A Creek Clean Up That Puts People Back In The Landscape

Urban riparian corridors often suffer from environmental degradation, and Waller Creek is no exception. A thin ribbon of green that meanders for seven miles through the northern part of Austin south to the University of Austin campus, much of this creek has suffered from erosion, invasive species and pollution. Now, the winner has been chosen in an international competition designed to clean up the creek and revitalize the surrounding area.

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Thomas Phifer’s plan for the one-and-a-half mile stretch of the creek in question calls for a chain of small parks with four main concentrations: the Confluence, the Refuge, the Grove, and the Lattice. The Architect’s Newspaper reports that the Confluence, currently Waterloo Park, will primarily serve as a space for social gatherings and will be the setting for a lightweight pavilion. The Refuge and the Grove will highlight Austin’s famous live oak trees and limestone geology while setting the stage for a number of different recreational activities and programs, while the Lattice will feature six trail bridges traversing Waller Creek to its confluence with Lady Bird Creek.

Waller Creek park plan

image via ArchPaper / MVVA

The Waller Creek Conservancy spearheaded the competition, in conjunction with the City of Austin. The aim of the competition was to transform an area of widespread urban decay into a connected oasis, but the solution here was not one arrived at in one fell swoop. “This project is far too complex to resolve with a single sweeping design gesture, or by simplifying the creek to an idealized prior condition,” principal Michael Van Valkenburgh said, in a statement. He went on to note that his team sought to create “an exciting and humane landscape” that will prove a key addition to Austin’s “great city life.”

Waller Creek park system

image via ArchPaper / MVVA

That city life seems set to improve on a number of fronts, as Austin’s defunct Seaholm Power Plant will soon emerge as a new park and  mixed-use downtown development. Built in 1950 and decommissioned in 2000, the Seaholm Power Plant burned natural gas and fuel oil to create power for the city of Austin for years — as a consequence, the building and its surrounding environs had some serious environmental issues. The city responded with some serious remediation for the brownfield site, and eventually earned a reuse certification for unrestricted use of a PCB remediation site from the Environmental Protection Agency — a first in the history of the agency.

The 7.8-acre site is now slated for mixed-use redevelopment known as the Seaholm District, which will include a large plaza flanking the former power plant to the north and south, creating two public spaces that will host everything from concerts to weddings to art festivals.

The Waller Creek remediation and park system will likewise focus on both ecological restoration and putting people back in the landscape by creating spaces to connect and engage socially. “MVVA will seize this moment to create a place that is provocative, yet essentially Austinian in spirit by unleashing the dynamic beauty of a reinvented water course and infusing it with the right mix of economic and social attractors that will reshape the city’s evolving identity,” Van Valkenburgh said in a statement.

Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.

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