Zilker Park Escapes Developers to Live On as Austin’s Natural Gem

Thanks to community efforts, one of Austin’s most beloved public parks will be preserved.

Fans rest under a tree at Zilker Park during the 2012 Austin City Limits Music Festival on October 14, 2012 in Austin, Texas. | Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images
Fans rest under a tree at Zilker Park during the 2012 Austin City Limits Music Festival on October 14, 2012 in Austin, Texas. | Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Traditions run as deep as the springs near Zilker Park. Overhead its meadows, the sky brims with kites and signals springtime. Summer brings the blues. Six days of live music draws revelers in the fall. Winter invites polar-plunging into the new year. The sound of drums echo out from beneath the Monkey Tree on Sundays. Poolside yogis challenge gravity among topless park-goers and tourists at the springs where folks howl at the full moon. Each year, the sculpture and botanical gardens set the scene for engagements and weddings—all next to where Robert Redford learned to swim.

History abounds but Zilker Park, which hugs the Colorado River that divides its green landscape from downtown Austin, was nearly felled by development. The Austin Parks and Recreation Board approved the Zilker Metropolitan Park Vision Plan in May. Austin denizens weren’t going to let that fly without a fight. The three additional parking garages, welcome center, and land bridge would no doubt have a severe impact on the delicate ecosystem of park vibes. Austinites didn’t back down and, victoriously this month, thwarted the development plan.

Advocacy, you see, is another Zilker tradition. In 1960, Joan Means Khabele defiantly swam in Barton Springs, leading to the pool’s desegregation. Save Our Springs Alliance, formed in the 1990s, blocked action threatening the watershed’s integrity. Now, groups like the Indigenous Cultures Institute help preserve the spiritual connection between the springs and tribes such as the Tonkawa, Coahuiltecan, and others. Meanwhile rewilding efforts model ecological sustainability for the land.

This reawakened verve for Zilker comes with a renewed promise: we’ll listen better. To love is to learn, and we know that we need to be better stewards of the park’s sacred ecology and of equitable access for visitors and locals alike.

Zilker Park solves all problems—the yearnings and vacancies of the heart. Floating the cold, clear waters of Barton Springs cures heartbreak as much as it breaks the heat. And if you’re looking for love again, the park offers as many date ideas—from paddleboarding to picnicking—as there are days in the year. To Austin’s dogs, the Great Lawn is surely a leash-less, frisbee-full heaven. Zilker is also the only place that the Barton Springs salamander has ever called home.

We’ll let our curiosity run as wild as we want the park to remain. How old could Zilker’s Live Oaks grow, if we let them? One thousand years ago today, was anyone standing tall on Rock Island? And if the Barton Springs salamander could talk, we wonder whether it would tell us what we already know, deep down—that the best way to enter cold water is with one courageous leap.