes before the rental stand closed at 7pm. From another website, here is a summary of the route we took, along with good navigation tips.

In San Francisco, 3.5 percent of trips are by cycling, but the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is aiming to increase that number to 8-10 percent by 2018, as part of a larger goal for half of all trips to be by sustainable modes of transportation. The agency's strategy to get there includes getting more families with kids to ride bikes, which means creating safer bike lanes, such as cycle tracks separated from cars. Like Austin, San Francisco is one of 6 cities taking part in the Green Lane Project to install more protected bike lanes throughout the city.

Here are some more pictures from our ride:

cycling with children in San Francisco
We started the ride on San Francisco's newly painted green bike lane along Embarcadero.  In terms of safety, I liked the green lane a lot better than no color on the pavement, but this part of the ride still made me nervous and required lots of supervision on my part since my youngest son is prone to weave in and out of his bike lane. I would have preferred to have seen some kind of buffer from the cars here.

This part of the ride was wonderful, with a shared bike-pedestrian path completely separated from cars.  Some parts of the path were marked off to separate the cyclists and pedestrians. In other parts, cyclists and pedestrians shared all of the path (see below), which worked out fine except for a couple instances when I had to warn my kids to watch out where they were going and to give pedestrians the right of way.

bike ride in San Francisco with children

cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
Approaching Golden Gate Bridge
The ride into Sausalito
ferry ride back with bikes from Sausalito to San Francisco
Picking up our bikes on the ferry after our arrival back in San Francisco

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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Is Austin the Most Expensive City to Raise a Family???

The local press is buzzing with news that Austin has become the most expensive city in the U.S. to raise a family. The news stories all cite a recent blog post on the website, which refers to something called the Intuit Spending Index (Intuit, Inc., owns The blog post reports that Austin is the most expensive city to run a household, looking at consumer spending on education, groceries, and various household expenses. In addition to Austin, the other cities that made the top 5 list are:
  • San Francisco
  • Nashville
  • Seattle
  • Portland
Really? Is Austin the most expensive city to raise a family???  More than New York, Los Angeles, and Boston? No way.

I was unable to find much on the Intuit Spending Index and underlying methodology for developing the index, but what I was able to find does not support the press buzz. The Intuit Spending index is based on data provided by users, who hardly seem representative of the average American family. (The blog post does state that the data "has been analyzed and normalized to create a statistically relevant view that better represents the average American household"). The list also leaves out cities with populations of less than 500,000 and does not take into account housing costs.

Just as troubling is's and the media's attempt to take how much households are spending on "running a household" and directly correlate that with how expensive a city is. The fact that the average household in Austin may be spending more than households in other cities on certain goods and services could be related more to the fact that households here are choosing to buy more household goods and services rather than to the relative cost of those items. Maybe does not believe in its findings either, because another recent blog post on the 7 most expensive cities in the U.S. does not include Austin. The blog post goes on to state that Austin is a cheap place to live.

Now, I also don't agree with any claims that Austin is a cheap place to live, especially not with our rising housing and utility costs. In other words, Austin is not the most expensive place to raise a family but also not the cheapest. I would bet that more reliable estimates would place Austin closer to the middle when comparing the costs in cities of raising a family. In the Cost of Living Index published by the Council for Community and Economic Research, for example, Austin ranks right below the national average when it comes to the cost of consumer goods and services for households.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Favorite Swimming Holes for Families with Children in the Austin Area

Comal Springs and River favorite swimming hole in Austin area
Comal Springs and River, New Braunfels

As promised, here is a list of our family's favorite natural swimming holes in the Austin area ("area" is defined pretty loosely here--we are willing to drive a good hour or more for a beautiful swimming hole). I have focused only on swimming holes that are accessible to the public, and I have also included a few of our favorite public pools. We are grateful that there are so many beautiful swimming spots in the area.  I swam in several of these places as a child and love them just as much now as I did back then. As you can see from the pictures below, Central Texas definitely has some of the most beautiful rivers and creeks in the country.

Jacob's Well favorite swimming hold with children in Austin area
Jacob's Well, Wimberly
1. Jacob's Well, Wimberly. An enchanting artesian spring that flows out of one of Texas's deepest underwater caves and supplies water for Cypress Creek.  The water is very cold, and the biggest entertainment is jumping off the rocks into the water. Need to get there before the spring runs dry from new real estate developments in the area. Best to arrive in the morning.

