In brief

Imagine Austin is a major public participation programme to engage citizens in reimagining their city. The policy priorities are sustainable spaces and eco-friendly transport, improved air and water quality, and clean technologies. The City Council conducted a comprehensive information-gathering exercise in online and physical public meeting places to discover the future that Austin residents imagined. Since 2012, they have been seeking to realise that vision.

The challenge

The university city of Austin, Texas has been growing while many other American cities have stagnated. "Between 2000 and 2010, the city saw a 37% increase in population. Many new residents have come to the city with a diploma in hand; 43% of adults 25 and older in Austin now have a bachelor’s degree or above." [1]

This intensified the need to make citizens feel engaged with their city, including the newcomers and those who felt that it was growing too quickly. The digital and social media revolutions made that possible in the online sphere. "With over 75% of Americans now online, and 82% of them interacting with government online, local governments have the opportunity to engage residents on Facebook, Twitter, and a myriad of other digital engagement tools.” [2] However, there was also a need for citizens to engage with their physical environment in order to construct a greener urban space.

The initiative

The City of Austin took up the challenge. "In 2009, the City of Austin embarked on an effort to create a new comprehensive plan to guide the city’s growth, spending and conservation of resources. Austin’s planning effort was designed and driven by a community engagement process that ... engaged more than 25,000 residents in the development of the final plan, Imagine Austin, which was adopted in June 2012.” [3]

The objectives of Imagine Austin are to:

  • “Promote a compact and connected city." [4]
  • “Preserve its neighbourhood character."
  • “Focus any new development in corridors and centres accessible “by walking, bicycling, transit, and cars."
  • "Direct development away from environmentally sensitive areas.”

The public impact

Austin’s community engagement efforts were ultimately successful in generating a new comprehensive plan for the city. The priority programme included: sustainable water, green infrastructure, creative economy, healthy Austin and household affordability. The priority programme was “endorsed 21-3 by the Citizens Advisory Task Force”. [5]

The social media initiative has had some success in that Imagine Austin has 4.500 Twitter followers and 4,265 Facebook likes.

In the year to August 2015, the following had also been achieved by the Imagine Austin initiative:

  • “34,459 pounds of healthy organic food were grown in community gardens on City land." [6]
  • “More than 66,000 feet of ADA compliant sidewalks were constructed."
  • “39 miles of new and improved bike lanes built, including 10 miles of buffered or protected lanes in 2014."
  • “49 acres of Water Quality Protection lands were acquired in the Barton Springs Zone."
  • “181 acres of parkland were acquired, utilising 60% bond funding and 40% parkland dedication funding.”
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What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

There has been a strong support from the various stakeholders, principally the city council staff and the citizens of Austin:

  • “The development of the comprehensive plan was guided by a taskforce of 38 stakeholders from key constituencies and sectors in the city.” [7]
  • “The target audiences for Imagine Austin included residents of Austin, neighbourhood advocates, transportation advocates, and other special interest groups ..." [8]
  • “Imagine Austin had a budget of US$1.34 million for its consultant work, which was supplemented by City staff time. At its peak, more than 100 City staff were involved in the process.”

Political Commitment Good

Imagine Austin is the City of Austin’s “sustainability-focused Comprehensive Plan, which provides broad guidance on how Austin and its extraterritorial jurisdiction will grow and develop for the next three decades”.

Public Confidence Weak

A survey conducted by the Southwestern Environmental Studies Program found that many Austin citizens were enthusiastic about green issues but were largely unaware of the city council’s detailed plans. “A large number of responses communicated a strong level of civic engagement and awareness of the major environmental and social challenges occurring in the city of Austin. What was not often communicated, however, was a level of awareness of what precisely the city was doing to mitigate those challenges. Despite efforts to communicate many of the city’s programmes and initiatives, there was little discussion of these initiatives.”

Policy

Clear Objectives Good

The vision of the Community engagement, and make it easier for the public to communicate feedback to the local government. However, since this objective is not measurable even though the goal was set at the outset of the project, it is rated as good.

Evidence Good

There was a comprehensive canvassing of citizens’ opinion. “Imagine Austin held 3 community forum series ... to consult the community on [its] vision for the future, challenges to achieve the vision, and how Austin should accommodate an additional 750,000 residents over the next 30 years ... Other face-to-face activities included community events, presentations to community groups, and expert speaker series. Afterwards, seven working groups met 6 times each to develop actions to achieve the vision. A final series of community forum series was held to review the plan and set priorities.” [9]

This was an exhaustive process: “during this fourth round of public input, the community was invited to submit comments on the plan at public meetings, speaking engagements, by email, and through ‘Speak Up, Austin,’ an ideation tool that allowed participants to vote for ideas they agree with as well as discuss individual ideas in comments.” It also took evidence from a large number of citizens. “The city estimates that over 25,000 citizens took part in the [Speak Up, Austin] process, through the community forum series, surveys, neighbourhood meetings, working groups, social media, and other online communications.” [10]

Feasibility Good

Austin City Council’s participation strategy established community engagement as one of three overarching goals of the process for completing the Imagine Austin plan, the other two goals being sustainability and implementation. The engagement with citizens meant that Imagine Austin was based on a comprehensive information-gathering process, although there was some doubt whether there was an adequate reciprocal dissemination of information to citizens (see Public confidence above).

The financial feasibility of Imagine Austin was enabled by the city council’s initial allocation of USD1.3 million budget to drive public participation.

Action

Management Good

The various plans that form part of the Imagine Austin initiative – comprehensive plans, master plans and small area plans – “work together by providing decision-makers (City Council, but also boards and commissions, City staff, and the public) with coordinated but
different perspectives”. [11]

The implementation of Imagine Austin is led by the city council but involves the council managing partnerships with many different city and state government agencies as well as external organisations. “The City of Austin cannot implement Imagine Austin by itself. It will need to enter into partnerships with public, private, and non-profit organisations and develop coalitions with our regional neighbours to address mutual concerns. The City of Austin currently has relationships with a number of surrounding local governments and agencies such as Travis County, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Central Health.” [12]

Measurement Good

The Imagine Austin Annual Report provides key facts and achievements of the Imagine Austin Priority Programme teams while the Imagine Austin website measures the impact of public participation in terms of number of people attending events and materials distributed. It also uses online feedback to refine the Imagine Austin planning process.

The Five-year Evaluation and Performance Report is the main focus of monitoring and evaluation. “Performance monitoring provides an assessment of whether actions that have been implemented in previous years are achieving the desired results as measured through complete communities indicators ... Once a specific action has been implemented, as documented in the Annual Report, performance monitoring will assess whether that action is having positive results.” [13]

Alignment Strong

The various actors are strongly aligned, in relation to Imagine Austin, with the City Council leading the cooperative actions, for example:

  • The Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Task Force was appointed by the City Council to guide and champion the programme.
  • "The city’s efforts included bilingual gatherings and online tools, special events to attract youth and younger families, working with the schools and hosting meetings and events.” [14]
  • The SpeakUpAustin platform “allows users to comment, vote, follow or share an idea as well as monitor its state whether it is in progress or planned and receive updates”. [15]

The City Council engages with not-for-profits, the private sector and administrative entities such as Travis County to deliver Imagine Austin (see Management above).

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