Austin, Texas is widely recognized as one of America’s healthiest cities. Fifty percent of residents live within walking distance of a park and the city has almost three times the national average of green space acreage per 1,000 residents. However, some Austin communities face a real health crisis, struggling with high rates of obesity and diabetes. Research shows that in ZIP codes 78744 and 78745, more than 70 percent of elementary school children are obese or overweight. These communities face systemic issues that limit access to healthy food and physical activity.
To start solving this problem, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (MSDF) formed a coalition of nonprofits and city agencies to support residents as they advocate for access to healthy lifestyles. The GO! Austin/¡VAMOS! Austin (GAVA) coalition was formed in 2012 and includes eight nonprofits and city agencies and hundreds of residents. The residents have formed multiple teams. In just three years, GAVA has worked with more than 1,600 residents, making improvements to more than 32 community assets.
As a place-based coalition, GAVA’s work is focused on two South Austin ZIP codes: 78744 (Dove Springs) and 78745. Dove Springs, a mostly Hispanic community, has a median income ($36,000) well below the city average ($52,000). Many Dove Springs residents have a strong community identity and have worked together in previous community improvement efforts. Residents of 78745 have an almost equal population of Caucasian and Hispanic residents and the average income is well below the city average ($39,000). Green spaces in these areas have been historically underfunded. Even though 11.65 percent of Austin’s population resides in 78744 and 78745, only 6.25 percent of Austin’s Park and Recreation Department (PARD) Capital Improvement Projects have taken place in these communities since 2006. Despite these issues, residents are passionate about improving their communities.
GAVA’s primary goal is to support residents as they take initiative to reduce childhood obesity by improving access to healthy food and physical activity. The true architects of change are the residents — they set all of GAVA’s initiatives, projects and goals.
GAVA staff act as operational support and content experts for resident leaders, guiding them in organizing neighborhood meetings, identifying community needs, building resident teams and navigating collaborations with community partners. Staff members also help leaders develop strategic plans, identify funding opportunities, build community partnerships and collect and interpret data.
GAVA Physical Activity (PA) teams consist of dedicated residents, community leaders and staff from area schools. Currently, GAVA has 11 PA teams, all of which are official city park or creek adopters. Through their work, teams have established relationships with stakeholders in the city, Austin Independent School District (AISD) and local nonprofits. The partnerships that teams have developed with PARD and Austin Parks Foundation (APF) have been instrumental in helping transform their parks. Many teams have received grants through APF and leveraged additional funds through PARD and other city departments. APF also provides them with ongoing training opportunities and assistance for volunteer workdays.
Houston Elementary School Park
In 2013, the Austin Police Activities League (PAL) launched a free soccer league for children in Dove Springs. Games were held at the Dove Springs Recreation Center and 300 children participated in the league. However, thousands of children in 78744 found it too far to travel because of limited public transportation.
With the help of GAVA organizers, resident leader Gloria Lugo and other parents and faculty at Houston Elementary formed a park adoption team to explore what it would take to build a full-size soccer field on campus. The school’s park, jointly owned by the city and school district, offered space but had several obstacles.
The team partnered with APF to foster dialogues with AISD and PARD. Residents used local expertise and relationships to reduce costs. A professional plumber who lived in the neighborhood for 30 years agreed to donate labor to install irrigation, bringing the cost down by 80 percent for just equipment and parts. The more the team leveraged from various public and private sources, the more AISD and PARD were willing to invest.
While AISD policy dictated that school parks would not receive water fountains because they were vulnerable to vandalism, resident leaders, undeterred, formed an alliance with PARD, which heard from multiple GAVA schools about lack of water access. PARD pledged to AISD that it would pay for fountains, installation and maintenance if AISD would cover the cost of water. AISD agreed, and a water fountain was installed.
The benefits of this collaboration extend beyond these ZIP codes. The Memorandum of Understanding between PARD and AISD to address the water fountain provided guidelines for cooperative projects and maintenance on all land jointly owned by the two entities. The open communication allows resident teams to continue working collaboratively to remove barriers to physical activity.
Central Williamson Creek Greenbelt
In February 2016, the Central Williamson Creek Greenbelt received significant funding from the city of Austin to develop an accessible trail system in 78745. A resident-led team first developed a trailhead into a community garden and eventually grew it to incorporate gardening plots and nutrition and gardening education for children from their local early childhood center.
Building on the success of the garden, in 2015 several Central Williamson Creek Greenbelt team members set their sights on building access to physical activity by connecting two major assets. They crafted a multiyear plan for connectivity through the greenbelt to Garrison District Park. Residents “ground truthed” the greenbelt plan through block walks and multiple community gatherings hosted in the community garden. The result: consensus, social cohesion and funding! The team obtained signatures from 90 households (100 percent consensus) in favor of its plan, “Connect Garrison,” and convened city staff from 10 different departments to establish feasibility and approval for their plan. In 2016, the city of Austin’s Neighborhood Partnering Program awarded almost $60,000 to develop phase one of Connect Garrison.
Years of groundwork have made GAVA’s successes possible. With established resident-led teams organized around four sectors — school/out-of-school time, food access, physical activity and early childhood — the coalition has produced transformational change for its communities.