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A Conversation with Urbinden's Kevin Howard About Austin's Green Streets Initiative

Greenery in Cities is Not Just Nice, it is Essential

The City of Austin, Texas is undertaking a long overdue rehaul of its rules regarding street trees. This effort is focused not just on the rules directly requiring street trees but also all the myriad of peripheral rules, regulations, and criteria that affect street trees’ development-related obstacles. Currently, many elements of development infrastructure compete for the same physical space that street trees ought to occupy in the streetscape, and administrative red tape adds unnecessary time and cost to the permitting process for projects. I recently had a chance to chat about this topic with Kevin Howard, principal of Urbinden Design Lab, who is spearheading the research, recommendations, and advocacy work for what has become known as Austin’s Green Streets Initiative, along with Jana McCann.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Howard, Principal of Urbinden Design Lab

Kevin Howard is a community planner and urban designer with an interdisciplinary professional and academic background. Kevin is a Founding Principal of Urbinden Design Lab, a planning, urban design, and policy firm focused on leveraging cross-disciplinary collaboration to build more sustainable and equitable places. As an urban designer and zoning expert, Kevin has engaged in regulatory and physical planning initiatives across the country where he managed complex and high-profile projects with wide-ranging government, industry, and community stakeholders. In his work, research, and advocacy, Kevin focuses on promoting abundant and equitable housing, human-oriented and resilient places, sustainability through land use planning and infrastructure systems, regulatory transparency, and the democratization of city building.

ANAIAH MATTHEW: Kevin, thank you for speaking with us on the topic of street trees, generally, and about your work on the Green Streets Initiative in Austin, TX. To start, can you describe for our readers the importance of street trees?

KEVIN HOWARD: Many cities across the country are grappling with a number of common challenges. A couple big ones are: an epidemic of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths on our streets, climate change and urban heat island effect. These challenges are compounding to make our cities dangerous and to severely degrade quality of life. Our cities are also struggling to be fiscally resilient or to promote physical and mental health for their citizens. Street trees have an incredible capacity to address a wide range of these big issues at the same time:

Rare Austin streetscape with street trees - photo courtesy of Urbinden Design Lab

  • Street trees make our streets safer for all users: Street trees create "visual friction" which slows vehicle speeds, reducing the frequency and severity of car crashes. They also provide a physical barrier and a buffer between motor vehicles and sidewalks. This barrier is shown to increase the perception of safety (comfort) for all sidewalk users but is especially important for those with mobility impairments, such as older pedestrians who might be at a higher risk of falling, and sidewalk users with impulse control issues like those walking dogs and parents with small children.

  • Street trees make our streets cooler, and more livable and are critical infrastructure in addressing climate change. They are important in both doing our part to slow climate change and allowing us to adapt better to a changed climate. Street trees mitigate climate change by serving as carbon sinks. As climate change advances, our cities will get hotter, making urban heat islands even more dangerous and uninhabitable. Street trees combat urban heat islands by shading paved surfaces and promoting evapotranspiration, making cooler microclimates around the sidewalk, and making our streets more comfortable.

  • Street trees are important to maintaining a healthy urban ecosystem that provides a wide range of ecosystem services. Street trees clean the air by capturing and diluting pollutants. Street trees help improve water quality, reducing erosion and flooding by promoting the infiltration, storage, and evaporation of stormwater. Street trees offer habitats that support bird migration and pollinators such as butterflies and bees, bolstering the resilience of our urban ecosystems.

  • Street trees make us physically and mentally healthier. Street trees help reduce cardiovascular and respiratory health issues, encourage more active and healthy lifestyles, and help us live longer. Street trees boost mental health by reducing stress, enhancing mood, promoting social connection, and encouraging physical activity.

  • Street trees are important to the fiscal health of our cities and support more efficient use of our public investments. Street trees boost commercial activity, lower healthcare costs, increase property values, and make more efficient use of our streets by promoting walking, biking, and transit use.

AM: Thank you for that breakdown. It brings back memories of how fascinated I was when first learning about all the heavy lifting street trees do. As a child, I thought they did just two things – look pretty and provide shade. In the way that you describe it, the placement of the trees seems very important, with the trees needing to be between the sidewalk and the curb in order to provide the traffic calming and physical buffer benefits. Would you say that having street trees in the proper configuration (between the curb and sidewalk) is just as important as having the trees there in the first place?