2. Comal Springs and River, New Braunfels. This is my hometown swimming hole. We like the headwaters in Landa Park for seeing the springs, although the water is not deep enough for big kids to swim here. For that, there's the spring-fed swimming pool in the park and tubing down the river. The springs are the largest in the American southwest.

3. Perdenales Falls State Park. The Perdenales River is absolutely stunning here--and just a 45-minute drive from Austin.

4. Blue Hole, Wimberly, Texas. Rope swings galore, spring-fed water, newly remodeled facilities, and beautiful grounds for picnicking along Cypress Creek. We went here last summer for the first time in years and will be back soon (as long as the creek does not run dry; see above).

5. Deep Eddy Pool, Austin. The oldest swimming pool in Texas with wonderful spring-fed water. After swimming, we like to grab Jim-Jims water ices, or head over to the pizza restaurant next door.

6. Barton Springs Pool, Austin. The crown jewel of Austin. Unfortunately, it took my kids 9 years before they could withstand the cold water here.

7. West Enfield Pool, Austin.  It's hardly ever open (only 2 months in the summer), but has great shade and is a good spot to go if your kids cannot stand the cold water at Deep Eddy and Barton Springs.

8. Barton Creek Greenbelt, Austin. The Greenbelt often does not have water, but when it does, this is a delightful place to visit.  We like the Gus Fruh pool, accessed from the Barton Hills neighborhood at the Gus Fruh entrance. Mornings are best to avoid the crowds and un-family friendly activities.

Perdenales Falls State Park and River; favorite swimming spot with children
Perdenales Falls State Park
9. McKinney Falls State Park.  The swimming hole can be a bit murky, depending on the prior weather, but we discovered this past May that the creek above the falls is wonderful to splash around in, and the kids did not mind the murk.

10. The Llano Slabs, Kingsland. Shallow rapids section of the Llano River with small pools of water to sit in and small river shoots that kids can ride down in tubes or on their bottoms if they are brave. We usually stop by here when we are visiting Lake LBJ and then head up to Cooper's barbecue in Llano. Hard to find: Take Ranch Road 3404 from Kingsland.

Two favorites that don't fall within my definition of "Austin area," but are worth driving to, especially if you can stay the night, are Mo Ranch and Colorado Bend State Park. We discovered Colorado Bend last fall and will be back this November--it's very remote with gorgeous river-front campsites. Mo Ranch is on a dammed section of the Guadalupe River and has a crazy, scream-producing wooden sled that shoots you out into the river, rope swings, and beautiful rapids to explore. Most visitors are staying the night at Mo Ranch, but you can also purchase a day pass.

McKinney Falls State Park

Colorado Bend State Park with children
Colorado Bend State Park

Mo Ranch sled on Guadalupe River
Mo Ranch -- The Crazy River Sled
Guadalupe River with kids near Mo Ranch
Guadalupe River near Mo Ranch

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

How Austin Ranks on Public Pools Access

School's out for summer! And that means lots of swimming for my kids to escape the scorcher heat. One of the things my family has always loved about Austin is all the wonderful swimming options. In my next blog post I plan to list some of our favorite swimming spots in and around Austin. This post is dedicated to how Austin performs when it comes to providing public swimming pools, a key asset in family-friendly cities.

In a 2011 survey of U.S. cities by Trust for Public Land, Austin ranked #11 nationally in terms of public pools per capita, with 4.5 public swimming pools per 100,000 residents (based on pools deeper than 4 feet). This is great news and no surprise given our plethora of public pools. The oldest public pool in Texas (Deep Eddy) is even here in Austin.

However, since the Trust for Public Land survey was conducted, Austin has fallen farther behind on the list and is at risk of plummeting even further down the list if current trends continue. Our population is booming (now at 843,000 residents), but the Parks Department has recently been closing public pools rather than adding them, due to budget cuts adopted by City Council.  It seems that every budget cycle our pools continue to be on the chopping block, or hours are cut back more. When you tally up the public pools listed on the City's website, we are down to 31 pools. These cuts put Austin now at 3.6 public pools per 100,000 residents, or #20. Are more cuts on the way?

