How the 9th Street BMX Trails in Austin Became a Model for DIY Urbanism and Flexible Urban Planning
If you build your own house, you appreciate it a hell of a lot more. If you go to a skate park, someone built it; it’s concrete. But if you go to the trails, it’s different; it’s organic. Digging together, working your butt off for a few weeks, then jumping — it feels great.
— Todd Moon, on the 9th Street BMX trails
Thirty years ago, a group of young BMX riders spontaneously built the 9th Street BMX trails in Duncan Neighborhood Park near downtown Austin. These trails were founded on the principle of an urban commons, with users sharing the labor and the rewards of digging and maintaining the trails to create an inclusive public space. While today 9th Street is a beloved community resource and tourist destination, its endurance is the result of years of hard work and persistence by a handful of local riders turned do-it-yourself (DIY) urbanists.
Urban Planning Meets DIY Urbanism
In recent years, modern urban planning has shifted its focus from suburbanization and sprawl to high-quality, accessible public landscapes located within the city. Now considered best practice, participatory or “bottom-up” urban planning aims to involve community stakeholders throughout the planning and decision-making processes. However, many existing public spaces are designed for prescribed mainstream activities, and this fact limits the ability of users to identify and address actual community needs through DIY urbanism.
DIY interventions are activated by small groups or individuals in response to needs that public space had not previously addressed, and these amendments are typically accomplished without oversight or funding by municipalities. Despite their unorthodox nature, DIY tactics and “spontaneous urban interventions” — demonstrated through projects like the 9th Street BMX trails — bring value to the urban landscape through low-cost, creative initiatives. By understanding the value of spaces that are not overly programmed, cities can allow for sites that provide both functionality and opportunity for diverse activities to organically converge based on need and imagination.
A Brief History of BMX
Following the release of the 1971 film “On Any Sunday,” which documented rebellious figures like Steve McQueen participating in high-speed desert motorcycle races, a new self-modified bicycle trend emerged in Southern California. Bicycle motocross, or BMX, became the next best option for people who were either too young to ride traditional motorbikes or could not afford to purchase them. As the BMX movement gained popularity, bicycle manufacturers began to adjust designs to mimic the rider-modified BMX bicycles, making the sport further accessible to youth.
Now there are specialized bike frame designs for every style of rider: flatland bikes for performing stunts on flat surfaces like streets and sidewalks; street bikes designed for the rider to interface with elements in the built environment, including stairs and handrails; park bikes that can take on infrastructure like skateparks with ledges and ramps; and dirt jumping bikes for performing tricks on dirt jumps.
Dirt-jumping BMX is a subcategory of freestyle BMX where riders work together to create hand-built jumps made of dirt, typically in areas that are off the beaten path. The process of building these jumps, which have become known as “trails,” is an example of a small-scale DIY intervention, where residents have spontaneously modified an urban landscape to meet the needs of riders.
To riders, a well-made, or “dialed,” dirt jump is a beautiful sight. It requires refined skill, persistence, and days of hard work to complete, and the satisfaction of the subsequent ride is proportional to the work it took to create it. Unfortunately, those unfamiliar with BMX may find dirt jumps unattractive and dangerous, leading to community tension that pits top-down decision-makers against DIY urbanists. As a result, BMX trails are often bulldozed when discovered by municipalities.
Even residents of progressive, bike-friendly cities like Austin are likely to consider BMX an unwanted activity. In one case, the city of Austin bulldozed a set of jumps known as Sunday’s Trails, and the main digger, Jason Sunday, was arrested and jailed. Amid public and community outcry, Sunday was released from jail; charges were dropped; and the city donated land for an official set of trails to be built upon. These became known as the “Red Box Trails.”
The 9th Street BMX Trails
It goes without saying that the Austin of the early 1990s was much different than the Austin we know today. It was regarded as an affordable mecca for artists, musicians, and creatives, who inspired the motto “Keep Austin Weird.” Carl Lein was a former U.S. Army recruit who, while attending The University of Texas at Austin in 1992, rode his bicycle past several large mounds of excavated dirt dumped at the southern portion of Duncan Neighborhood Park. The park is located adjacent to downtown Austin, flanked on the west by Shoal Creek and bisected into northern and southern halves by 9th Street. The original seven-acre plot was purchased by the city of Austin in 1930 and designated a city park in the 1970s, due in part to its location within the 100-year floodplain, which made it unsuitable for development.
A Houston native, Lein had grown up riding his bike around town, constantly on the lookout for places to dig new BMX trails. His instincts kicked in almost immediately upon his discovery. He recalls: “I stopped and looked at [the mounds] and thought, ‘Hey, this wouldn’t take a lot of work because I wouldn’t have to dig dirt up to make a pile; I only need to shape it to make a jump.’”
Lein got to work shaping and smoothing the mounds, quickly completing the first two jumps in the southern portion of the park. After spending a week away from the site, Carl returned to find that a third jump had been completed in his absence. At that time in Austin, BMXers were limited in where they could ride; they were mostly restricted to a few dirt trails illegally made within the greenbelts. There were also semiregular events called “Meet the Street,” where local BMX companies would rent parking lots and set up temporary ramps. It was at these sites that word of the new trails at Duncan Park quickly spread throughout the local BMX community, especially since the city took no immediate action to tear them down. Soon the newly coined “9th Street BMX” trails gained both a national and international reputation, with riders visiting from states like Michigan and Pennsylvania and as far away as France and Japan. Riders from various backgrounds, including a civil engineering student and a landscape designer, lent their expertise to further improve the jumps. The exposure to diverse BMX cultures encouraged 9th Street’s evolution through alternative riding styles, enhanced jump building, and extended social connections. “It just kind of organically grew and meshed guys together,” says Lein. “Race, freestyle, [and] cruisers just rode around and [9th Street] brought everybody together.”
