Food in the floodplain? Exploring the potential to grow food and racial equity on Austin’s floodplain buyout lands




Albornoz, Sara Belén

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As climate change unfolds, municipal governments like the City of Austin, Texas are using voluntary floodplain buyouts—a form of planned retreat—as a strategy to move residents out of hazard-prone areas. As a result of buyouts, city governments become stewards of vacant, publicly owned lands that cannot be developed, and face decisions about how to use them. Governments have the opportunity to repurpose buyout lands into community amenities, such as sustainable agriculture projects, that can generate an array of social and ecological benefits. In deciding how to repurpose buyout lands, however, governments have a responsibility to pay special attention to the implications of their actions for racial equity. Racial equity matters in this context because communities of color are being disproportionately impacted by both climate change impacts and planned retreat, and because the creation of green amenities in historically disinvested neighborhoods has the potential to spur gentrification and displacement. This professional report explores the questions: 1) Are sustainable agriculture projects a viable use for public, urban floodplain buyout lands? and 2) How can municipal governments pursue such projects in a way that prioritizes racial equity? I address these questions through a case study of a specific prospective agriculture site on City of Austin-owned floodplain buyout land in the Lower Onion Creek buyout area, which is located in the historically Latinx, climate impacted Southeast Austin neighborhood of Dove Springs. Using an environmental justice framework and a mixed-methods approach, I evaluate the likelihood that the conditions that sustainable agriculture projects require for success can be met at the prospective site, in light of the site’s physical characteristics and propensity for flooding; safety considerations; and regulatory and environmental constraints. Drawing insights from Dove Springs community leaders and subject matter experts, I discuss how the planning and implementation of a sustainable agriculture project at the prospective site could be carried out in a way that advances racial equity and environmental justice. Finally, I present recommendations for concrete next steps the City of Austin can take to move this project forward while prioritizing equity and justice.


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