Origins of a Green Identity : Austin’s Conservation Pioneers

As part of our ongoing efforts to document the history of Barton Springs and the aquifer lands, we offer a new hour-long historical film in the series, Origins of a Green Identity: Austin’s Conservation Pioneers. Narrated by Austin novelist, Sarah Bird, the film explores Austin’s early efforts to preserve Barton Springs and Barton Creek, and ultimately to develop a city with publicly-accessible green spaces along Austin’s waterways.

The story

Image of Beverly Sheffield PARD Scrapbook, Austin History Center/Austin Public Library. Image of Roberta Crenshaw courtesy Noelle Paulette.


Two primary architects at the center of efforts to protect Barton Springs, Barton Creek and to clean up and develop Lady Bird lake were Chairman of the Austin Parks Board, Roberta Crenshaw and Director of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, Beverly Sheffield.

Together they worked for over two decades to raise awareness about the ways in which Austin’s post-war growth was threatening Barton Springs, Barton Creek, and indeed all of Austin’s waterways. Another key aspect of their continued efforts was to purchase lands for the public along Austin’s creeks, and to fight against the privatization of open space along these waterways. While Austin today prides itself on its parks and a green sensibility, in their day, Beverly and Roberta were working against the status-quo; a time when real estate and development interests steered the ship in Austin’s city politics.

Roberta was a visionary thinker and woman of high society who refused to be intimidated, even as she clashed repeatedly with powerful political and business interests. Roberta’s principle ambition was to preserve the best green open spaces for the citizens of Austin to use and enjoy regardless of their social or economic status. She fought tirelessly to safeguard Austin’s natural treasures from the ill-effects of rapid and unregulated growth, even while facing open hostility and sexism. She had many successes but made some missteps along the way. It is perhaps due to the bridges that she burned that her efforts related to Austin’s conservation scene are little remembered.

Image courtesy Noelle Paulette, Roberta Crenshaw was the name by which most people remember Bobbie. Charles Crenshaw was her third husband. Before that she was married to Malcolm Reed and after that to Fagan Dickson. It was during her marriage to Fagan Dickson that she was most active on conservation issues

Image courtesy Lois Sheffield, Beverly Sheffield 1920s as a young lifeguard (far left). He was Director of the Austin Park and Recreation Department from 1946-1973

Beverly Sheffield, fueled by his love of the out-of-doors, and driven by a deeply spiritual motivation, worked from within the system as the Director of the Parks and Recreation Department. Together Roberta and Beverly sounded the alarm bells, drawing attention to the need to protect Barton Springs and Barton Creek before they were destroyed by Austin’s rapid growth, and cut off from public access. They both struggled to get the City Council to put money behind the land purchases necessary to preserve the Barton Creek watershed from rapid urbanization.

Roberta, for her part, challenged businessmen who wanted to transform the shores of Town Lake into a privately-owned amusement park and run motor boats along its length. She campaigned for the city to buy open tracts of land, develop park trail systems, and create pollution regulations. Perhaps most notably, Roberta Crenshaw pioneered the concept of creating an environmental ombudsman within the city and developing environmental regulations that would eventually earn Austin a reputation as one of the nation’s most progressive environmental municipalities of the time.

Beverly Sheffield Papers, Austin History Center/Austin Public Library, Roberta Fagan Dickson didn’t hesitate to speak her mind when she felt that the Parks and Recreation Department was getting overlooked. PARD Scrapbooks at the Austin History Center have provided a ready source of information for our research.

Austin-American Statesman February 6, 1970 Barton Creek flood plain map

When it was clear that the idea of a parkway along Barton Creek would not become a reality, Roberta along with other prominent Austinites sued the landowners along Barton Creek to gain public control of the land. This decision was perhaps the beginning of Austin’s pro-growth vs. controlled growth politics that still exist today. Sheffield tried to get the City of Austin to pass a flood plain ordinance to regulate what developers could do on their land, an unpopular proposal in its time.

Roberta and her fellow progressives felt a tremendous responsibility and burden to work in great haste. In their minds, the stakes were extremely high. They believed that if the proper protections were not put in place immediately, the most beautiful parts of Austin would be lost forever. Time would show, however, that the level of intensity they put into their work could not be sustained, forcing them to step back for a time for reasons including health and personal well-being.

Harnessing the energy of a burgeoning environmental awareness locally and nationally, by the early 70s, this band of preservationists had already made many significant strides. Their efforts set the stage for a city that valued, as a central tenet, the preservation of public open space and waterways.