Unlike the early BMX trails of Austin that were built more covertly and typically demolished once discovered by authorities, the 9th Street trails were built in plain sight and implicitly condoned by the city when they weren’t torn down. But for organizers like Todd Moon, 9th Street still felt fragile, able to be taken away at any time for the slightest infraction. “BMX is supposed to be hidden in the woods,” says Moon. “For 9th [Street BMX], there’s a street in front, right in the middle of the city, [so it’s] harder to control what happens there. The 9th Street location always made it a challenge.”
Riders received reasonable warnings from city officials requesting that they avoid such behaviors as public consumption of alcohol or using a discarded refrigerator as jump infrastructure. Realizing their good fortune, senior riders tried to establish a healthy relationship with the city of Austin and law enforcement by self-policing. Moon quickly became the city’s unofficial liaison for all concerns pertaining to the BMX trails and was often notified directly whenever there was a complaint to either the city’s Parks and Recreation Department or law enforcement. He and several other 9th Street organizers, known as the “locals,” understood the trails’ vulnerability and ultimately decided to work toward their preservation by having them formally included as part of the Duncan Neighborhood Park. They kicked off their efforts by promoting the trails’ public image through volunteer-led beautification efforts, even building a tiny trail, or “pump track,” for kids.
In 2011, the locals successfully applied for the Adopt-A-Park program through the Austin Parks Foundation, a local nonprofit providing advocacy and financial support for Austin park volunteer groups. While this was a win, the locals quickly learned that trail preservation required significantly more effort than park adoption. First, the locals still had to contend with scrutiny from the city, including concerns about potential negative effects on the immediate environment around Duncan Neighborhood Park. In July 2011, the parks department’s Urban Forest Program conducted a tree assessment of the southwest portion of the park. Despite the study finding no negative impacts related to trail building, the locals still organized a group of 30 volunteers to distribute mulch around critical root zones to ensure additional protection for the trees. Next, to the surprise of the locals, it turned out that park adoption did not lead to much additional support from the city. Some funds were provided through the Adopt-A-Park Program, but expenses related to BMX trail maintenance were ineligible under the program rules, leaving the locals to continue to foot the bill. Conversely, the north side of Duncan Park was recently selected for a large-scale improvement project, with an estimated project cost of $1.5 million. Plans for this project include drainage improvements and other amenities. While the trails will benefit from these improvements, one can imagine the frustration felt by the locals, who had advocated for improvements for years.
Park adoption also affected 9th Street’s autonomy. Whereas previously the locals would operate on a “don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness” basis, they now had to navigate bureaucratic roadblocks to make any significant changes. Moon recently petitioned the city for traffic-calming measures on 9th Street to protect pedestrians and bicyclists. Although a study showed that the area qualified for mitigation, the project was ultimately denied due to lack of funds. “It’s got to get approval from a million different people, and [we have to] go to all of these meetings,” says Moon, expressing his frustration with the bureaucracy and lack of financial support for the project. “It’s like, ‘Look, I’m just trying to help the community, help the kids. I’m standing here at a meeting. You’re getting paid for this; I’m not. I’ve put in hundreds of hours. Look around you — all these tons of dirt, thousands of hours. And you’re sitting here hating on me. See these little kids having fun? You’re shutting that down.’”
While the success and staying power of 9th Street make locals like Carl Lein and Todd Moon proud, the site has changed dramatically from what Moon would describe as its heyday. In the late 1990s and 2000s, most of the locals could afford to live within riding distance of the trails, which made organizing “dig days” relatively easy. However, in recent decades, the cost of living in Austin has skyrocketed, forcing many locals to move to the city’s fringes or to nearby suburbs like Pflugerville and Cedar Park. The exodus of the locals from the central city area has prompted a shift in the culture at 9th Street, as the daily faces that once helped direct builds and keep the community cohesive are gone. While 9th Street BMX remains a draw for family-friendly riders and out-of-towners yearning for nostalgia, the DIY spirit it once had has diminished.
Learning from 9th Street
Dirt-jumping BMX in Austin is a prime example of how DIY urbanism can flourish within flexible public spaces that allow for diverse activities and spontaneous social interaction. With informal BMX trails like 9th Street, there’s also a sense of ownership and responsibility for the space. Trail leaders donate time, money, and effort to provide necessary resources for the community. At 9th Street, the locals promote family-friendly events and coordinate volunteer labor and public donations, all while physically maintaining the trails. Old-timers like Todd Moon do this work because it’s important — they simply want to provide a place for kids to ride. “We don’t want anything from [the city of Austin] but approval,” says Moon. “If [it] can give us some signs, benches, tree cover, great! But all we want is approval; just let us do our thing.”
In a sense, DIY urbanism is fundamentally at odds with top-down municipal planning, making it a challenge for urban planners to incorporate its principles without interfering with the appeal that comes from DIY’s grassroots foundation. Still, spaces that are not highly programmed promote inclusivity and are likely to be used in ways that planners and urban designers had not initially imagined but that ultimately provide value to their communities. Instead of fighting against DIY urbanism, planners can and should work with communities to promote alternative uses while also providing support to DIY urbanists. By acknowledging the benefit of coproduced spaces, urban planners can begin to better accommodate flexible spaces, allowing for expression, exploration, and spontaneous encounters — the qualities that bring true magic to our cities.
Tressa Olsen is a flood planner with the Texas Water Development Board. She recently graduated with a Master of Science in Community & Regional Planning from The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. This article was adapted from Olsen’s master’s professional report, published under the same title in 2021.