by Heather Way
Which Way Austin
Austin’s CodeNEXT team (the team that is leading an overhaul of the City of Austin’s land use code) is currently conducting an assessment of our city’s community character. The team wants to know what the Austin public values about our neighborhoods, favorite places, and opportunities for improvement, with a focus on the built environment.
There is a final city workshop tomorrow where Austinites can offer their input on the community character assessment, and then later this month the City will be rolling out a “do-it-yourself” Neighborhood Community Character kit.
I hope that lots of Austin’s families are weighing in on this assessment. What about our neighborhoods’ unique character supports families’ ability to raise children, and what makes it hard to raise children? What do we like and not like about our homes, our streets, our public spaces, and our businesses?
Here is my (partial) list of things I love about my community’s character, with a focus on the things in my neighborhood that contribute to my family’s happiness and well-being. What does your list look like?
1. Yards: I love my neighborhood’s backyards and front yards. With the focus on densifying Austin’s urban core, what often gets lost is the importance of providing safe places for kids to engage in free play outdoors. Outdoor play is a critical part of a child’s development and a parent’s sanity. In a household with two rambunctious boys, I don’t know how we could have survived raising kids so far without being able to send our kids outdoors to run around and play–while also being able to keep a close eye on them when cooking dinner, working at home, etc. In fact, the only reason I have been able to write this blog post today (since school was cancelled) is because I could send my kids and their friends into the yard to play.
2. Neighborhood school and park. When we first bought our house, before we had children, we did not realize at the time what a blessing it is to live within walking distance of an outstanding neighborhood school that was next to a park. Now that we have school-age kids, we are thankful everyday for living so close to such a community treasure that we can walk and bike to each day. Beyond the educational benefits, both our neighborhood school and park have fostered tons of new friendships with our neighbors, a greater sense of neighborhood identity, and community stewardship.
3. Affordable, family-friendly restaurants. When my kids were younger, it was important for us to be able to go to restaurants with outdoor play areas for children. Now that my kids are older, a family-friendly restaurant is one that serves affordable, healthy, and kid-friendly food within walking or cycling distance of our home.
4. Access to parks and athletic facilities. I love the fact that my neighborhood is close to great parks as well as athletic facilities where our kids can play baseball, soccer, tennis, and more.
5. Eclectic, artistic and diverse character. I love living in a neighborhood where my 80-year-old neighbor can grow a field of corn in his front yard, where there are art cars parked in the driveways, and where multiple generations live on a street. I cherish the fact that our neighborhood includes affordable housing, including public housing for families and MHMR housing for persons with mental disabilities. And I appreciate all the artwork in the neighborhood, including the hand-knitted artwork on the stop sign pole, the mural in the alley, and other artwork gems that pop up in nooks and crannies throughout the hood.
6. Cul-de-sacs. While cul-de-sacs are generally shunned in urban planning circles, I love my neighborhood’s cul-de-sacs. Our cul-de-sacs offer the safest places for kids to play in the streets, learn to ride their bike, shoot hoops, roller skate, and more. Studies have found that cul-de-sacs result in a substantial increase in play activity compared to an open grid street pattern, and the Atlantic Cities recently ran this great article on how cul-de-sacs increase social interaction among neighbors. Here’s to the cul-de-sac!
7. Back to nature. I love going to sleep at night to the sound of an owl hooting in my back yard, and then waking up on in the morning to the sound of a woodpecker. I love the canopy of trees that line our streets, the butterflies that appear in our flower beds, and the lizards that appear on our front porch.