The Waller Creek Conservancy has been around town since 2010, but the way CEO Peter Mullan tells it, the organization’s had some trouble getting Austinites to notice.
“People tell me all the time that they have no idea where Waller Creek is,” he says. “They’ll say they’ve never heard of Creek Show — which we launched in 2014 — but that they’ve definitely been to the ‘downtown light show.’ After nine years, it was pretty obvious our brand wasn’t doing everything we needed it to.”
And he’s got a point. The Waller Creek Conservancy is a nonprofit working in partnership with the City of Austin on an expansive (and expensive) rehabilitation of a section of Waller Creek running through downtown, creating a series of connected parks, trails, and other improvements running a mile and a half down the waterway from 15th Street to Lady Bird Lake, and while some of its sections have names — Waterloo Park, Palm Park, The Refuge — what are we calling the entire project?
“We thought about ‘Waller Creek Parks,’ or even ‘Waller Creek Chain of Parks,’ but there’s never been a good name for the actual vision — a single place, a park running all the way down this lower section of the creek,” Mullan says.
Any name containing “Waller Creek” raised issues too, since the creek runs all the way north into the Highland neighborhood, while the Conservancy’s plan only concerns a 15-block stretch downtown. Residents of neighborhoods like Hyde Park, historically averse to the general notion of things happening in their backyards, would sometimes call the organization wondering what its improvements to the creek meant for them. (The answer is nothing, unless they want to come downtown and enjoy it.)
As the former executive vice president of Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit behind New York’s wildly successful High Line park, Mullan knows a thing or two about the necessity of good brand. You might not consider branding a park’s first priority, but picture the jumble of necessary symbolic elements contained within a large project like the improvement of Waller Creek — logos, promotional materials, websites, social media, wayfinding systems and other physical signage — and imagine how confusing it could become for someone who isn’t even sure where the creek is.
The goal, Mullan says, was to invent a new brand identity that slotted the numerous spinning plates of Waller Creek’s transformation into a cohesive package, one that people would understand as signifying not simply a loosely-connected series of downtown parks, but rather a single project, unified by a single design vision, overseen by a single organization. As of today, that identity is Waterloo Greenway.
The new Waterloo Greenway name and brand identity, by Toronto-based creative firm Bruce Mau Design, incorporates an expanded color palette and simple cutout-style illustrations intended to evoke physical features and activities associated with the park. Of course, real Austinheads will recognize the origins of Waterloo as our city’s original name, and “Greenway” is fairly self-explanatory.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the ongoing development of Waterloo Park at the far north end of the project will be Austin’s first taste of the Greenway and thus the Waterloo Greenway rebranding, with an opening date now expected in 2020 — but that’s not the only reason for the organization’s new name.
“Waterloo is about the city, and we really see this as a city-wide project,” Mullen says. “We chose this name intentionally to take the spotlight off one person, creek namesake Edwin Waller, and move it onto a physical place.” The rebrand, he says, also diminishes the focus on his organization, with that mildly stuffy “Conservancy” name, and places the emphasis instead on the whole park system as a destination — though the nonprofit is also using the Waterloo Greenway identity moving forward.
Still, a new name is nothing without the parks that give it purpose, and the slow pace of the project’s realization is likely part of why some locals aren’t yet fully aware of the plans for the waterway’s improvement beyond Waterloo Park. Along with the renovation of Symphony Square, which now provides event space and offices for the Greenway organization, the completion of Waterloo Park in 2020 will finally give the newly-dubbed Waterloo Greenway a physical presence you can’t exactly miss.
After a number of unrealized attempts to spruce up this downtown waterway, the first of which actually dates back more than 40 years, any sign of progress — even slow progress — on Waller Creek’s improvement feels like something to celebrate. For what it’s worth, the City of Austin has declared August 22 as “Waterloo Greenway Day,” which will be observed at tomorrow’s City Council meeting — maybe now we can finally get everyone up to speed on what’s coming in Phase 2.