Greetings to ASLA-CTX colleagues and friends, in January of 2013, the CTX-ASLA CodeNEXT Committee formed to develop position papers on CodeNEXT, to create code recommendations, and to respond to ongoing consultant and staff produced documents as they are provided to the public. Our position paper states “Austin needs a visionary, integrated, custom code that recognizes the positive contributions of ecological systems to the qualities of our urban form.” (You can view our CodeNEXT position paper here, and our Water Position Paper here.)
As landscape architects, we are often called to be the translators between the development and environmental communities. Not only do we assist city staff in crafting environmental ordinances, we also implement these ordinances on a daily basis via site plan applications and review. As a result, we are intimately aware of the impact of these ordinances on the built and natural environment. We are connected to a larger community of landscape architects nation-wide and are able to track new ordinances in cities across the U.S., which have a positive influence on the environmental health of communities and their citizens.
We began an extensive outreach effort to city council members, key city staff as well as development and environmental organizations. Our work resulted in the City Council’s vote to focus on Green Infrastructure and Sustainable Water Management in the new code re-write. We were successful in having an ASLA member, Eleanor McKinney, appointed to the Land Development Code Advisory Group. We have also been able to get some additional funds allocated to assist in integrating Green Infrastructure into the code.
From January to August of 2015, many ASLA-CTX members participated in the Watershed Protection Department’s Green Infrastructure Working Group. We developed a set of Recommendations published as the Green Infrastructure Working Group Summary. (You can view these recommendations here.) Over the next few months, we will be providing more detailed background information to each of these recommendations and posting the information on the webpage. We will also be providing City of Austin documents so you can easily track the progress.
We hope that you find our material informative as we help positively shape the future of our city. KEEP AUSTIN GREEN!
If you would like to be involved in the CodeNEXT Advisory Group please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
CodeNEXT Soundcheck Report
Below is a link to view and download the Soundcheck report developed by the City of Austin summarizing the events of the Soundcheck. We would like to direct your attention to page 44 of the document which talks about Watershed and Green Infrastructure, issues that The CodeNEXT Advisory Group has been diligently urging the City of Austin to embed into the new Code of Ordinances.
Open Space Recommendations
Public Open Space
“Require the presence of public open space within a ¼ mile radius of proposed higher density centers and corridors. Acquire private land to convert to public open space such as neighborhood parks and pocket parks.”
The COA Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) Master Plan identifies areas in the urban core that lack adequate open space and parkland. The COA should aggressively acquire parkland in each council district. Urban infill parks may be much smaller than parks in suburban areas and the purchase of private land for neighborhood parks (from 2-10 acres) and pocket parks (up to 2 acres) may be the most appropriate. Staff should identify potential locations and estimate the cost of acquisitions to inform the city's annual budget and/or a future bond packages. New parkland needs to be provided in deficient centers and corridors prior to increasing density through a mapping of the new land development code.
“Require parkland dedication on-site, especially in areas of the city that are identified in the Parks Master Plan as deficient in open space and parks.”
Given that there are areas in the urban core that are deficient in open space, new urban infill projects should be required to include parkland. The parkland should be on-site and options to pay fee-in-lieu should not be allowed, since the collection of adequate funds may take too long and may not be sufficient to actually purchase parkland in the urban core.
Private Open Space
“Maintain or increase the existing 5% Private Open Space ordinance in Commercial and Multifamily zones and extend a private open space requirement into new ‘Transition Zones’ that are planned for redevelopment or up-zoning.”
Permeable ground cover on private open space provides critical contributions to public safety and health. Most valuably, it provides areas for the infiltration of stormwater, which contributes to the prevention of downstream flooding and to the recharge of area aquifers. Permeable areas that are heavily vegetated also slow the flow of water at the surface, further helping the process of infiltration. Private open space also helps preserve existing tree canopies, which mitigate heat island effects and provide for social gathering places.
