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July 29th, 2008
Envision Central Texas's new study shows citizen's concerns

(AUSTIN) Improving the transportation system, water availability and quality, maintaining the affordability of housing, the lack of planning resources and the need for greater coordination on regional issues are among the top concerns of Central Texans, according to a new study about planning for future growth released by Envision Central Texas (ECT) and conducted by Austin’s TIP Strategies, Inc. One emerging topic of interest to citizens was climate change and energy efficiency.

During the five years since Envision Central Texas conducted its two-year regional visioning process, Central Texas has continued to grow at an astonishing rate. The projection for population growth remains on track for a doubling of the population between 2000 and 2020. To mark the five-year milestone since ECT’s creation of its Regional Vision, the organization’s board of directors commissioned a study to determine how well the region is meeting the demands of its continued growth and if it is moving toward the future expressed by the Vision.

To accomplish this task, TIP Strategies worked with ECT staff and leadership to conduct a “Vision Progress Assessment” which included a detailed series of interviews with local businesses, institutions, and public officials. In addition, the team conducted focus groups and public workshops, and administered online questionnaires in the five-county Central Texas Region. The results of the study will be used by the Envision Central Texas board as it plans for its future goals, activities and program of work for 2009 and beyond.

While many study participants believed that the region has made progress toward a number of the goals of the Vision, there was also a pervasive feeling that Central Texas still faces many of the same major issues it did five or ten years ago only magnified. One barrier to more significant progress was attributed to the lack of a coordinated approach to infrastructure planning in the region one that is tied to land use planning and that breaks down traditional silos. Across the board, there was a strong sense that linking economic, land use and transportation planning is essential.

According to the study, most communities throughout the region support the tenets of Envision Central Texas and “want to embrace higher density, primary job employment close to home, transit hubs, walkable communities, pedestrian pathways, and a sense of place that reflects the community’s character. The study however, offers the caveat that while there is agreement in principle, it is clear that each Central Texas community has its own idea of how it wants to grow.

Significantly, many communities lack the necessary resources to plan for their growth, and as a result are being planned by growth. According to the study, many smaller, outlying areas are often the most concerned about preserving their unique character. However, they typically lack the tools future land use plans, comprehensive plans, land development codes, utility and transportation impact fees, park plans that would help them define and implement their residents’ vision of how growth should occur. For unincorporated areas, the problem is magnified by the lack of land use authority at the county level. Every legislative session for the last decade has failed to see results on this front. What is different now than 10 years ago is that the general citizenry in Central Texas sees the benefits of increased land use regulatory authority for counties.

In the Vision Progress Assessment, the topic raised most often by participants was transportation. While some progress was noted over the past five years, specifically the construction of new roadways (State Highway 130 and others) and the future commuter rail line, there was agreement that much more remains to be done to improve the region’s transportation system. Among those responding to the on-line citizen survey, addressing transportation issues and congestion was viewed as the number one factor affecting the region’s future.

Transportation infrastructure and houses are the most obvious physical manifestations of growth in Central Texas. The type of housing that is sprouting up throughout the region varies considerably depending on the school systems, the infrastructure, the employment opportunities, and the quality of place that attracts individuals to communities in the first place. The study showed that although more housing choices exist in the region, perhaps most notably the tremendous growth in downtown housing, affordability has become a significant issue in many areas.

According to the study, there is general recognition among all sectors that the natural environment is one of Central Texas’ most important assets. While concerns were expressed about open space preservation and the impacts of changing air quality standards, concerns about water quality and availability dominated environmental discussions.

A new development uncovered in the Vision Progress Assessment is the growing public awareness of the impacts of climate change. Every corporation interviewed, as well as the University of Texas, saw a strong desire on the part of employees (and students) to take a stand on global warming. For some businesses, carbon neutrality was an expressed goal. The best way to express the change over the last five years is to say that national (and international) interest in climate-related issues has shifted the debate on the environment. What were once thought of as primarily local issues are now seen in a global context. In addition, companies see that there is a business case to be made for conservation and the technologies that support it. Rising energy costs demand a response and this response fits well with a desire to address environmental concerns.

To download the complete Vision Progress Assessment and demographic addendum, visit the ECT website at www.envisioncentraltexas.org and look for the Vision Progress Assessment Report under the Resources tab.

For more information or interviews about the Vision Progress Assessment contact the following at Envision Central Texas:

• Chairman Jim Walker, jhwalker@grandecom.net., 512.499.0526

• Vice Chairman Travis Froehlich, tfroehlich@seton.org, 512.324.1919

• Executive Director Sally Campbell, scampbell@envisioncentraltexas.org, 512.916.6176

• Assistant Director Diane Miller, dmiller@envisioncentraltexas.org, 512.916.6037

About Envision Central Texas

Envision Central Texas (ECT) a five-county non- profit organization, serves as a catalyst for change in our region’s growth management strategies so that we can advance Central Texas’ Vision for the future. In 2001, ECT was created to assist in the public development and implementation of a Regional Vision to address the growth of Central Texas and help us preserve and enhance our natural resources, economic vitality, social equity, and overall quality of living. The vision, which was derived from the input of thousands of Central Texas citizens, includes multiple choices of transportation and housing, compact walkable communities in key nodes, abundant open spaces and recreation opportunities and a strong emphasis on social equity and preservation of our region’s unique character and history. Implementation of ECT’s vision can help to ensure our region continues be one of the best places to live and work in the country for generations to come.

The Key Elements of the Regional Vision are:

• An effective transportation system that improves mobility throughout the region, increases choices of how we get around including roads, rail, trails and bikeways and is coordinated with land use planning.

• Protection of our environment and natural resources so we will have the open space, parks and trails that people cherish, preserve our ecologically sensitive land and ensure sustainable clean water and air for future generations.

• A diverse and thriving economy with a robust base of businesses throughout the region and quality job opportunities for our citizens.

• A variety of housing choices that are affordable for everyone in the region and offer a mix of styles, such as neighborhoods with pedestrian-friendly streets or housing within walking distance of transit and stores.

• Preservation of our region’s unique character by protecting and enhancing our neighborhoods, towns, rural areas, historic sites and special sense of place.

• An understanding that social equity and racial harmony are core values that strengthen us and actions that foster respect, civility, and opportunities for all.

• A region-wide understanding that our fortunes are tied together requiring planning, participation and collaboration by stakeholders throughout our region to ensure a successful and livable Central Texas in the future.

By SALLY W. CAMPBELL
Executive Director – Envision Central Texas

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