Did you know that Pease Park is technically Austin’s first and oldest public park? Donated to the City of Austin in 1875 by Texas Governor Elisha M. Pease, this 84-acre linear park following Shoal Creek up 16 blocks of North Lamar Boulevard is only predated by the public squares laid out in Austin’s original city plan by Edwin Waller back in 1839 — but those weren’t exactly “parks” in the traditional sense.
Anyhow, Pease Park goes way back, and it’s looking a little worn out in spots after all these years — which is why the city adopted a Pease Park Master Plan back in 2014 outlining various improvements and preservation goals for the space, the first phase of which is the Kingsbury Commons project already underway at the southern end of the park. As part of these efforts, park advocacy organization the Pease Park Conservancy released a document earlier this week known as the Pease Park Interpretive Plan, a 93-page guide for the future of the site. I’ll let them explain:
Pease Park Conservancy is pleased to announce the completion of the Pease Park Interpretive Plan, which outlines key themes and storylines for telling the cultural and natural histories of Austin’s oldest park. Pease Park Conservancy, in partnership with Austin Parks and Recreation Department, worked through the interpretive planning process with specialists from MuseWork and RECLAIM to create the final version of the strategic guide for Pease Park. This marks a major accomplishment for the park and will inform future programming and community engagement efforts as the implementation phase begins and as the Conservancy moves forward in its realization of the Pease Park Master Plan, through Kingsbury Commons and beyond.
In plain terms, the interpretive plan serves as a guide for telling the park’s story — its historical background, ecology and geology, and the area’s cultural context — which is referenced as part of the planning and design process for any improvements the Conservancy makes to the space. The document could inform everything from signage to event programming, and the process for putting it together involved historical research and community engagement — particularly input from the city’s African American community, since Pease Park’s history includes slavery and segregation.
“The ultimate goal of the interpretive plan is to expand park visitors’ connection and sense of belonging to Pease Park,” said Heath Riddles-Sanchez, Pease Park Conservancy’s CEO. “The Conservancy is committed to making Pease Park more welcoming and accessible to all Austinites; and particularly acknowledging and working with communities of color to reconcile the land’s history of enslavement, segregation, and injustice to what the park is today, and what it can become. We are deeply invested in this process to start a greater conversation about the cultural and natural histories of Pease Park and our city.”
In January, 2019, the Conservancy engaged MuseWork, formerly known as Erin McClelland Museum Services, to lead the interpretive planning process, and throughout the first quarter of 2019, McClelland and her team conducted extensive academic and primary research into the history of Pease Park. This research was followed by comprehensive community engagement throughout the spring, comprised of several large- and small-group charettes and working sessions with Pease Park Conservancy, City of Austin staff, and members of the Austin community. In May 2019, the Conservancy hosted two community input sessions to gauge public interest in the stories of Pease Park and to dig deeper into those narratives with the greater Austin community, one that was open to the public, and one with a more focused, primarily African American audience.
— Pease Park Conservancy Press Release, July 28, 2020
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17% complete on Kingsbury Commons construction! So excited to see this amazing project taking shape! Check out some progress photos featuring the Terrace, foundation for the restroom, water reservoir for the Interactive Water Feature, and the grading that’s taking place for the Spring feature. 🚜 *** Visit peasepark.org to keep up with the latest!
If your pandemic-addled brain is looking for a workout, feel free to tear through the full document at your leisure — but for the rest of us, we’re going to do our best to summarize its major takeaways here instead. First of all, here are the plan’s three “themes” identified by the Conservancy and its partners:
Theme One: Pease Park is a place that reveals the wonders of the natural world and the intersections and tensions of our evolving place within it.
Theme Two: Pease Park is emblematic of racial and economic injustice in Austin and presents a unique opportunity to acknowledge our history of slavery, segregation, and exclusion in order to create a public space that is welcoming and accessible to all.
Theme Three: Pease Park is a natural treasure that belongs to us all, and caring for it is part of our heritage.
— Pease Park Interpretive Plan
So far, so good. The “natural treasure” part is self-explanatory, and the acknowledgement of racial injustice is an obvious step towards living up to the challenges posed by the current climate both in Austin and the country as a whole — some local park spaces neglect to mention the more uncomfortable elements of their history, seemingly out of what I imagine must be a misplaced sense of politeness, but that’s clearly not going to cut it anymore.
