What Goes Hand-in-Hand With Civic Mojo? A Big New Parks Project, Of Course

While big cities like New York paved the way for conservancy- and philanthropy-driven downtown park projects, we’ve watched as such initiatives have been replicated across the country.

Where there’s a big city park revitalization project, chances are there’s a foundation behind it. Houston has the Kinders. Tulsa has the Kaisers. Philadelphia has the Penn Foundation. And while the Moody Foundation is based in Galveston, the powerful Texas funder has gone in big on a project in Austin. 

Related: Here’s How the Moody Foundation Is Giving to Local STEAM Education

The foundation just committed $15 million to the Waller Creek Conservancy, a donation-fueled city partner that’s working on a series of connected green spaces along the creek that runs through Austin. This particular chunk of funds will focus on a centerpiece project called Waterloo Park, which includes an amphitheater and lawn intended to become a city destination. 

It's not surprising to see a new major parks project in Austin. This city is a magnet for young creative types, who are big fans—and users—of urban green spaces. Meanwhile, civic pride has been running strong in this fast-growing city, and ambitious park projects tend to go hand-in-hand with that kind of mojo. 

The donor is a major funder in Texas, with about a billion and a half in assets, and giving to a combination of community, higher education, and health projects. One of its biggest commitments is Moody Gardens, an arboretum and recreation center in Galveston. The foundation has also given millions to a couple of parks projects in Dallas. 

As is often the case with these projects, the vision for the Austin park is some combination of city, conservancy, and donor influence. It sounds like the conservancy got the ball rolling with Moody—but then the foundation upped the ante: “They were interested from the moment we first approached them,” conservancy CEO Peter Mullan told the Austin American-Statesman. “They really challenged us to think big.”

Related: In a Funder's Big Commitment to Boosting Public Spaces, a Better Way for Parks Philanthropy

Also like many, but not all of these projects, Waterloo Park and the Waller Creek projects are part of a broader development effort. The target is a “sleepy corner” of downtown Austin that’s being transformed with a combination of education and health care projects, and is also close to an entertainment district with music venues. The Waller Creek park projects aim to eventually connect a series of walkable green spaces through a stretch of the city.

It’s not entirely clear how the entire vision will be bankrolled, but it sounds like those involved are betting on a big combination of government and philanthropic support to emerge.

Trustee Ross Moody said in the announcement, “We hope that the Moody Foundation’s support will encourage both government and philanthropy alike to follow suit and accelerate the execution of the entire Waller Creek project.”

Major downtown parks projects like these can be game changers for cities—New York’s High Line and Chicago’s Millennium Park are notable examples of what kind of impact they can make. That impact can be positive overall, but they can also affect housing costs, displacement, and the overall feel of the city. On par with so many cities across the country, especially hip destinations like Austin, development is rapidly reshaping the cityscape, and gifts like this one are playing a key role in how these places are evolving.