An Imagine Austin Primer

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On the fourth anniversary of the adoption of Austin’s comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin, let’s take a

moment to review what the plan is, how it came to be, how it relates to the CodeNEXT

effort to revise the land development code, and how we measure success in implementing it.

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What Is a Comprehensive Plan?

A comprehensive plan is a long-term vision for a city that guides all policy decisions. Comprehensive plans are high level; they don’t prescribe policies or land use on a parcel-by-parcel or neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

How Did We Create Ours?

Starting in 2009, I was one of about 40 Austinites who oversaw the development of the Imagine Austin as members of the Citizens Advisory Task Force (CATF) for the comprehensive plan. Our role was to engage the community to understand its needs, promote public participation, and shape a vision for Austin’s future.

Growth scenarios were a key part of the development of Imagine Austin. Under the premise that Austin and its extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) would grow by 750,000 residents and 300,000 jobs by the year 2035, the community engaged in a process to determine how that growth would occur in the most sustainable fashion.

City staff and CATF members invited the community to participate in “chip exercises”, wherein members of the public placed chips on maps of Austin to indicate where growth should go. City staff grouped and combined the growth maps into four growth scenarios. A fifth “trend” growth scenario, depicting how Austin would grow without changing its policies, accompanied the four community-inspired growth scenarios.

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To determine the community’s preferred growth scenario, staff posted each of the growth scenario maps at workshops throughout the city. A set of “sustainability indicators” accompanied each map. For each growth scenario, the city quantified the outcomes that would occur on such indicators as vehicle miles traveled (VMTs), transit ridership, cost of public infrastructure, and water consumption.

By quantifying the impact of the growth scenarios, the indicators informed the public conversation and decision about which scenario was the most desirable. The public ultimately voted in the largest numbers for scenario D, which directed most of the jobs and people into the central city. Imagine Austin includes a “growth concept map” based on scenario D, while incorporating elements of scenario C and minor adjustments to reflect certain land use constraints.

Beyond the selection of a growth scenario, through a series of workshops, community forums and conversations, and other outreach efforts, city staff, consultants, and CATF members solicited 18,000 public inputs and meticulously categorized and considered each input during the process of drafting the plan. Austin’s City Council unanimously approved the plan on June 15, 2012.

What’s In Imagine Austin?

The Imagine Austin plan contains several key concepts that can be confusing, including:

1. Complete Communities and Goals

2. Core Principles for Action

3. Policy Areas and Building Blocks

4. Priority Programs

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Imagine Austin’s vision is for complete communities throughout the city. A complete community is:

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1. Natural and sustainable

2. Prosperous

3. Livable

4. Mobile and interconnected

5. Educated

6. Creative

7. Values and respects people.

These attributes of complete communities are the goals of Imagine Austin.

To achieve these goals, the plan outlines six core principles for action:

1. Grow as a compact, connected city.

2. Integrate nature into the city.

3. Provide paths to prosperity to all.

4. Develop as an affordable and healthy community.

5. Sustainably manage water, energy, and environmental resources.

6. Think creatively and work together.

Ultimately, policies in the following policy areas must work in concert to apply these principles and achieve plan goals:

1. Land Use and Transportation

2. Housing and Transportation

3. Economy

4. Conservation and Environment

5. City Facilities and Services

6. Society

7. Creativity

To facilitate implementation and match the departmental structure of the City of Austin, the plan enumerates eight priority programs:

1. Invest in a compact and connected Austin

2. Sustainably manage our water resources

3. Continue to grow Austin’s economy by investing in our workforce, education systems, entrepreneurs, and local businesses

4. Use green infrastructure to protect environmentally sensitive areas and integrate nature into the city

5. Grow and invest in Austin’s creative economy

6. Develop and maintain household affordability throughout Austin

7. Create a Healthy Austin Program

8. Revise Austin’s development regulations and processes to promote a compact and connected city.

It’s important to recognize that Imagine Austin’s core principles for action and priority programs are principles and programs intended to achieve plan goals, but they are not, in and of themselves, the goals.

Compact and Connected

The first and last of Imagine Austin’s priority programs are “bookends” and reflect the plan’s emphasis on moving towards the denser development patterns the public chose in growth scenario D. Priority program #8 gave birth to the CodeNEXT process, which is the city’s effort to revise the land development code to achieve the goals of Imagine Austin.