That focus is underlined by the particularly complicated aspects of this site’s past — Governor Pease owned slaves, despite being a Union supporter in the Civil War, and part of the land he donated to form the park came from his plantation where those enslaved people lived and worked. Combined with the segregated histories of the neighborhoods surrounding the park and the presence of Native American settlements at the site dating back thousands of years, it’s clear that the staff of the Conservancy are working to address all of these elements with extreme care:
Given the particularly sensitive African American history of Woodlawn, (the historic name of the Pease estate where enslaved people lived and worked, and where some of the land was donated to become the foundation for Pease Park), we wanted to make a concerted effort to connect with the city’s African American community. The planning team partnered with Stephanie Lang (founder of RECLAIM, which uncovers and reclaims the stories of the black diaspora) to engage with this segment of the Austin community and gather input on which interpretive themes and stories they find most compelling, how those stories should be framed, and how Pease Park can be made to feel more welcoming to African Americans. The planning team and Stephanie Lang also conducted one focus group meeting with representatives from the African American community at Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in the Clarksville neighborhood.
This engagement will inform the potential historical aspects of any upcoming park improvements, which I presume will include signage and other “experiential” programming — we’ll get back into some of this a little later. The report’s executive summary helpfully names eight of the highest-priority recommendations identified for the park’s “interpretive products and programs,” and we’re gonna try and summarize the gist of each one sans too much jargon:
“Operationalize the collection and analysis of demographic and zip code data for participants in Pease Park’s programs and special events”
— The Conservancy wants to collect demographic data about the people who are coming to Pease Park and participating in events there, and compare it with the demographic data from the people living within a two-mile radius of the park to determine how the park can better serve the whole community moving forward.
“Create a brief booklet outlining the Pease Park Conservancy’s mission, its main organizational goals, and its interpretive themes and key messages for repeat volunteers”
— This one is pretty straightforward. They want to make a guide for volunteers so everyone is on the same page, goal-wise.
“Design and build a contemplative space that allows park users to engage with the landscape’s historic connections to enslavement”
— This one’s obviously going to be a bit touchy. Let me quote the report directly: “Community suggestions for the space included shaded benches, a water feature, a community garden, and a subtle artistic representation of enslaved peoples. While archival research did not allow the planning team to definitively assign names to the exact people who were enslaved at Woodlawn, the team was able to identify names of many people who were enslaved by the Pease family over several decades. In addition, the planning team also located U.S. Census records that list the ages and genders of ten people enslaved at Woodlawn in 1860.”
“Recruit individuals with diverse backgrounds to lead programs”
— This is a recommendation clearly in service of the Conservancy’s stated goals of inclusivity. It would probably not be very effective for exclusively white people to explain the history of the site to other white people, even if it reflects the demographics of its surrounding neighborhoods — why do you think that is?
“Create a volunteer and/or staff role(s) to serve as a Park Ambassador”
— Along with the historical and natural elements of the site, the Kingsbury Commons section of the park will contain a lot of playground space and a “splash pad” water feature for kids. The Conservancy hopes to create roles for volunteers or staff to serve as “Park Ambassadors” for visitors, both kids and adults, encouraging engagement with the various elements of the improved park’s programming — and reminding people to pick up after their dogs.
“Partner with local filmmakers to create a web series of 15 – 20 minute films that expand upon the park’s more complicated stories”
— “More complicated” is right! We’ll look forward to seeing these — Austin could always use more multimedia history coverage.
“Update the Pease Park Conservancy’s website to reflect the goals and content of the Interpretive Master Plan”
— It looks like they’re already doing this! Eventually, the website will include more resources, like maps and additional historical information for visitors.
“Continue to explore opportunities for intersectional engagements with artists, architects, natural scientists, and the public to host expressive art that reflects the themes inherent in Pease Park and Shoal Creek”
— Art installations are a big priority for Pease Park since there’s so much land to work with — we’ve already seen a few examples of what’s possible here, and the Conservancy identifies the TEMPO project of Austin’s Art in Public Places program as a good model for testing out various public art installations at the site.
Phew, that’s a lot of words! Thankfully, it’s time to pivot to video — the Pease Park Conservancy has prepared a video series explaining more aspects of the plan, despite the pandemic requiring some remote recording. You’ll find the first installment here: