Tucked along the street noted on Google Maps as “Parkway” that runs the western length of Pease Park to the south of 24th Street, are two old plastic and metal chairs perched on a little outcropping framed by trees and brush. Glimpsing a flash of orange and blue on my drive down the hill, I parked and trekked up a street with no sidewalk so I could sit in one.
From the chairs, I could make out the creek. I imagined some neighbor, maybe a couple, placing these here many years ago when the brush wasn’t as full and dense. Unexpected and deliciously simple, this felt pretty Austin to me. Creek views, sounds of cicadas reverberating in the humid summer air, slow old trees and a dappling of Spanish moss —just bring your own chairs (and leave them there for 30 years).
Sometimes all you need to enjoy being outside is a couple chairs. And sometimes, if you’re serving a diverse public in a growing city, you might need a little bit more.
Kingsbury Commons, a 12-acre renovation to the historic entry space and programmatic heart of Pease Park led by Christine Ten Eyck and her team at Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, recalls the simplicity of those two chairs, with a contemporary commitment to doing right by our environment and welcoming all kinds of people to the park.
Kingsbury packs a punch. Ten Eyck deftly organized a laundry list of amenities in a relatively compact amount of open space: an interactive water feature, a terrace for gatherings, new restrooms, a tree house, nature play equipment, bocce, and a basketball court, plus renovated historical features including a Tudor cottage and 1930s benches built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
And despite the Kingsbury’s complexity, meant to act as a counterbalance relative to the simplicity of the 30 other acres of Pease, there’s a graceful weight to all the newness here.
With muted and rugged materials like limestone, rusted steel, and other matte metal finishes, low-slung open-air bathrooms (which were a particular favorite of mine), and tough local plants — Ten Eyck’s team ensured that the new features seem to nearly dissolve into place.
Ten Eyck thinks of landscape architects as weavers: connecting designed elements with natural systems and facilitating between architects, planners, and engineers. Their warp is designing elements that serve people, and their weft is preserving, restoring, and complementing natural systems in the places they work. This work often helps restore gaps in circular ecosystems that human design decisions in the past disrupted.
And at Kingsbury the same is true. There are beautiful new features that give people places to play, gather, and rest, but the project also included the restoration and stabilization of a nearby stream’s water — fitting for a park on the banks of a beloved creek and in its ecologically important watershed.
Ten Eyck and her team re-routed a spring on the hillside to the west of the park to flow into Kingsbury Commons; its water had previously been depositing into storm drains near the entrance of the park.
Traditionally, water run-off from springs or storms would be handled by water infrastructure that uses pipes and tunnels to carry stormwater to treatment plants. Green infrastructure, now gaining in prominence as climate change events tax traditional infrastructure, uses natural systems and plants to manage water, rather than using pipes and storm drains to channel excess water to a far-flung treatment facility.
At Kingsbury this meant collaborating with the city and Watershed Protection department and creating a terraced network of native plants to slow and absorb water.
Entering Pease Park near the Tudor cottage, the water flows through limestone steps planted with pollinator friendly Eastern gamma grass, switchgrass, swamp milkweed and other riparian plants, ones that thrive in both wet and dry conditions. Depending on rainfall amounts, the flowing water will also be visible to parkgoers.
Ten Eyck calls this creating a green sponge, which absorbs pollution like dirt, chemicals, and trash that gets drummed up from water runoff, while also helping manage floodwaters.
“Our creeks and streams in the Hill Country are mostly limestone bottomed that are meant to run clear,” Ten Eyck told me. “This runoff coming from the city has all kinds of gross stuff and silt in it, so it ruins the habitat for the animals, the fish, and the salamander that live in these springs.”
Ten Eyck is passionate about our natural landscape here in Central Texas — she told me that her firm rejoice each time they’re able to remove a parking lot in a project, and jokingly refer to their work as restoring paradise.
She fretted during our conversation that as Austin grows, our parks will have to perform the work that Kingsbury Commons is to an even higher degree, fulfilling crucial social and ecological roles.
But I feel reassured that we have an excellent blueprint in the form of Kingsbury Commons.
Pease Park Conservancy managed this project in a way that makes it apparent that their organization respects and cares deeply for both park-goers and the environment, in a way that some of the new large public space projects in Austin seem to lack.
They did due diligence in paying to create an interpretive master plan to document and chart a respectful way forward from the history of its namesake Elisha Pease, who enslaved people on the land that now makes up part of the park.
And they also did a huge service in hiring Ten Eyck, an extraordinarily thoughtful practitioner, and a Texan with a deep reverence for the plants, animals, and people that call Austin home.
There’s something in the spirit of the place because of this operational work that makes Kingsbury feel like it’s part of the fabric of Austin — not a bid to get people from out of town or Instagram influencers to come visit.
Even what might be considered the iconic attraction, the Treehouse, expertly designed by Mel Lawrence Architects is elegantly sited within tree cover, both for the views from within the orb, but also ensuring that it becomes one part of the park experience as a whole, not a gambit for social media posts.
Ten Eyck and her team designed the approach to the Treehouse to create an accessible entry experience for the upper level of the structure. When I was there during a scorching hot afternoon, the walkway was peppered with wet footprints from kiddos scampering up from the water feature to the orb.
This to me felt like the two chairs but even better: an accessible pathway that’s not hidden away but used by everyone including dripping kids, bordered by a resilient landscape that supports our local ecosystems in a public park buzzing with activity.
