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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