Public and Private Open Space
“Establish a minimum of 30% pervious area in all required open space and provide a nuanced code that recognizes soil characteristics and soil volumes to retain stormwater. Require a minimum soil depth (using existing or existing plus imported soil) in pervious areas to retain on-site stormwater.”
In San Francisco, it has been determined that 30% pervious area provide an appropriate balance of green, softscape to hardscape in designated open space areas to capture rainfall. Area requirements, though, are not enough. Precipitation patterns, soil characteristics, and soil volume must also be considered. In Seattle, 24” soil depth is incentivized through that city's Green Factor ordinance. Western parts of Travis County have shallower soils than those in the east. While we might not be able to establish a uniform depth requirement across the county, we should be able set requirements by localized conditions. Stakeholder discussion is needed to determine the most appropriate soil depths in the new code.
Open Space Network
Link open spaces such as parks, plazas, and greenways into a continuous network of corridors that facilitates multimodal transportation, enables recreation, and allows for wildlife movement. Use the existing trails as a foundation for the network and draw upon the 1976 Austin Creeks plan as a key guide to connect the urban core to outlying areas
Restoration of Floodplains, Waterways, and Urban forests
Floodplains, waterways, and urban forests are the key landscape features that create the regional image of Austin. Specific waterways even shape the identity of individual neighborhoods. These features also make up the ecological systems that promote the general health and welfare of the community by providing significant ecological services — benefits that can be quantified in economic terms. Incentives that create equitable methods to restore landscape features and their ecosystems and enhance bio-diversity will help mitigate negative impacts of rapid urbanization. Projects such as the Urban Forest Master Plan and the extensive analysis of watersheds can be starting point defining incentive methods.
Response to Nature and the Built Environment Paper
Click here for a link to download the ASLA CTX CodeNEXT Committee's response the the City of Austin's Nature and the Built Environment paper. This paper is just another step closer to our new development code in the City of Austin and as designers within the natural and built environment the committee felt very strongly about the content of the paper and how it will shape our code in the future.
Benefits of Green Recommendations
“Ensure that sites in all land use zones have a significant percentage of on-site green elements. Integrate Dr. Frances Kuo’s research on the health benefits of green elements into the ‘intent language’ of the new code.”
Austin’s extensive tree canopy and distinctive native vegetation contribute to our well-being. Landscape treatments throughout neighborhoods can manage stormwater, promote physical activity in greenways, and improve comfort and livability. Studies by researchers such as Dr. Frances E. (Ming) Kuo show that green spaces improve the health of residents and encourage social interaction. Dr. Kuo concluded that we need to experience green spaces and see views of landscape to receive the greatest health benefits, so a distributed network of green space is crucial. “This is, what matters most is not whether one could get to a green environment regularly but rather whether one does get to a green environment regularly.”
Kuo, Frances E. M. (2010). “Parks and Other Green Environments: Essential Components of a Healthy Human Habitat.” National Recreation and Park Association. 33.
Water and Watershed Recommendations
“Ensure that site specific environmental considerations are included in determining impervious cover limits.”
Increased impervious cover in a watershed can degrade water quality and contribute to erosion in creek channels. Limits of impervious cover in the land development code should specify maximums that cannot be exceeded. Additionally, other critical environmental features—such as caves, sinkholes, springs, canyon rimrocks, and bluffs—also affect the flow of water on a site. At the outset of development, site analysis should assess these landforms and vegetation, which define Austin's character. Site drainage design should protect critical environmental features from stormwater runoff; at the same time, rainwater should be directed to vegetation, offsetting the need for irrigation with potable water. Vegetation buffers for critical environmental features may also limit the allowable impervious cover on a site, but undisturbed natural areas contribute additional benefits such as greater infiltration.
“Require mitigation of any increase in impervious cover from the current land development code.”
The Imagine Austin comprehensive planning process identified activity centers and corridors as areas where density could be increased to accommodate growth. CodeNEXT will help all of us implement these goals. The form-based zoning districts defined during the mapping process may result in areas where the maximum impervious cover exceeds current regulations to achieve the priority of a compact city. In these cases, site development should be required to offset the consequences of greater runoff volumes and the loss of landscaped area. Potential sustainable options are green roofs, permeable pavement, green walls, rainwater harvesting, stormwater planters, and vegetation along public sidewalks.