KH: Trees certainly provide lots of benefits no matter where they are located. However, street trees located between the sidewalk provide these benefits in a location where they have the most equitable and targeted impact. While Austin does not have many street trees, the City has lots of trees. These trees are located predominantly on large private lots and in conservation areas. These large lots and conservation areas are concentrated in West Austin. People who can afford to live in these large leafy lots or near the conservation areas are served relatively well by Austin's urban forest and by auto-oriented lifestyles. Most people in Austin cannot afford to live in these areas and many Austinites face difficult tradeoffs and vulnerabilities where they rely only on cars to get around. In contrast, East of I-35 has far fewer trees. This is also where Austin's low-income and BIPOC communities are concentrated. These groups are disproportionately impacted by extreme heat, are more likely to rely on transit, biking, and walking to get around the City.

These same groups are disproportionately impacted by our dangerous road design and are far more likely to be killed or severely injured while using Austin's streets. Other groups like children, older folks, differently-abled folks are also poorly served by auto-dependent neighborhoods and also rely or should be able to rely on our streets to get around independently.

Image courtesy of Urbinden Design Lab

Today, even East of I-35, housing is becoming out of reach for many. The City leadership understands this and is making changes to accommodate denser and more affordable housing in addition to funding income restricted housing to provide options for those with incomes too low to be served by the private market in a hot housing market. This means that to meet our housing needs we are going to put more housing on private lots, likely leaving a little less room for trees.

Trees located between the sidewalk and the roadbed are going to better serve everyone by making streets safer for all users (including drivers), and more humane for everyone else - pedestrians, cyclists, micro-mobility users, mobility device users, and everyone hanging around waiting for the next bus or train. Planting trees on a private lot is an investment that makes living there better and adds value to your property. Street trees are the same. They are an investment in our public realm that makes our lives better - increasing our quality of life, making us happier, healthier, and less likely to die (or feel like we are going to die) when we go on a walk. Street trees are also an investment that pays - people are more likely to shop, dine, and otherwise spend money on a street with street trees, bringing in additional sales tax revenue. Property values are higher, bringing in more property tax revenue. The City can use this money on things that we care about like education, parks, and affordable housing.

Trees between the sidewalk and buildings do provide some benefits to the public realm but they fail in two ways. They do not protect pedestrians and cyclists from cars. They sometimes provide shade to the sidewalk, but they require that buildings are set back and more detached from the sidewalk. This can be pretty, especially from the perspective of the automobile, but it makes our streets less walkable by promoting less engagement between indoor uses and the sidewalk and making walking less visually engaging and convenient.

Trees are good. But if we really care about the things that Council has said the City cares about, we need a continuous canopy of trees planted between the sidewalk and the roadbed.

AM: You are currently based out of Austin, Texas, and this Green Streets Initiative is focused on Austin, specifically. However, you have lived in other cities, and you have studied other cities. What are other cities doing right, and what was it about the state of Austin's street trees that grabbed your attention, pestering you enough to undertake this initiative?

KH: I have participated in over 30 zoning reform and community planning projects across the country as a zoning consultant and urban designer. I have also lived in American cities in the Northwest, Northeast, and Southwest, in addition to Austin. In cities with more pre-war neighborhoods, street trees are commonplace, familiar, and expected by residents. City governments generally are better about planning for and prioritizing street trees in these cities. Austin does not benefit from a legacy of street trees (exception - Hyde Park, one of Austin's most beloved neighborhoods). Many of Austin's residents and city staff have never lived with or had extensive exposure to street trees. This means they often do not fully understand their benefits or how to accommodate them in streets where many priorities compete for space in the Right-of-Way (ROW). Historically, streets in Austin have been designed for cars and utilities with little consideration for people outside of motor vehicles.

