Spotlight on Sustainability: Austin, TX

The existing Capital Metro line in East Austin. Photo via Flickr user Poryorick.

The neighborhood of Colony Park in east Austin, Texas, is historically underserved and underutilized. Despite previous local investment in new infrastructure and a recreation center, there is still a significant lack of mixed-income housing and transportation options for residents. A new community pilot project aims to change all that. With a $3 million HUD Community Challenge grant through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, the City of Austin has a unique opportunity to foster a mixed-income neighborhood that could be used as a model for sustainability and economic development.

The city plans to achieve this success by not only incorporating public engagement into its strategy, but by making it one of the fundamental goals of the project. “Public input is a cornerstone,” says Kelly Stewart Nichols, the Planning and Policy Manager for the city’s Office of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development. “We’ll be working with the community to develop their vision.” Gaining neighborhood support is crucial; without an awareness of the community’s needs, the other goals of the project, such as land planning and economic development, will not be successful.

Residents are indeed concerned about the lack of economic opportunities in Colony Park, and planners quickly realized that a strictly residential community would not be enough. With some of the highest commute times in the city, residents need jobs in the area. Creating mixed-income housing is necessary, but it is only one aspect of a comprehensive solution. “The real incentive is to look at making it a higher-opportunity area,” says Nichols. Colony Park is located in a projected high-growth area between I-35 and the Texas 130 toll road. For those residents more interested in commuting by transit rather than car, however, there is currently only one commuter rail line in the area. Transit-oriented development is therefore essential to connecting residents to jobs.

The project is invested not only in improving the lives of area residents in the short term, but also in effecting longer term change in the city as a whole through environmental sustainability and “zero-waste”. Austin has a history of environmental activism and green building, and city departments involved in the project agreed to implement a zero-waste policy to complement the city’s larger sustainability goals. “As planners and also as a part of city government, we’re asking the questions: What do we have to offer? How can we be successful?” says Nichols. “We realized that we could build upon sustainability initiatives already in place.” Project managers and workers will aim to divert waste (especially during construction) so that any trash sent to landfills or incinerators is minimal.

This effort on the part of city government will be supplemented by resident-based initiatives that focus on recycling and minimizing waste as well as creating community gardens on portions of the publicly owned land. “Colony Park would introduce some of these diversion techniques,” says Nichols. The hope is that the project will serve as an example for other communities, as well as cultivate a broader ecological awareness among Colony Park residents. Ultimately, all of these goals—expanding transit, creating job opportunities, building mixed-income housing, and implementing “zero-waste”—depend on the reaction and involvement of community leaders and residents themselves. Nichols underscores the importance of developing a plan around community needs: “We’re not going to be successful unless we pay attention to the concerns of the community.”

If your community received a Partnership for Sustainable Communities grant and you would like to share your success story, contact Jessica Holmberg.