“Require water quality controls for all development in urban and suburban watersheds in which the total disturbed area exceeds 5,000 square feet rather than the current requirement of controls for development that has 8,000 square feet of impervious cover.”
Urban development increases the volume of stormwater shed to creeks, streams, and rivers and causes higher and earlier peak flows. Additionally, as stormwater flows over roads and rooftops, pollutants are introduced. In warm weather, flow over hot surfaces increases water temperature. Infill development has the potential to overtax existing gray infrastructure systems that were designed for smaller loads. Reducing the impervious cover threshold that triggers compliance with water quality controls, including redevelopment, will help to mitigate the effects of growth on watersheds. Under the current code, redevelopment is not subject to water quality controls when the existing amount of impervious cover is not increased. Applying the regulation to both new and re-development where the total disturbed area exceeds 5,000 square feet will share the responsibility for managing watersheds.
Water Quantity in Drainage
“Require that redevelopment projects mitigate their share of downstream flooding.”
The Natural and Built Environment Code Prescription observed that Austin has experienced a number of major floods since 2013. The document emphasized that ‘many sites that were developed before detention requirements were introduced in 1974 lack detention facilities….’ Because expanded areas of impervious cover have increased the peak flow and overall volume of stormwater discharge in our creeks, CodeNEXT proposes that redevelopment will also be required to mitigate flooding downstream. The text indicates that, generally, peak discharges will be required to match undeveloped conditions similar to grassland. Limiting stormwater runoff from both new and re-development will help to reduce creek channel erosion.
“Tie any proposed increase in land use density to adequacy of infrastructure capacity. If a watershed has been determined to be at capacity by the Watershed Protection Department, then require that any new development in that watershed detain stormwater. Do not allow fee in lieu, waivers or variances.”
In response to population growth, Imagine Austin identified activity centers and corridors where potential urban and suburban land use density could be increased. This priority was established to partially mitigate the city’s expansion into surrounding undeveloped land. However, infill projects may place strains on stormwater infrastructure and watersheds that are at or near their capacities. For example, properties near Lower Shoal Creek on North Lamar Boulevard at 15th and 12th streets experienced flooding in May 2015. As shown on the Imagine Austin ‘Susceptibility to Change’ map, the Burnet Corridor is one of the areas that are most likely to experience change. Development at the upper reaches of the Shoal Creek Watershed could exacerbate flooding closer to Lady Bird Lake.
An increase of land use density during the CodeNEXT mapping process should only be allowed if the watershed’s infrastructure capacity has been confirmed to be sufficient by Watershed Protection Department analysis. This recommendation is similar to one in the Flood Mitigation Task Force report. If gray infrastructure has reached its capacity, any new development in that watershed should detain stormwater onsite. Do not allow payment in lieu, waivers, or variances. An incentive and assistance program should be established to help property owners improve upon existing infrastructure with measures like green infrastructure.
Design for Mobility Recommendations
“Establish ‘Green Streets’ standards and specifications for all right-of-way (ROW) construction and graphically illustrate these principles in the code update.”
Complete Streets create safe and equitable mobility options by allowing for walkers, bikers, and drivers to share the transportation network. Green Streets apply additional sustainable best practices to the Complete Streets vision in Austin. While the city has adopted these ideals as policy, the land development code should illustrate good solutions to land owners and designers in the ordinance and criteria manuals. Green Streets link many different natural systems together using stormwater collection for infiltration and landscape irrigation, suitable drought-tolerant plants for right-of-ways, tree canopy and shade, permeable paving, and sustainably-sourced construction materials. In mixed-use areas, Green Streets promote walkability where automobiles are predominantly used for local trips. While some streets with excess right-of-way have been designated in the 2014 Austin Bicycle Plan for bike lanes, those that are not designated should be used for green stormwater infrastructure.