Indeed, Imagine Austin links compact and connected development patterns to many of the plan’s goals:

● “More compact growth . . . enhances human connections, innovation, and urban vibrancy.” – Page 10

● “The per unit costs associated with serving low-density, sprawling development with water and wastewater services are generally greater than those associated with denser, more compact development.” – Page 61

● “By promoting a compact and connected city, Austin seeks to direct development away from sensitive environmental resources, protect existing open space and natural resources, and improve air and water quality.” – Page 97

● “A compact community is one in which housing, services, retail, jobs, entertainment, health care, schools, parks, and other daily needs are within a convenient walk or bicycle ride of one another. A compact community is supported by a complete transportation system, encourages healthier lifestyles and community interaction, and allows for more efficient delivery of public services” – Page 129

● “Well-designed compact areas with plenty of people, workplaces, and multifamily homes make transit work; they’re needed to make frequent, convenient bus and rail service viable . . . . Per person, compact urban areas have a lower carbon footprint than suburban areas. More compact development patterns [also] lower taxpayer costs for public services, if fewer roads, water and sewer lines, power lines, and other infrastructure are needed to serve far-flung places. Encouraging compact infill projects also reduces development pressures on open space around Austin, helping to support land conservation and environmental protection.” – Page 129

Compact and connected development patterns impact the concept of “household affordability”, mentioned in priority program #6 and a component of the “livable” attribute of complete communities. The Imagine Austin task force deliberately chose the “household affordability” term to refer, not just to the cost of housing, but to the combination of housing, transportation, and utility costs.

The cost of land - and, therefore, housing costs - in outlying areas tend to be lower than in high-demand areas in the central city. But people who live the outlying areas often experience much higher transportation costs. The appendix of the 2014 Austin Comprehensive Housing Market Analysis shows that, in some Austin zip codes, households’ transportation costs are nearly as high as their housing costs. Policies that might yield greater housing affordability, in isolation, differ from those that yield greater household affordability.

Thus “compact and connected” is not one of many goals but is key among the core principles and priority programs designed to achieve Imagine Austin goals.

Complete Communities Indicators

As the city implements Imagine Austin and continues the CodeNEXT process to revise the land development code, how can we know we’re headed in the right direction?

Imagine Austin answers this question with a set of “complete communities indicators”. Page 224 of the plan states that these indicators “measure success in achieving plan goals”. The 58 indicators, listed on pages 225-226 of the plan, are organized by the attributes of complete communities. They include such indicators as:

● Cost burdened households (housing, transportation, and utility costs)

● Vehicle miles traveled (total and per capita)

● Water consumption (total water use and per capita residential)

● Households within ½ mile distance of park or accessible open space (percent)

Policy and land development code changes that move the complete communities indicators in the wrong direction fail to achieve, or undermine achievement of, Imagine Austin goals.

To measure progress, the plan calls for the city to monitor and update these indicators, and that “measures and reporting should be highly visible to promote accountability”.

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Yet the indicators also can provide guidance, in advance, on which policies the cities should adopt to achieve plan goals. Much as “sustainability indicators” guided the selection of a preferred growth scenario during the development of the Imagine Austin plan, the complete communities indicators can guide CodeNEXT decisions and Imagine Austin implementation.

The city has a license for, and access to, a software tool, Envision Tomorrow, that enables staff to input various factors and determine their effects on the indicators. As the CodeNEXT team proposes revised land development regulations and maps them to neighborhoods across the city, they can explore several different scenarios and use Envision Tomorrow and other tools to estimate and quantify the impact on the complete communities indicators.

Summary

The Imagine Austin plan provides the long-term vision and goals for our city: a city of complete communities that are natural and sustainable, prosperous, livable, mobile and interconnected, educated, creative, and that value and respect people. We measure success in achieving these goals using 58 complete communities indicators listed in the plan. Core principles and priority programs are intended to address these goals as our city implements Imagine Austin, with growing as a compact and connected city being a key principle and program. Imagine Austin gave birth to the CodeNEXT effort, currently underway, to determine land development code changes to promote a compact and connected city.

In the coming blog posts, we’ll dive a bit deeper into each of the priority programs to discuss what has been done in the last four years as well as what more could be done to achieve the goals of Imagine Austin.

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