Austin’s Republic Square is located in one of North America’s most frequently flooded areas, nicknamed “Flash Flood Alley.” In the few years since its 2017 renovation, Republic Square had already seen unprecedented storms including Hurricane Harvey. This experience prompted Austin residents to seek out strategies to help the park adapt through features that would both absorb heavy rainfall and enhance the comfort of visitors on an everyday basis. As custodians of this park, the Downtown Austin Alliance wanted to ensure Republic Square was resilient against future natural disasters.
To help Republic Square live up to this vision, Project for Public Spaces utilized funds donated by the makers of Claritin® as part of its Clarity Parks Project™—an initiative created to not only improve public spaces in American communities impacted by natural disasters, but also to get kids to spend one more hour outside each week. Thanks to this generous support and technical assistance from Project for Public Spaces, Republic Square was able to develop the park’s social and physical resilience infrastructure, strengthening the experience of Republic Square for visitors while improving the park’s ability to absorb future storms.
In May 2020, Project for Public Spaces got to work assessing the site’s potential. While the park boasted majestic live oaks, these local treasures needed some love. “We typically get calls about the heritage oak trees,” said Mandi Thomas, the Senior Director of Marketing at the Downtown Austin Alliance. “Downtown residents and citizens who care about these important trees were worried they weren’t healthy because of the environment.” The soil in this area needed improvement and non-native plants had proliferated. Coupled with the shallow root system of oak trees and downtown Austin’s flash floods, it was only a matter of time before these historic oaks were fatally disrupted.
We convened with local stakeholders including an arborist, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and other environmentally focused groups. Through in-depth interviews, a consensus emerged: We would focus the funds on trimming the live oak trees and giving them proper care. In addition, we would bring in native plants to visually enhance the area while ensuring that they would live in harmony with the trees.
Thanks to the dedication and hard work of the Downtown Austin Alliance, all the tree maintenance and renovations were completed in just a few months by October 2020 despite the limitations imposed by the pandemic.
Only four months later, Texas was hit by one of the most costly extreme weather events in its history, Winter Storm Uri. Our investments in tree maintenance protected the live oaks from the sudden frost, while other enhancements increased the area’s ability to absorb stormwater. If this work hadn’t been done, the damage to Republic Square could have been much worse, or in the case of the oaks, irreparable.
Since the storm, volunteers came out to replace some of the native plants that had been destroyed. Today, Republic Square buzzes with activity and people. The new wildflowers dazzle with color and personality. Meanwhile, the local farmers market has also found a home in the square, and a new cafe has opened up to serve the increased number of visitors.