I have worked on numerous zoning codes across the country where street trees and sidewalk improvements are required alongside private development. These types of rules are certainly in place in peer cities like Portland, OR where street trees are required for all improvements valued at $25,000 or more. This includes all single-family homes, new industrial uses, and even substantial renovations. Granted, this trigger might be a little extreme, and Portland is studying recalibrating this standard to adjust for inflation. Portland is also doing a great job using cross departmental collaboration to identify barriers to street trees and identifying design solutions for resolving these barriers, as evidenced in their "Streets PDX" work. Like Austin, Portland has many post-war neighborhoods that were platted with narrow ROWs filled with wide streets and no room allocated for street trees. In these areas Portland is studying planting street trees in the parking lane.

Being exposed to so many cities that either are enjoying the benefits of street trees planted 100 years ago or cities that are actively leveraging urban redevelopment to build-up their urban street tree network, I have become increasingly incensed watching what is happing at home, in Austin. In a city where climate change is projected to bring an average of three months per year of days with a heat index over 100 degrees by 2050 (compared to a one-month average historically); a city that has been redeveloping itself at a clip rivaling any other city in the country; a city with aggressive plans to move away from auto-dependency toward, walking, biking, and transit, etc.; and a city that is investing huge amounts of money on redesigning dangerous roadways to encourage walking, biking and transit... Somehow neither new development, transformative capital projects, nor basic sidewalk projects provide street trees. In fact, these investments often preclude street trees from being planted in the future.

Typical Austin streetscape lacking street trees - photo courtesy of Urbinden Design Lab

AM: That’s an intriguing statement you ended with there. Will you dig into that a bit deeper for us?

KH: Installing new sidewalks directly abutting the curb is so common for City of Austin (COA) sidewalk projects that it could be considered the default sidewalk design. This type of sidewalk is called a "monolithic sidewalk". They often bring sidewalk users within inches of vehicles moving at speeds that could kill them and expose them to dangerous levels of heat. For this reason, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) guidelines discourage monolithic sidewalks and suggest that if a ROW is so constrained as to require a monolithic sidewalk, monolithic sidewalks should be two feet wider than a detached sidewalk in that context. Monolithic sidewalks are located exactly where street trees would go and are incredibly difficult to retrofit. However, this sidewalk design is preferred by the City and its contractors for its ability to avoid conflicts. This includes physical conflicts like utility poles which Austin Energy typically locates two feet from the edge of the ROW (where sidewalks typically go), and political conflicts like residents who have used the ROW as private space, sometimes installing fences and plants, feeling that the City is encroaching into their front yard. The monolithic sidewalk represents the path of least resistance and also the lowest-quality pedestrian environment that meets City and Federal standards. Other COA sidewalk projects do include a detached sidewalk but it is extremely rare for this sidewalk to be separated from the curb enough to accommodate a tree, and these projects never include street trees. City-led sidewalk projects go through an expedited review process called a "General Permit" process. This process allows the City to get out of its own way to install sidewalks faster. The General Permit process does not allow for street trees to be included and would require sidewalk projects to go through the full site plan review process to include street trees.

Most capital projects with street improvements do not include street trees in the scope or budget. In fact, State law prohibits bond funding for mobility projects to be used for street trees. However, many of our "mobility" capital projects include extensive utility relocations. One official close to Project Connect (the City’s bond-funded overhaul of its public transit system) suggested that, due to how much of the project budget is dedicated to moving utilities, Project Connect should be considered a utility relocation project that just so happens to include a train. When capital projects are designed, engineers lay out the auto travel lanes, bike lanes, and sidewalks, and identify new alignments for utility mains within a limited ROW. When street trees are not considered at this stage, utility alignments often conflict with future/potential street trees either by being located between sidewalks and the roadbed (where street trees belong) or by being located too close to the planting zone where separation requirements from the Utility Criteria Manual will prevent street trees from being planted in the future. The result is that these streets are often rebuilt in a manner that is almost impossible to retrofit with street trees.

Private development projects are only required to provide street trees on approximately three percent of streets in Austin. The City requires street trees on another one percent of streets in the City for projects that are participating in bonus programs. Even where street trees are required, it is far easier to get out of providing the required street trees than it is to go through the process of getting street trees approved. Meanwhile, private development projects provide sidewalks and also include a great deal of utility work. This includes increasing the size of existing utility mains, installing new utility laterals and new electrical transformers, and providing many other utility meters, pumps, and infrastructure access points. No rules prevent these sidewalks, utilities, and associated infrastructure from being located in or otherwise conflicting with the planting zone (the area located between the sidewalk and the curb). Many rules actually push infrastructure to spread out and take up lots of space in the ROW. This means that if the City were to try and retrofit streets in front of new development to include street trees, there would likely be a great deal of utility relocation required, at great cost and inconvenience.

