We’re big fans of the Waller Creek Conservancy’s ongoing mission to restore and redevelop the stretch of Waller Creek running through downtown Austin — which, if all goes well, should eventually transform 35 acres of the under-appreciated creek’s narrow riparian corridor into a connected series of parks and trails spanning more than a mile in total length. We’re also not particularly patient people, which means the extended time necessary to develop all the pieces of this plan doesn’t exactly fly by — at the moment, the project is projected for completion in 2025.
The conservancy certainly stays busy, and the nonprofit’s massive project to overhaul Waterloo Park as a cornerstone of its larger vision for Waller is obviously in a more advanced stage of construction than when we saw it this time last year, but it’s still nice to get an occasional glimpse of what’s next. That’s why we appreciated the conservancy’s presentation to the City of Austin’s Environmental Commission last week, which offered a few updates on the second phase of the creek’s improvement.
The conservancy’s plan for the creek, undertaken in partnership with the City of Austin, is divided into three distinct phases — and matching each phase to the features it contains in the context of the larger vision we’ve seen in previous renderings and other media helps us understand the order in which we’ll see these improvements develop. Take a waltz through the map below:
Considering we’re talking about a presentation to the Environmental Commission, it’s fitting that the vision for the Phase 2 region between Fourth Street and the mouth of the creek at Lady Bird Lake is heavily focused on the restoration of a peaceful natural environment. Peter Mullan, the conservancy’s CEO, told commissioners the group is currently working on its construction documents for the Phase 2 area, and that it’s a “very different kind of project” — while the Waterloo Park design creates a “very robust, 21st-century park,” he said this section’s improvements are more about the creek itself, and reclaiming its landscape after decades of channelization via concrete embankments and other attempts to manage the waterway’s path downtown.
Years of flooding have eroded the creek’s remaining natural banks in this area deeply enough to gobble large chunks of the landscape, exposing tree roots and previously well-buried storm drain pipes, as seen in the image below:
Though it’s impossible to truly restore such an urban waterway to its “natural” state, the conservancy’s mission in this area is to redevelop the corridor and bring back the gradual slope of its banks in a manner that is cooperative with nature — emphasizing organic materials like locally-quarried stone and the seeding of native vegetation, which in concert with the creek’s flood control tunnel should prevent more erosion.
Kristin Kasper Pipkin, a project manager for the city’s Watershed Protection Department working with the conservancy on the project, told the commission the intent is to stick with “softer engineering techniques” to attain greater community value from the waterway’s revitalized ecology. For rebuilding the banks in the Phase 2 area, the project follows the same guidelines for floodplain health the city developed in 2013 as part of its Watershed Protection Ordinance.
Rather than relying on the 2013 code simply as a regulatory tool for assessing the ecological effects of individual private developments planned near the waterway, Pipkin told the commission the code itself is being used as a tool for the project’s design, and dictates the placement of physical elements for the creek’s restoration — a process she said should ensure the best possible outcome, environmentally speaking at least, by “building it in from the very beginning.”
This approach continues as the creek moves closer to the lake south of Cesar Chavez Street, through the region the conservancy calls the Waller Delta. Here, three multi-use pedestrian bridges described by Mullan as “elegant and lightweight” will cross the creek to reduce congestion on the existing trails in this area, along with new crossings at an updated Palm Park and near Fourth Street. The map below also includes what appears to be some sort of elevated walkway crossing Cesar Chavez Street:
The notion of Waller Creek as a future public amenity is an important thread running through the conservancy’s many concepts for the creek’s restoration, and the contrast between something like Waterloo Park in Phase 1 and the more nature-based focus of Phase 2 really highlights the unavoidable contradiction within that vision — namely, that design considerations to create picturesque spaces for people do not necessarily align with the priorities of environmental stewardship.
The conservancy, to its credit, seems fully aware of this conflict. Gullivar Shepard, a project lead for landscape architecture firm MVVA that designed restoration concepts for the waterway, calls the finished project a “cyborg creek” — a kind of simulacrum of the natural environment made possible only by the constant regulation of computer-controlled pumps and a massive flood control tunnel hidden beneath it all. Conservancy CEO Mullan also makes no bones about this mildly surreal balance of artificial and natural, describing the final result as a “synthetic landscape:”
Even though the water flow is technologized, “all the processes that are here will be natural processes. In reality this idea of a pristine, real nature, doesn’t exist anymore.” Mullan is well aware that using this piece of infrastructure to recreate a functioning ecosystem is perverse, but “it speaks about our relationship with nature as not putting walls around the natural realm to preserve it, but recognizing we’re in a managed relationship with nature — that you have to manage it. Waller Creek is one expression of that in the urban environment. It’s both ‘How do you preserve the environment?’ and ‘How do you make cities livable?’
Even if its final condition is ultimately only a simulation of the natural world, the conservancy’s completed restoration will likely bring more biodiversity to this downtown waterway than ever before — and with the flood control tunnel representing its watchful guardian, the previously unpredictable nature of Waller Creek could finally become a thing of the past. More human than human, as they say.