Public parks are often the heart of a neighborhood. They’re where families convene, kids caper, and harried city folks commune with nature. Dove Springs District Park, located in southeast Austin, has filled all these roles and has also been “ground zero” for natural disaster; in 2013, the recreation center served as the donation headquarters for materials to aid Dove Spring residents who suffered losses in the historic Halloween flash flood.
The Austin Parks Foundation and Austin-based landscape architects TBG Partners, Inc. have been working with the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) to develop an exciting renovation plan for the Dove Springs District Park landscape and playscape. The comprehensive concept behind the redesign is to teach children about nature and healthy activity through their play at the park. NLI, part of the college of design at North Carolina State University, was founded to “help communities create stimulating places for play, learning, and environmental education.” The Austin Parks Foundation is a nonprofit group that creates public and private partnerships in order to fill the gap between what the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department needs to do to maintain more than 19,000 acres of city parkland and the budget they have to meet those needs. TBG Partners has been involved in the landscape architecture of many outdoor spaces near and dear to Austinites’ hearts, including the children’s garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the award-winning Dell Children’s Center, Circuit of The Americas, and the new trailhead at Auditorium Shores. This coalition has been working with community representatives and the city of Austin to create an innovative and invigorating space for activity.
This redesign is in response to a groundswell movement in America for reconnecting kids to nature, inspired by research and materials such as Last Child in the Woods, a book by child advocacy expert Richard Louv. Louv uses a descriptive term—“nature deficit”—in regard to today’s plugged-in kids; lack of outside active playtime has been linked to conditions such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, depression, and childhood obesity.
The Dove Springs neighborhood has been working hard to combat some of the conditions that make a healthy family lifestyle difficult. The area has been described as a “food desert”—it is seven miles to the nearest grocery store; residents recently (and successfully) fought to block construction of a convenience store that would have sold alcohol and junk food, and they’ve been working for years to establish a community health center. With Austin’s city council moving this November to a ten-member panel elected from single-member districts, there’s great hope that District Two will find more representation and attention to a variety of beneficial projects.
The plans for the approximately 25-year-old district park are exciting. According to Brian Ott, managing principal of TBG Partners, the new features and amenities are “redefining engaged moments to offset the potential health crises down the road.” New nature pathways will be created to encourage kids to play in the forest bottoms along Onion Creek. Because of the heavy emphasis on family gatherings in the neighborhood usage of the park, there will be “engaged signage” denoting dedicated areas where children can, for example, ride bikes. Plantings will encourage a “food forest” –layers of trees, shrubs, and plants that sustain wildlife. The planning committee has spent months on the redesign, working to create a more naturalistic environment and find ways to connect with the culture of the area. There will be information at the park that celebrates the history of the Dove Springs neighborhood, and the hope is that pride of place and an engaging environment will encourage families to get out and get moving.
Construction of the playscape (Phase I) begins this summer and will take approximately three to four months to complete.