Sometimes what you need to make the most of the outdoors are a couple chairs, and a few things more.
As part of our Pandemic Place series, I talked to Ten Eyck about the tough ecological and social work our parks have to do, and how we have to design Austin and our public spaces to accommodate the hundreds of Californians driving to Austin with their U-Hauls right now.
Sightlines: Tell us about what kind of parks we should be designing for after COVID-19?
Christine Ten Eyck: There’s pressure on cities to become more dense — Austin is going through that right now with Code Next. Intensifying the building in the city core is going to put a lot more pressure on open space to take care of our issues like storm water, harvesting water, and drought.
As far as parks go, we’ve got to not only take care of the psychological issues of people’s lives and give them respite, but we also have to take care of the development pressures of overbuilding and over hardscaping. I would love to see things get greener and more porous versus more hot plazas, concrete, and asphalt. Parks are the lungs of the city—we need them green, and we need them filled with native plants that attract pollinators and perform functions like filtering storm water before it goes into our precious creeks and springs.
And parks are going to have even more pressure on them with more people moving here. We’re going to have to be really great with our technology. Our soil and any reinforcement have to be able to take these huge crowds; the festival use and even the yoga gatherings in some existing parks have pounded the lawns down to exposed soil. We’re going to be constantly looking for new technologies to hold everything together with the impending masses that are driving here right now from California and other places all over the country.
S: What do you wish we already had in place in our city before COVID-19?
CTE: I wish everybody had access to parks. I know there are parts of the city that don’t have parks that other areas of the city do. One of the cool things about Austin is how almost every neighborhood has its own swimming pool. I’m very nervous that I heard it on the news, the city can’t find lifeguards so they’re only opening 6 pools. They do cost to maintain and with this lifeguard shortage, I’m worried that we’re going to lose these swimming spots. They’re just so important in a hot climate and it’s a special thing that Austin has that other cities don’t have. These are such great neighborhood meeting places and we need to protect them and keep them open.
S: How are you seeing conversations in your work change based on conversations about public health and equity?
CTE: Those conversations came up pre-COVID too. We worked on the San Antonio Botanical Garden’s expansion. How do you make everyone feel comfortable coming to a public space like that? What is it that makes different groups feel comfortable?
We had workshops with various people in the community with the teachers of the elementary school. We really wanted the botanical garden to be an outdoor living laboratory for the schools.
And it’s so hard, because our neighborhoods are not totally mixed. There’s still a lot of areas that are predominantly one ethnicity or another. And so how do we bring everybody together [in public spaces]? We need to talk to people and these groups and find out what would it take, what would make you feel like you want to be in this space? We need to listen.
As landscape architects we’re lucky because in some ways, beauty and nature are a universal language. Everybody appreciates that. We just try to make people feel good. People feel good when they’re connected to nature and each other. It is uplifting to see people having fun, and to see beautiful things, smell beautiful fragrances, be able to pick fruit—have experiences with each other and nature.
S: How do you prioritize users’ voices when designing these spaces?
CTE: We’re doing a park in downtown Dallas — we’ve had public meetings and we did a survey, and we totally listened to what they had to say. It’s nothing new, they value their green space, they wanted to be able to sit under some trees and take their dog on walks. Nobody asked for anything all that unusual, so it’s not like people have unbelievably unrealistic expectations.
For this park in Dallas, there were many comments that there are lots of kids in this neighborhood and a new elementary school is going to be built a couple blocks away, it’d be great for this to be a learning environment for kids.
So we’ve proposed a rainwater garden in the central spine of the park that’s harvesting all the water from the park and nearby buildings. There used to be a creek under our park, now it’s actually in a big pipe about eight feet underground. This new feature pays homage to all the creeks that used to run in downtown Dallas as part of the watershed for the great Trinity forest on the Trinity River. We’re planting Trinity forest trees and we designed these play structures that are ghost Columbian mammoths that once used to trot around Trinity River. The kids are going to be able to climb up and slide down them. It is more than a play structure and rain garden, it is about hopefully making people, both adults and children, think about what happened ecologically on this land prior to deciding to build a downtown there.
We are also displaying a low impact development strategy, where you use stormwater to feed the native plant community, instead of putting it in a pipe and taking it down to the stream. Cities have paved over creeks and that’s why they have flooding issues. We always try to make that ground, where water is flowing through our project sites, sacred and beautiful but also functional.
S: How do we plan public places to be responsive to future cultural, political, and health changes?
CTE: Our green spaces have to do quadruple duty. They have to be places of respite, be the hubs of our green infrastructure, take the pressure off all the streets that flood and they have to survive drought. We’ve got to plan for flood, we’ve got to use resilient plants that can take flood or drought. Do you know how great it is when we discover a plant that will be able to be dry as a bone, but also, live in two feet of water and freeze? How many of those are there? There’s not many but the native plants can take it. They are survivors.
Parks can’t need exhaustive maintenance. The cities can’t do it anymore; they don’t have the resources. There are all kinds of great parks being built that are just gorgeous, but we do have to find ways to make them resilient and tough, so that we’re not having to spend tons of operational costs.
Parks are our little green hospitals. That’s where we go to ‘get right with God,’ as Lucinda Williams would say, fix our mental health, get our exercise, meet friends, and commune with nature. And then, they’ve got to take care of all this water that’s flowing off all the adjacent streets and parking lots all over the place, while still taking care of our native wildlife and plants. They’re pretty great, our little parks, but they have a lot of pressure to perform.