In case you are curious, the top ten cities from the Trust for Public Land survey are:

  • Cleveland
  • Cincinnati
  • Birmingham
  • Pittsburgh
  • Tulsa
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Atlanta
  • Philadelphia
  • Denver
  • Tucson
Now let's take a closer look at Austin's public pools and when they are actually open to families for recreational swimming. When you look at the City's posted dates and hours for our public pools, it is quite disconcerting to see what little time our pools are actually open to kids for recreational swimming, especially given our many months of summer-like weather and the physical benefits to kids of swimming. Almost all of our pools are open for only 8-10 weeks during the summer, and many are not open in the mornings. Even more disconcerting is the geographic divide (and racial/socioeconomic divide) in public pool access. I hope that I am missing something in my data analysis that follows and that there really isn't such a stark divide between East and West Austin in terms of public pool access.

Let's take a sunny, hot day in July. It's 10am and you want to take your family swimming at a nearby Austin public pool. Your options for a morning swim, depending on where you live?
  • East Austin*: 1 pool (only Martin--the other pools are only open in the afternoons)
  • South Austin: 5 pools (Barton Springs, Big Stacy, Dick Nichols, Dittmar, Garrison)
  • West Austin: 5 pools (Deep Eddy, Ramsey, Reed, Shipe, and West Enfield)
  • North Austin: 5 pools (Balcones, Canyon Vista, Murchison, Northwest, Walnut Creek)
Now let's take a day in early May or September (when the average high temperature is in the 90s, and the record high was 112°F). It's 4pm, sweltering hot, and you want to take your kids swimming after school or on the weekend at a nearby Austin public pool. Your options?
  • East Austin: 0 pools
  • South Austin: 2 pools 
  • West Austin: 1 pool
  • North Austin: 1 pool
Breaking these geographic areas down even further, Northeast Austin (with high rates of poverty and childhood obesity) has no public pools no matter what time of the year. 

*I am using the Parks Department's geographic categorization of pools here:
East Austin: East of IH-35
South Austin: South of Lady Bird Lake and West of IH-35
West Austin: North of Lady Bird Lake, South of 2222, and West of IH-35
North Austin: North of 2222 and West of IH-35

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Link Between Strong Neighborhood Schools and Attracting Families to Cities

Today I received the following email from a friend:
"I know someone who is moving here this summer and looking for where to live. Has school age children and so being at a good school is important. Can you guys give advice on good areas of town to look?
Not surprisingly, for a family with school-age children moving to a new city, a good school equates to a good neighborhood. As a recent article in Atlantic Cities states: "When given the chance, parents want their children to attend a high-performing school ... that's close to home." This spring, the Dallas Morning News conducted a survey of the best neighborhoods in the Dallas region for families with children. The newspaper found that top-ranked neighborhoods had a high concentration of exemplary-rated schools. Having access to a high performing school in the neighborhood was families' highest priority in ranking a neighborhood after safety.

In Austin lately there has been a policy disconnect between providing good schools and providing good neighborhoods that attract families with children to the city. Last month, Austin voters rejected two out of four Austin Independent School District bond measures, which would have provided $400 million in funding for school facility upgrades and additions, including improvements to the district's arts and athletic facilities. Many of these facility upgrades were the exact type of improvements needed to help attract families to the district.

The bond vote came after our local daily paper went on a rampage against the bonds. One hang up of the Statesman was that the bond package proposed new schools while several of the district's schools remain under-enrolled. The issue of AISD's under-enrolled schools first received heightened attention in 2011 after an AISD task force made preliminary recommendations calling for the closure of nine schools. Following fierce public criticism, the proposal was rejected by the AISD board. There has been little public discussion since then about how to address the district's under-enrolled schools.

Instead of focusing on shutting down schools, the district and city should be working together to transform our under-enrolled schools into neighborhood assets that become a magnet for families with children, thus filling the open seats while also drawing families into the city. A focus on shutting down schools (which appears to still be the Austin Chamber's priority) is shortsighted and fails to consider the key role that strong neighborhood schools play in attracting families with children to a city. As city leaders like Iowa City's mayor know, "without strong investment in neighborhood schools, attracting families and reinvestment to the core of our community becomes difficult.” In a similar vein, the University of North Carolina's Urban Institute found that "a neighborhood that lacks good public school options – or even is just perceived as lacking them – can have trouble attracting the more educated, middle-income families who can bring stability and rising incomes to once-downtrodden areas." And a study for HUD found, "creating an excellent public elementary school can be a powerful marketing tool to attract families to the neighborhood or to persuade those already living in the neighborhood to stay."

