Why the City of Austin Created a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Director of Parks and Recreation Sara Hensley won the unanimous support of the city council when they recently created the document as part of a larger strategy to connect children to nature.

The city of Austin created the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights as part of a larger plan which aims to help city leaders foster key strategies that will provide more equitable and abundant connections to nature for all children. A primary focus of the plan is on greening school yards and creating a new network of school parks. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Steven Adler and Sara Hensley. This post is part of a series celebrating parks and nature during National Parks Week.

Over the last decade, the Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) of Austin, Texas, has been a leader in the rapidly expanding grassroots movement of organizations dedicated to getting more kids outside and educating parents, teachers and healthcare providers about the benefits of frequent connections with nature. When the Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN) Initiative — a partnership between the National League of Cities and the Children and Nature Network — was launched, Austin’s Children in Nature movement was poised to take the next step to elevate its message and work toward a more impactful interdepartmental and cross-sector scale citywide.

Concurrently, Mayor Steve Adler launched the Spirit of East Austin equity initiative to focus new energy on breaking down barriers along Austin’s eastern crescent, historically a dividing line for race and economic prosperity. The CCCN Implementation Plan, which aims to help city leaders foster key strategies that will provide more equitable and abundant connections to nature for all children, offered the perfect opportunity to bridge the missions of PARD and the mayor’s office by focusing on issues of nature access in areas of Austin that have been historically underserved.

Since research shows that children who learn and play in nature are healthier, happier and perform better in school, Austin’s CCCN Plan focuses on greening school yards and creating a new network of school parks. Austin’s CCCN Plan seeks to provide daily access to rich nature environments for tens of thousands of underserved students and strengthen communities with nearby nature across our entire city. This collaborative effort has produced a three-year implementation plan that not only connects and reinforces goals shared by PARD and the mayor’s office but also brings together multiple city departments, Austin’s Independent School District, dozens of nonprofit organizations, and the health sector.

To launch this plan, the Austin CCCN team developed the Austin’s Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights (COBOR) Resolution to serve as a public-facing symbol of the overarching goals Austin has for its children. The resolution states that children of all backgrounds and abilities have a number of inherent rights:

(City of Austin)

With strategic guidance from Austin Councilmember Leslie Pool as well as Mayor Adler, PARD built support for the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights resolution, resulting in a pledge signed by more than 1000 citizens, an official endorsement by the Austin Independent School District as a supporting partner, and the Austin City Council’s unanimous vote of approval on January 26, 2017.

City actions to bring the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights to life include the immediate implementation of the Green School Parks Project in areas of Austin with low “nature equity.” The goal of this project is to create nature-rich environments on school campuses that are co-owned by PARD and the Austin Independent School District. These school parks will serve as natural outdoor spaces for students to learn, play, and grow while at the same time providing nature-rich environments to the surrounding community outside of school hours.

The Green School Parks Project kicked off in January 2017 at Barrington Elementary and is currently in the Community Engagement Phase, taking input via a photo survey from teachers, students, parents and community members about the kinds of nature features they would like included on the school grounds. Design plans should be finalized this May, and build-out will be complete by fall 2017, in time for the new school year.

Moving into 2018 and 2019, the project will be expanded to nearby Wooldridge Elementary and Cook Elementary, with the goal of expanding the model across the Austin Independent School District over the next five to 10 years. Schools will be prioritized based on need with an innovative “Nature Equity Map” that layers nature, economic opportunity and health factors to create a “Nature Equity Score.” This map will continue to be updated and revised using the best available data to ensure nature access is being created where it is most needed in Austin.

As we continue to expand the Green School Parks Project, the Austin Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights will serve as a key communication tool across a diverse array of partners striving to promote equitable and abundant nature access in Austin. The Outdoor Bill of Rights can be adopted by any person or organization. The extent of the impact of the Outdoor Bill of Rights and the larger CCCN Plan on Austin children will depend upon PARD’s sustained support and a robust network of partners working daily to ensure that every child in Austin has the opportunity to experience nature. With this commitment in place, the city of Austin will continue to lead in connecting children to nature and improving equity across our city.

About the authors:

Steve Adler is the mayor of Austin, Texas.


Sara Hensley is the interim assistant city manager and director of parks and recreation for the city of Austin.