Zilker Park Vision Plan
This statement was presented to the Austin Environmental Commission on April 5 and will be presented to the Austin Parks Board on May 22:
The Zilker Metropolitan Park Vision Plan that is currently weaving its way through various Boards and Commissions provides much of value for our understanding of this special place. As a document, it adds to our communal knowledge. However, what is being proposed is an attempt to be all things for all people, and by so doing, fails to provide a unified vision.
As the Colorado River cascades over the Balcones Escarpment, water flows from the Edwards Plateau into the Blackland Prairie and the Coastal Plain beyond. Zilker Park sits at the eastern edge of that transition zone. The hill on which the Garden Center now lives — and at one time was connected to what is now the Nature Center before MoPac carved up the landscape — that hill is the first of the Texas Hill Country, with all that implies. Until the last couple of decades, this was the entry into wilderness, an open space covered with a canopy of diverse vegetation, a place that feels old, permeant, and essential. This land beckons us to explore a world outside our own minds, the playground of Nature.
For eons, the waters of this land have been enjoyed and celebrated by untold generations of humans. When Billy Barton moved his operation here in 1837, he laid claim to the land as he did the people he brought with him, and as no one had really done before. He began a process of shaping “his property” for his own ends. After seven generations, we are seeing the results: a modern city, growing in population exponentially, building up and out, covering the landscape with human constructions, overwhelming all that came before. What was once considered the edge of the wilderness with a great swimming hole— a place to get away from the bustle of everyday life and be reminded of our intimate connection with the wonders of creation — is now a small island of green threatened by further construction erasing its vital importance.
While the current proposal does much to document this heritage and address the negative impact of compounded human activity, it fails to provide a vision for a sustainable future. Instead, it invites more — and more intensive — human activity. During any visioning process, there comes a point when we should step back and question the proposed direction based on our understanding of the underlying values. While a scattershot of “guiding principles” are provided in the Vision Plan, they are not prioritized. Furthermore, in its description of the types of activities considered for the park, the plan places the same importance on large-scale, multi-week spectacles as on educational tours and after-school programs. It does not address the fundamental question of what uses — and at what scale — are appropriate to this site as an ecological oasis.
Zilker Park’s heritage is one of connection to the natural world. This is even documented on page 62 of the Vision Plan: “Self-guided recreation, nature exploration activities, and visits to Barton Springs Pool make up the bulk of consistent year-round visitation to Zilker Park. Visitors come the park to swim, paddle, bike, enjoy the Great Lawn, and use the trail network within and connected to the park.”
An inventory of the facilities that have been developed here further solidifies that purpose: Zilker Garden Center, Austin Nature & Science Center, Sunshine Camp, the Girl Scout and Boy Scout Huts, Zilker Preserve, Umlauf Sculpture Gardens, Sunken Gardens, Eliza Springs, and above all else, Barton Springs Pool. The theme that runs through all those sites and their activities is in the connections that they provide with the wonders of the natural world, the greater-than-human community of which we are a part of — not apart from.
The Vision Plan's cover photo shows the overwhelming skyline of Austin with the Rock Island in the foreground. Some folks are passing a football, and prominent in the frame is a large electric utility box. It shows a generic urban environment. That could be any modern urban environment, not the edge of the Texas Hill Country and the mouth of the singular Barton Creek Canyon.
We at Save Barton Creek Association embrace the wonders of this land, and as such, cannot support this Vision Plan in its current form. We reject the idea that large-scale construction projects — except those undertaken to remediate past sins, or to provide equitable access — are necessary. We ask that this conversation continue, and that the value of this land be protected and not sold as a backdrop for inappropriate spectacle. We ask that the sensitivity of place and the appropriate scale of human activity be addressed. We wish that the integrity of the land be respected. Zilker is currently classified as a Metropolitan Park by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. It is time that changes, and the uniqueness of Zilker is recognized as a Nature Park.
Note: It is our understanding that in the Zilker Park Natural Resources Inventory & Management Guidelines, reference is made that its creation was overseen by the “Barton Creek Association board”. Save Barton Creek Association is not aware of any such organization and was not involved in the creation of that document. Furthermore, up till now, SBCA has not taken a position on the Vision Plan. Any implication by others that we have is in error.
For more information, please contact Brian Zabcik, SBCA Advocacy Director, at email@example.com