Remarkably, Roberta embarked on the majority of her work before environmentalism was a mainstream term. Certainly, had she and Beverly not laid the essential groundwork at such an early phase in Austin’s development, it would not be the city it is today. The enduring natural state of Barton Creek and Barton Springs, for instance, can be traced directly back to their tireless efforts beginning five decades ago. Our video reveals for the first time in a documentary format Crenshaw and Sheffield’s critical roles in the shaping of Austin’s identity as a City with green at its heart.

Image PARD Scrapbook, Austin History Center/Austin Public Library, Roberta Fagan Dickson went from club to club to raise awareness about the need for conservation.

Karen Kocher, the creator and producer of LIVING SPRINGS was born under the Chinese sign of the Ox. Being “diligent, determined and trustworthy,” are the perfect traits for this documentary media producer since she has been building a big community including family, friends and complete strangers to get her “save the world, one-film-at-a-time,” projects completed.

Karen Kocher, creator of Living Springs documentary project

In 2008, she developed Zilker Trek, an innovative iPod-based scavenger hunt/nature journaling project that brought new media into the hands of under-served kids at the Austin Sunshine camps and to the general public online in 2009. Her Austin Past and Present, is a cutting-edge interactive documentary that brings history into unlikely places, like Austin City Hall and the baggage claim at the Austin-Bergstrom International airport. Ms. Kocher has been teaching interactive digital storytelling and digital post-production for the Department of Radio, Television and Film at the U.T. Austin since 1998.

Monica Flores, writer and and producer

Monica Flores, writer and co-conspirator on Origins of a Green Identity has written and produced for commercial and public broadcast. In addition to the scriptwriting and producing that she has done for Living Springs, she was also the scriptwriter for many of the short documentaries that comprise, Austin Past and Present (2006) She also worked with Galán Productions in a number of roles from Producer, to Unit Production Manager and Production Coordinator on such award-winning PBS series and shows as Chicano! A history of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement 1996, Songs of the Homeland, 1994 and Go Back to Mexico, 1994. Monica Flores has an M.A. in Journalism from U.T. and a Bachelor of Arts in English & Spanish Cum Laude from Wellesley College.

Mariah Espinosa is a recent graduate of U.T. Austin. She brought her talents to our post-production team, animating our maps and many of our other specialized motion graphics. She brought joy to our team with her marvelous singing voice!

Mariah Espinosa

Producer Susanne Mason

When Producer Susanne Mason is not producing her own amazing work, including the startling, Writ Writer, she is an ace archival gumshoe, tracking down key image and motion picture elements with the precision only a Virgo can bring to such work.

Sandra Guardado is a storyteller’s editor, able to find the perfect sound bite from even the most long-winded, round about interviews. She has also won an Emmy which isn’t too shabby.

Producer Susanne Mason, Editor Sandra Guardado and Creator/Producer Karen Kocher (in santa hat) get ready to take a polar bear plunge to celebrate the New Year!

The editing team on a rare break from their windowless room. Sandra Guardado, Karen Kocher, Jackie Kuenstler and recent U.T. graduate, Ariana Avalos

DP Deb Lewis and Sound Recordist Justin Hennard hard at work on LIVING SPRINGS

Deb Lewis, cinematographer extraordinare!, has a wealth of documentary shooting under her belt including P.O.V. and Independent Lens broadcast films. She’s been involved with LIVING SPRINGS since the beginning and is an expert at keeping the sun off her head using her array of hats and umbrellas.

Matthew Koshmrl, D.P. is an award-winning filmmaker and cinematographer with an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin. Always up for whatever Karen throws at him including treks through fields laden with chiggers and wading into uncharted waters along Austin’s creeks. In 2016 he received the Antarctic Service Medal from the United States Congress when he was commissioned by the National Science Foundation to travel to the Antarctic Peninsula to film a paleontological expedition.

Director, Karen Kocher and D.P. Matt Kosmrl

Thanks to the City of Austin, Still Water Foundation, Shield Ayres Foundation, Austin Community Foundation, Humanities Texas, Mary and Thomas Grasselli Foundation, Creekmore and Adele Fath Foundation, Save Barton Creek Association, Philadelphia Foundation, Peggy O’Shaughnessy and Claire Rivers Fund, the University of Texas at Austin, Department of Radio-TV-Film, and so many generous individuals who have helped us get this far! Thank YOU!!



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