AM: Wow, it sounds like the complex layers of development regulations over time have had the unfortunate (and I’m sure, unintended) effect of crowding out street trees in a zero-sum geometry puzzle - like finishing a 1,000-piece jigsaw only to find you have an extra piece with nowhere to put it. I would love to hear about how this irritation turned into something so productive and tangible. What was the proverbial “last straw” that sent you from a perturbed professional to an active advocate? Did you approach the City with the idea for the Initiative, or did the City reach out to you?

KM: In my previous job at Code Studio, I was working in communities across the country, getting deeply invested, and working very hard to get plans, policies, and regulations in-place to make those places better. Meanwhile, my neighborhood on the east side of Austin was redeveloping rapidly. I had the opportunity to witness as Austin's development code shaped new development. I experienced new development that was intentionally regulated to promote walkability and sustainable urban environments be built with a glaring oversight. Four-to-six-story vertical mixed-use development on some of Austin's most heavily pedestrian trafficked streets and transit-oriented districts were built with five-foot sidewalks and without street trees. For reference, NACTO recommends six feet minimum for single family residential areas and no less than eight feet in commercial areas. When I left Code Studio to start Urbinden Design Lab and join Capital A Housing, I was determined to make a difference in my own community.

In my first year at Urbinden, a small team and I investigated the issue. The result was an entry into a design competition put on by the local American Institute of Architects (AIA) chapter called Force Majeure. The premise of the competition was proposing a local design solution with global impact. Rather than proposing an architectural response, my team proposed a policy redesign aimed at Austin’s streetscape standards and implementation. We won the competition!

At the same time, in my work with Capital A Housing, I was working as the urban designer and developer on a mixed-use affordable housing project called Seabrook Square. My concept design for the site proposed a number of best-practice urban design strategies. This included street trees on every street. Seabrook Square, as an affordable housing project, relied on layered and complex funding sources with strict deadlines. The engineering team quickly informed me that street trees were to be avoided at all costs. Because street trees triggered the license agreement process, they would risk our site plan approval and our ability to close on our funding. It was insane to me that the City would institutionalize so many barriers to something that our plans and policies say that they want.

Urbinden's research and my personal experience with the site plan review process revealed complex and layered systematic issues preventing Austin from designing streets for people. We decided that if we wanted this effort to have an impact, we needed to go deeper. From there, we expanded this work into a technical report. We started interviewing a huge range of professionals who interact with Austin’s streetscape design standards. We did extensive peer city research and also thoroughly documented Austin’s plans, policies, rules, and regulations.

While my team and I were drafting the technical report, I teamed up with Jana McCann from McCann Adams Studio. We organized the work and took our show on the road. We presented the work to a wide range of professional organizations and advocacy groups, building a supportive coalition for the initiative. We connected with Council Member Leslie Pool's office. They were enthusiastically supportive, and we started to collaborate around bringing a resolution in front of City Council. Atha Phillips at Leslie Pool's office led an extensive effort to coordinate this resolution (coined “the Green Infrastructure Initiative”) with City departments and management to get buy-in and ensure that this resolution would meaningfully and impactfully remedy barriers to street trees in Austin.

AM: Multiple times now, I’ve heard you allude to something that I constantly preach (and do my best to practice), and that’s the idea that “value” is not just a noun but also a verb. We have to activate our ideals to truly embrace them as our values. Claiming something as a value (noun) is meaningless if we don’t align our actions to truly value (verb) the thing. I appreciate you having that approach to this issue. Tell us, who are the other major players involved in this initiative on all sides of the bargain?

