CNU XVI – Lessons from Booming Regions

My aunt and uncle have lived in Austin for decades. I remember visiting them here once when I was 12, I think, but my memories of the physical city are nonexistent. I’ve had the chance to eat with them twice, though, once at Maudie’s Tex-Mex Café on West 7th Street (quick review: go for the salsa, stay for the margaritas), and once at ASTI Trattoria in the Hyde Park neighborhood (quick review: the tomato-fennel-spicy sausage sauce for the gnocchi is simply not of this earth). In between savory mouthfuls, they told me how Austin has changed since they’ve been here. Parts of it they don’t recognize.

They are not necessarily fans of the current building boom downtown. My uncle said the joke around town is that the city’s official bird is the Austin Crane. Neighborhoods have changed, and changed again. Blocks of buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt. This is not the Austin they knew, but it remains the city they love. Two of their four children live here with their families. Another of my cousins plans to return from the East Coast. They wouldn’t live anyplace else. Lots of folks, it seems, are coming around to their way of thinking.

Austin’s population has doubled every 20 years or so since the 1800s, said Frederick Steiner, dean of the architecture school at the University of Texas at Austin and the immediate past chairman of Envision Central Texas, a not-for-profit organization that seeks to provide a sensible framework for the region’s booming growth. The Central Texas region is expecting another million-plus people in the next two to three decades. Austin’s popularity has to do with its location, the weather and the quality of life, among other factors. But it is not alone. Other areas are experiencing similar growth, and despite the decline of America’s Rust Belt cities, the 21st Century is shaping up to be the Century of the Metropolis.

Today, for the first time in human history, more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas, Steiner told a panel on New Urbanism and the booming metropolis on Friday. By the middle of the century, two-thirds of all people will live in urban areas. Considering that the world population is expected to grow to 11 billion people by the year 2100, that’s a lot of metro area growth yet to occur.

Without good planning, what this can mean for metro areas is more sprawl, social inequality, lower-quality health and more crime. Austin already has the highest traffic congestion of any city its size in the United States, Steiner said. There was enough concern about such things that Envision Central Texas was started in 2001. The goal was that it would be “a catalyst for regional cooperation and planning in order to realize a common vision for Central Texas,” according to Steiner.

The group put together four scenarios for regional growth based on different land use models: one following old sprawl patterns, one that proposed handling growth via infill along major transportation corridors, one that would create a series of new town centers around the area–essentially towns within the town, and one that would include more broad-based infill and more rail transportation.

Not surprisingly, when modeled, the last option resulted in the least amount of new acreage developed and the lowest projected regional travel times, Steiner said. Envision Central Texas took this information to the people via a preference survey that included all four options, followed by a series of public meetings and planning sessions. The result was a bond measure, passed overwhelmingly, that provides more funding for transportation, affordable housing and other initiatives to reduce sprawl.

Additionally, Envision Central Texas created what it calls a “Quality Growth Toolbox" to help plan for growth.

Andrés Duany, principal at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., said this kind of civilian regional planning is new. He described two models—the rural boundary model and the urban boundary model—most often used. In the rural boundary model, lines are drawn around rural areas, natural resources or historic places that are to be preserved. The boundaries push development away, focusing it into corridors. He cited their use around the Boston area, in particular. In the urban boundary model, a line is drawn around a metropolitan area, which functions like a dam to stop the spread of the city. This model is often associated with cities in Oregon, particularly Portland.

Duany said the so-called Portland model can be difficult to defend because the lines are arbitrary and there is essentially no perceptible difference between, say, a farm inside the urban growth boundary and a farm outside the urban growth boundary, “except that the farmer inside the urban growth boundary is rich while the one outside is not.” The rural option, or the “Boston model,” is more defensible because lines are being drawn around tangible things—this stream or that mountain, he said.

Peter Calthorpe, principal of Calthorpe Associates and also a panelist for this discussion, said that on the contrary, urban growth boundaries are defensible. In Oregon’s case, state land use law requires municipalities to determine how much land they will need to accommodate 20 years worth of growth. Where the line gets drawn is the product of intense discussion about how much growth is expected and how dense the municipality wants to be. “If you don’t answer those questions, you can’t get at much of a coherent future for the region,” Calthorpe said. “The state mandate creates a healthy start for urbanism.”

Calthorpe said one important key is taking scenarios like those developed by Envision Central Texas and communicating them to residents. Doing so successfully almost always leads to clarity about how regions should grow, and the consensus almost always come out in favor of good New Urbanism: more dense, transit oriented and walkable.

The key then is implementing the plan. For this, Calthorpe said, state legislatures must step in and give regional plans bite by granting them the force of law. Calthorpe said he likes Washington State’s Growth Management Act—which Steiner helped draft—as a model.

Calthorpe’s is a critical point, as it is impossible to argue with the effects of that 1990 law on urban planning in Washington State. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than what happened in a lot of other sprawltropolises, and it’s given Washington an important framework for addressing new planning and transit realities related to growth and rising energy costs.


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