I am sitting on a workgroup set up by the joint subcommittee of City of Austin, Travis County, and AISD that is now exploring these issues locally. I am intrigued by what other cities have done to tie together investments in neighborhood schools with attracting new families with children into their schools and neighborhoods. Some examples I have found so far both here and across the country:

  • The Goldseker Foundation in Baltimore funded neighborhood-school partnership grants in that city, with the goal of creating desirable neighborhoods through high-quality schools, increasing enrollment and academic quality in the schools, and attracting families with children into the city.
  • In St. Louis, Missouri, families migrated back into three neighborhoods to live within the attendance boundaries of a high performing Montessori-based charter school, leading city leaders to see good schools as an opportunity to reverse decades of population loss in the city.
  • After Austin Independent School District placed a dual language program at Becker Elementary School in 2010, the school's enrollment increased from 55% to 71% capacity. 
  • In Philadelphia, a new neighborhood-based public elementary school was created near the University of Pennsylvania through a partnership with the university, school district, and teacher's union. The creation of the school was part of a larger community development plan aimed at stabilizing the area and attracting new families to the neighborhood. The highly coveted school, which utilizes an innovative, technology-rich curriculum, now has a waiting list. 

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Child-Friendly Pop-Up Art in Austin

I have been posting a series of blogs on child-friendly public art installations. Here is another one, featuring two pop-up art installations in Austin.

Driving around Austin recently, my family happened across these two delightful installations. The first one is by local artist Johnny Walker as part of the 2013 Fusebox festival--a series of plastic sheets were hung on wires in Zilker Park along Barton Springs Road. My son and I ran out of the car to explore this exhibit and ran into the artist who explored the space with us. My son and I were both mesmerized by the artwork. Unfortunately, the installation was only up for the week and so is no longer available to explore, but we look forward to seeing other installations by Johnny. Johnny was also the curator of our favorite child-friendly art installation in Austin, the "Play Me, I'm Yours" series of pianos that were installed around town a few years ago.

The second installation we came across is located at E. 22nd (near Comal intersection) and appears to be a rogue installation, but is enchanting nevertheless.

I am loving the pop-up art movement that has hit Austin and other cities around the U.S., and I am especially enjoying seeing these installations through the eyes of my children.

"Walls" art installation in Zilker Park by Johnny Walker at Fusebox festival
"Walls" by Johnny Walker in Zilker Park as part of Fusebox Festival 2013

rogue pop-up street art in Austin
Pop-up Street Art on E. 22nd Street

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Friday, May 10, 2013

New Families Moving to Austin Area Choose the Suburbs

An interesting set of stories in the Austin American-Statesman in March highlighted how the Austin-area population continues to boom, drawing more young adults than any other major metropolitan area in 2009-2011 ("For people on the move, Austin is a place to stop and live"). But the stories also pointed out how families moving here from out of state are largely choosing to live in the suburbs. ("Downtown is popular for newcomers, but families look to Austin's suburbs"). According to the Statesman's census analysis, the suburban areas of Steiner Ranch and Lake Travis attracted more out-of-staters than any other zip code in the five-county metro area.  The online version of the story includes an interactive map breaking out more detailed demographic information for individual zip codes. It would be great to see this data broken out further by households with vs without children.

As I have discussed in earlier posts, Austin faces ongoing challenges of how to attract families with children into the city, and especially the urban core. While there is no one silver bullet to address this challenge, the City of Austin's Families with Children Task Force issued a report five years ago listing a whole host of policies that would help. The Report relied in part on a survey of Austin-area residents asking them what kinds of things could be done to make Austin a better place for families with children. The top concerns listed were:
  • lack of affordable housing in central core
  • lack of affordable quality child care
  • lack of family-friendly open space
  • low quality middle schools and high schools and disparate quality of elementary schools
  • lack of sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes
  • traffic and inadequate public infrastructure

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

20 ft Wide Alley Activation Update III

As promised, here are some more pictures from the 20 ft Wide Alley Activation project in downtown Austin, which wrapped up this past weekend in alley #111 (Brazos/Congress/9th Street). Gotta figure out a way for more alley activation projects to happen here locally!

20 ft wide downtown austin alley activation project
Alley #111 Before . . .
(photo courtesy of Kevin Shaw)
20 ft wide downtown austin alley activation project
. . . and After
20 ft wide downtown austin alley Fusebox Festival event
Wednesday Night Opening Party
(photo courtesy of Kevin Shaw)

20 ft wide downtown austin alley Fusebox Festival event
Fusebox Festival performance by Convergence
20 ft wide downtown austin alley Fusebox Festival event
Opening Night Party
(Photo Courtesy of Michael Knox)
20 ft wide downtown austin alley Pecha Kucha
Pecha Kucha 

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