KH: The Green Streets Initiative is supported by a wide range of professional organizations whose members engage directly with the City's development review process, and environmental and mobility advocacy groups. There are also a number of City departments that are very excited about this initiative. The goals of the Green Streets Initiative are built to promote street trees both through regulatory requirements and through clearing the bureaucratic conflicts that cause a lot of strife for developers and project designers. In that, achieving the goals of the Green Streets Initiative would provide very real and tangible benefits to developers and project designers as well as help many City departments work toward their goals and make progress on City Council priorities around mobility, equity, and the environment. Today our rules, regulations, and processes do not optimize the ROW for public benefits. Rather, maximizing convenience and efficiency in maintaining utilities is often conflated with a life/safety issue that trumps all other concerns. In this, Austin's utility providers will likely need to compromise a bit to achieve the goals of the initiative. However, this initiative cannot, will not, and need not be done in a way that does not effectively protect our utility infrastructure and ensure our utilities' ability to efficiently service Austin.

AM: What is the current status of the initiative?

KH: On March 21st, the Austin City Council unanimously approved the “Green Infrastructure Resolution”! This resolution was sponsored by Council Member Leslie Pool and co-sponsored by CMs Paige Ellis, Ryan Alter, Natasha Harper-Madison, José Velásquez, Chito Vela, and Zo Qadri. This resolution directs the City Manager to draft a "ROW Design and Management Plan" to manage the ROW to allow for street trees and other green infrastructure while protecting utility infrastructure. This plan will explore requiring street trees, creating a special green infrastructure maintenance team, and streamlining the review process for street trees and pre-approving street tree planting details. We see this as a critical first step toward addressing systemic barriers to street trees in Austin and towards achieving the goals of the Green Streets Initiative.

Next, Michelle Marx from Transportation and Public Works will lead the city-wide initiative on being responsive to Council’s Green Infrastructure resolution. I will be co-leading a working group within the City's Technical Advisory Review Panel (TARP) to assist Michelle Marx and her team with the work. On September 19th , 2024, the City Manager will present a timeline for bringing proposed code, criteria manual, and review process changes to City Council for adoption.

I am very thankful to Leslie Pool and her office (especially Atha, and Louisa) for their leadership in sponsoring this item and doing the work with staff and management at the City to make this possible.

AM: What can folks in Austin do to help ensure this program gets fully adopted and implemented to its fullest potential?

KH: If readers have special expertise and insights that they would like to offer the TARP, I am happy to collaborate with them via email. I am happy to do this in confidence if required. There is also a large opportunity for readers to provide feedback to staff on the "ROW Design and Management Plan" once it is publicly available in September. I hope to rally all Green Streets Initiative Supporters to support the effort and provide feedback around important issues at this time. Readers can sign up as an official supporter of the Green Streets Initiative at urbinden.com. This will also add them to our email list to receive progress updates. To get a more in-depth understanding of the barriers to street trees in Austin and the best practice solutions, please sign up to receive Urbinden's technical report on the subject, coming out soon! You can sign up on the Urbinden website as well.

AM: What can folks in other cities do if they identify similar shortcomings in their own street tree networks?

KH: Many of the issues that Austin is dealing with surrounding street trees are common in other communities that I have worked in. Readers can use Urbinden Design Lab's street tree technical report as a template to investigate and diagnose systemic barriers in their own communities. If your community needs help, you can advocate for hiring Urbinden Design Lab to do similar work in your own City.

AM: It’s not often that the professional turns effective advocate or that the effective advocate has the depth of professional expertise. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your experiences on this important topic with us. Do you have any parting thoughts or calls to action you’d like to share?

KH: The truth of the matter is that those with deep professional experience in these areas are busy working for communities that have identified challenges, funded projects, and hired experienced professionals to address these matters. In my previous role, I didn't have the time, or energy after work to advocate locally. In my work with Urbinden, I am grateful to have a business partner, Fayez Kazi, who cares about Austin's future as much as I do and believes that doing the right thing now will pay dividends in the future. I want to thank Fayez Kazi for his commitment to this cause. Change really does require strong leadership. Sometimes that comes from within the City government, sometimes it comes from the community.

Anaiah Matthew is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. He previously authored The Walkist, a newsletter exploring the experience of walking through the eyes of a city planner while touching on topics of philosophy, sports, psychology, hobbies, and more. In addition to his writing, Anaiah is a planning and development practitioner with two decades of experience across the public, private, and consulting sectors. He lives and works in the Austin, TX metro area.


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