How the Island neighborhood in Austin is Reactivating their Public Spaces
By: Zeki Salah, Communications Associate
This summer, the Island Civic Association worked with young people in the Island neighborhood of Austin to reactivate a playlot owned by G. R. Clark Elementary School as a public space. Nate Tubbs, a 2023 Chicago Peace Fellow and president of the Island Civic Association (ICA), was heavily involved in organizing the project. The work of Nate and the ICA aims to create a more connected, inclusive, and thriving community in the Island. In an effort to activate public spaces, ICA has been working with G. R. Clark and young community members to host Playlot Nights at the G. R. Clark Playlot. These events aim to attract attention towards creating more public outdoor spaces and promoting a healthier and more cohesive neighborhood.
Currently, the Island lacks outdoor spaces for young people and families to gather. The ICA has identified this as a problem that often causes people to have to leave the neighborhood for recreation. Nate comments, “The Island is a small pocket of the Southwest Austin community. It is a great little area, but it is kind of land-locked. This means a lot of people have to leave the neighborhood to go to a park or playground.” One way the ICA has worked to solve this problem is by activating existing areas to serve as public spaces in addition to their current uses.
In the past, the neighbors within the Island community have worked together to activate vacant spaces through community partnerships, however the Playlot project seeks to activate existing space on a larger scale through partnership with G. R. Clark. Island residents previously created a Nature Play Garden as an intergenerational outdoor space on a vacant city lot. However, the ICA’s work on the G. R. Clark Playlot Project focuses on creating a larger public space where community members can gather for larger events or play sports and is dependent on working cooperatively with G. R. Clark. Up until this point, the G.R. Clark playground has been regularly locked outside of school hours. Many community members have asked whether it can be opened more regularly. In response ICA has been in discussion with the school about how they can activate the space for community events.
To show community support for opening the Playlot to the public, the ICA and the G. R. Clark Local School Council have invested in its renovation alongside young people and community partners. The Playlot project has aimed to center the voices of the young people who plan to use the space in discussions about the Playlot’s future. Students provided their ideas for improving the playlot and one of their primary concerns was to renovate a fence outside of the school that had become an eyesore. Community members and students worked together to install garden beds, repaint the fence, and add new plants and benches. Their work was aided by partnering with the humanitarian organization Convoy of Hope, as well as John Burns Construction and Christy Webber Landscaping Company which both provided employee volunteers to help improve the space. This spring, students added new signage and lettering to the fence along the playlot. These efforts to beautify the space, showed ownership, and demonstrated that there are people who care and are working on the space.
Following the renovations, the Playlot Nights acted as a proof of concept that the community is invested in reactivating the space. Playlot Nights were held on first Fridays through the summer, in June, July, and August when kids of all ages came together to play. The events incorporated activities for all ages such as chalk drawing, kickball games, music, and cold drinks. Nate noted that each night attracted new crowds. “I think that’s the beauty of doing something outdoors. While some people came from getting flyers and emails, other people were just walking their dogs or riding their bikes and stopped by. Some people drove by and did a double take because they weren’t used to seeing people using the space. So it was really a positive thing with great energy.”
The input of young people is central to the community’s plans for the future of the Playlot project. Six young community members between the ages of 12 and 15 were commissioned by the ICA as Youth Ambassadors and helped organize the Playlot nights. Each Youth Ambassador lives within the Island neighborhood and worked alongside the community to plan the Playlot Nights in exchange for stipends. Youth Ambassadors planned events, distributed flyers, and administered games and activities. By showing that young people are capable of taking action to plan the future of the playlot and administer programs, ICA hopes to generate more community involvement and incrementally work towards a larger scale transformation of the space.
The Playlot Nights brought the community together to have fun and opened the playlot to connect the community as a whole.-Henry Ellis, ICA Youth Ambassador
The Playlot Project demonstrates the change that happens as a neighborhood explores their strengths. The Playlot is not something new to the Island neighborhood, but is an asset that is being reactivated through community involvement. Looking towards the future, the ICA aims to continue to maximize its impact in the community through collaboration and investment in existing resources.