Project Waller Creek: Background

Madeline Goulet
5 min readMay 12, 2019


A section of the Waller Creek on the University of Texas campus. Photo by Hannah Kwan.

One by one, the seven of us, the first students eligible to enroll in the inaugural Capstone for Integrate Design course, filed in on the first day of school. Full of excitement and curiosity, we waited in anticipation to receive our semester-long design challenge from our instructors, Gray Garmon, Director of the Center for Integrated Design, and Brooks Protzmann, Design Program Director at IBM. Soon after, we were given the following problem statement: How might we improve the experience of Waller Creek?

Individually, we had varying initial reactions. Many of us were immediately reminded of the terrible, unfortunate tragedy that occurred in the spring of 2016 near Waller Creek. In addition to that unavoidable association, we wondered about the history, the controversies, the water quality, the biodiversity, and the various current uses of the creek. What does the creek afford? What is the general perception of the creek? By students? By faculty? What has this creek experienced through its many years of existence?

The Waller Creek is the the only natural body of water on the 40 Acres. Despite its natural beauty and uniqueness, the University has often treated Waller Creek as something to be “dealt with” and from the student perspective, the creek is overlooked and ignored. However, this has not always been the case.

Photograph of a student protesting the removal of lie oak trees in the Battle of Waller Creek in 1969. Photo courtesy of the UT History Corner.

To better understand the history of the creek and its network of stakeholders, the we conducted some preliminary research. Our major findings included details on the Battle of Waller Creek, which was a notorious student protest at the University of Texas in 1969. The students were protesting the removal of 39 centuries-old live oak trees to make room for the expansion of the Darrell K. Royal football stadium. Students from many disciplines at the university advocated for Waller Creek and her trees. Students from the law school, architecture, biology, journalism, and other areas of study combined their talents in attempt to save the trees and halt the stadium expansion, even coming up with alternate, compromising plans.

Police attempting to remove student protesters in the limbs of the trees on the banks of the Waller Creek. Photo courtesy of the UT History Corner.

However, on the morning of October 21st, the bulldozers rolled in. In a final act of protest, many students climbed into the branches of the trees to prevent the bulldozing. Though the police promptly removed the students. In total, 27 students were arrested and all 39 trees were cut down. The students, though, were not yet finished. After the bulldozing was over, several hundred students grabbed branches and towed them out of the bed of Waller Creek. They marched the branches up the 21st Street hill, through the South Mall, and up to the Main Building. As the students approached, administrators locked the doors as the branches were piled in the entryways. The news of the Battle of Waller Creek made headlines all around the nation and the globe.

Student protesters stack the branches of the dead trees in the entryways of the Main Building. Photo courtesy of the UT History Corner.

This was the story of Waller Creek in 1969, and there is a much different story of Waller Creek today. It is overlooked and ignored. As a new wave of interdisciplinary students at the University of Texas, we wanted to bring student’s attention, pride, and advocacy back to the creek. Waller Creek is still increasingly becoming the geographical center of the 40 Acres as campus expands eastward. So, if the UT Tower stands as the head of the campus, then we proposed that Waller Creek should be the heart.

As far as the scope of our project, the Waller Creek runs from Airport Boulevard to Lady Bird Lake. We chose to focus on the section of Waller Creek that runs through campus, so from 30th Street (near Crown and Anchor) to 15th Street (by the Dell Medical School).

The Capstone team taking an initial look at Waller Creek. Photo by Hannah Kwan.

It was up to us to narrow the scope, but we had a lot of research ahead of us. We spent the rest of the first day of class outside along the creek. We split up and had the opportunity to wander, gaining more initial reactions and observations. Some of us intercepted other students along the creek to ask questions, and others made observations about the built environment around the creek.

A sophomore theatre student who we intercepted told us that he was aware of the creek, but the main detail he knew of was that a tragedy had occurred before he attended the university. Besides that, he said that he barely pays attention to the body of water despite the fact that he crosses it daily on his commute from the San Jacinto garage to class in the Winship Building. Other observations led to questioning how much the university cared about the creek. Many of the benches along the creek faced away from the water, and there were numerous pipes (over 100, we later learned) that dump unknown liquids in the creek at various intervals controlled by unknown sources.

After the first class, we re-framed our original problem statement to: How might we engage Waller Creek to enhance the UT student experience?

We then set off on our research phase, in which we conducted secondary research, as well as primary research with students, faculty, and subject matter experts. Read about what we uncovered in the the research phase in the next article.