Onion Creek flows from Hays County, Texas into Travis County where it meets the Colorado River east of Austin. It experiences frequent flooding, and the Onion Creek Greenway Plan serves to protect stream corridors and floodplains while simultaneously using these areas for recreation. In particular, the Greenway will be used for both recreation and transportation for the City of Austin. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was helpful in purchasing lands in the floodplain as a way to keep development away from hazardous areas. Located in previously agricultural land that has been divided into residential, commercial and industrial uses, the greenway creates connections within the fragmented landscape. This not only benefits the people who use it, but it creates more contiguous natural areas to promote resiliency of wildlife habitats.
The Onion Creek Greenway Plan was created to mitigate flooding of the creek and provide areas for hiking, biking and walking. The greenway totals 21 miles in length, connecting parcels of land divided by State Highway 130 that leads to the City of Austin. Travis County is experiencing a boom in population growth, expecting to reach 1,600,000 people by 2035. The area surrounding Onion Creek was chosen as an optimal site in which to develop a greenway based on existing needs, favorable features and the willingness of stakeholders to support such a plan. The area to be developed into the Onion Creek Greenway includes existing parks and large tracts of lands that landowners are willing to sell.
Travis County has become interested in developing greenways because of the multiple benefits they can provide. Not only do greenways provide spaces for recreation, they also play an important role in protecting water resources, increasing real estate values, providing transportation alternatives, and connecting fragmented habitats that can benefit wildlife populations. Once transformed into a greenway, the land becomes public, thereby further restricting development in hazardous areas. From this perspective, the greenway can be viewed as an ecological, recreational and economic asset.
The Onion Creek Greenway was initially identified as a top priority in the 2005 Travis County Parks and Natural Areas Master Plan and was included in the proposed 2005 bond election. After this bond election was successfully passed, $8.6 million was designated to the project and the Concept Plan for the Onion Creek Greenway was developed.
Other parties involved in establishing the Onion Creek Greenway in addition to Travis County include the Austin-Bastrop River Corridor Partnership (ABRCP), the Trust for Public Land (TPL), and the City of Austin. Thus, a community of planning has arisen around the Onion Creek Greenway project to ensure it remains a priority and that actions are taken to see the project through to completion. In addition, the TPL created The Travis County Green Print for Growth in the fall of 2006, which identified Onion Creek’s floodplains, among other floodplains, as highest priority in discussing lands to be conserved.
Travis County saw flooding of the Creek as an opportunity to acquire land in the floodplain to create a greenway. The greenway provides trails along the stream corridor for recreation and alternative transportation for Austin.
- Travis County used the acquisition of land as a strategy to ensure funds were spent effectively. This strategy included such actions as buying properties within the 100-year floodplain, buying land before being sold to developers, developing “minimal viable segments,” acquiring land from owners who were known as long-time stewards of the land, establishing relationships with government stakeholders, and acquiring land only through free market transactions rather than eminent domain.
- The Greenway provides space for children to interact with nature and their peers to foster healthy development and relationships.
Residents of Travis County were involved in the planning process through public outreach and education. Advocacy on the part of the residents brought the measure to the level of a bond election for plan approval.
- Travis County derived a strategy for spending funds effectively by passing a county bond election, where voters approved $8.6 million for the project. See the section on Lessons Learned below for specifics about their strategy regarding the bond election.
Travis County’s greenway is an example of green infrastructure that provides an alternative to vehicular transportation.
- Hiking, biking, and walking trails throughout the greenway allow for alternative means of transportation to driving. Users can travel to work, for example, by accessing the greenway.
The successful approval of the project and designation of $8.6 million in funding was the result of a multi-pronged strategy. During the 2005 county bond election, Travis County residents voted to approve funding for the project. The package was presented to voters as a single park bond proposition rather than as individual propositions. A transparent project selection process was utilized so that voters understood the criteria used to prioritize projects. In addition, advocates of the Onion Creek Greenway understood their audience’s interests and were able to use effective language in communication and outreach. For example, they used recommendations from the Language of Conservation (a scientific study, commissioned by The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land), including phrases such as “…about water FIRST and foremost,” and “hiking, biking, and walking trails” instead of “trails,” as well as “…connect land conservation to ‘future generations.’” This effective use of language allowed them to communicate successfully with their audience. They used additional measures to ensure the bond was passed. Examples include coordinating priorities with a system-wide parks master plan and successfully implementing several park projects approved by voters (Onion Creek Greenway Case Study).
Travis County found that public engagement proved to be essential throughout the process of developing the Onion Creek Greenway Plan. In fact, after not having made the advisory committee’s final cut, the project was added back into the 2005 park bond package due to citizen advocacy. Prioritizing the objectives of the greenway was important in assisting the decision-making process regarding which parcels of land to acquire. They focused on mitigating flooding before creating recreational uses because of the importance of protecting water and mitigating flooding damage first and foremost. They suggest basing requests for additional resources for maintenance and operation on a business management practice called Activity Based Management (ABM). Additionally, bringing together a team of professional staff with extensive management experience was particularly beneficial in executing the plan. Focusing on the importance of flood mitigation to land conservation as the number one priority for Onion Creek allowed the project team to communicate more effectively with their audience. They gained further support by coordinating priorities through a system-wide parks master plan and successfully passing a bond to raise money for plan implementation.