One small problem: as my host drove me into town from the airport, it dawned on me that Austin isn’t a beautiful city. Not in the way that I meant. It’s not a showcase of the best 21st-century architecture and urban design. The cityscape is still dominated by the state capitol, an 1888 model of Beaux Arts splendor. The red-granite Renaissance Revival temple, topped with a 310-foot-tall dome, serves as the city’s official wayfinding device, protected by view corridors. It’s a spectacular object. But overall, the city is the antithesis of my thesis.
And recent attempts (brilliant syntax in bold):
But the building that truly upended my thesis both impinged on the primacy of the capitol dome and hogged the skyline. Frost Bank, a 33-story green-glass tower built in 2004 and topped with a sort of origami flower, was designed by Duda/Paine Architects, of Durham, North Carolina, and conceived to revitalize downtown in the wake of the first dot-com bust and 9/11. But it looks like a delayed echo of the post-modern moment and a study in the ways that attempted architectural beauty can go wrong.
I wound up wandering around Austin trying to reconcile the city in which I found myself with the lecture I planned to give. I did find beauty in Austin—the running trail along the river is a glorious piece of urban infrastructure—but decided that most of what the city brings to the table is its native scrappiness. Austin is an endearing mess. Its slacker reputation has made it a magnet for musicians, techies, film-makers, and artisanal-cocktail mixers. Everyone I met traveled by bicycle at least some of the time. Daimler chose Austin for the first U.S. test of its high-tech Car2go vehicle-sharing system. Music percolates continuously from friendly outdoor bars. But unlike, say, Portland, Oregon, where bike lanes and light rail abound, here there is a conspicuous mismatch between the perceived values of the place and the physical environment. This is Texas, after all.
I took a walk down West 6th Street to the 80,000-square-foot Whole Foods flagship, a few short blocks from my hotel. Once there I had trouble finding the entrance. A ceremonial lobby facing the sidewalk led to the corporate offices. Shoppers usually arrive by car and enter from the parking lot or garage. One night, I watched a steady stream of bicyclists—some equipped with safety lights and helmets, but most not—pedal beside the fast-moving traffic on South Congress, the city’s hipster main drag. No bike lane. The situation was crazy. There is a new light-rail system, a single line that begins downtown and ends at a northern suburb called Leander. It doesn’t go to the airport. It doesn’t run at night or on the weekends. It’s described as a “starter line.” Clearly, the city isn’t quite what it aspires to be.
Eventually, I made my way to city hall, which I had hoped would be the 21st-century counterpoint to the state capitol, topped not with the Goddess of Liberty but with an array of photovoltaics. Occupying a prominent waterfront site, this 2004 building tries incredibly hard to do everything right: it’s LEED Gold certified, incorporates local and recycled materials, counts its outdoor plaza as a green roof for the parking garage, and generates some of its own electricity. The jagged form was a collaboration between the noted Southwestern architect Antoine Predock and Cotera, Kolar, Negrete & Reed, an Austin firm. The building was supposed to resemble a Texas Hill Country rock formation. But the jutting volumes recalled the deconstructivist movement of the late 1980s. Instead of providing an enlightened retort to the hubris of the big dome, it is more like a corollary to the Frost Bank Tower. That building was all dumb vanity. City hall, on the other hand, thinks way too much.
Enough about failed architecture and urbanism that either tries too hard, thinks too much, is too ideological, or just plain compromised by autocentricity. To overcome these issues of walkability (and lack thereof) we have be big, brave, and bold. Texan.
And now, to the failings of the public planning process (that is still on-going). And when I say that, I don't mean specifically this public planning process as much as ALL public planning processes and the way they are orchestrated. Along with the Better Block guys, I recently put together a presentation discussing these issues that will be posted up here when the time is right. The thesis is that the public planning process is too often rigged. It is so, by asking citizens to be experts in things they aren't expert in. See if you can find some of that here:
While at city hall, I picked up a newsprint handout, “Which Way, Austin? Help Plan the City’s Future,” a survey asking for public input on the city’s first comprehensive plan since the 1970s. Based on past growth patterns, the plan assumes that the city’s population will almost double in the next 30 years; today’s city of 786,000 will be more like 1.5 million come 2039. At that point, the mess will be far less endearing. The plan was not about an aesthetic, or even an urban-design strategy, but about finding a pattern of growth that would sync with the city’s values. Later, Mark Walters, one of the city’s planners, told me the questionnaire represented the middle stage of a three-part process. The values expressed in it were harvested from interviews conducted in the first phase by Wallace, Roberts & Todd. In phase three, an outline drafted by WRT will be fleshed out with community input early next year.
I was impressed by the way “Which Way, Austin?” distilled complex concepts like creativity and livability, and goals such as improved transit and more walkable neighborhoods, into the language of cartography. Possible future scenarios were illustrated by four maps. Map A depicted a future in which sprawl continues and there are few urban-style “live-work-play” centers. Map D showed new mixed-use development concentrated along existing transportation corridors. Respondents were asked to vote for a scenario map and then answer a handful of questions about their priorities: How important is it “to preserve Austin’s culture, character of historic buildings and neighborhoods”? Or “to reduce Austin’s carbon footprint”?
“This is a public process, and we’re letting the public tell us which way we want to go,” Walters says. “We’re a very democratic city, with a little d. The public process is sometimes more important than the end result.” The selection of the survey questions, however, pretty much telegraphed the tenor of the plan that will result. Unless of course, I said to him, everyone votes for sprawl. “Well, they haven’t told us that thus far,” Walters said, a month before the deadline for completing the surveys. “I think the participants, by and large, realize where we’re at. They live here in Austin. They know that something needs to change.”
Eventually I realized that the title of the questionnaire—“Which Way, Austin?”—implied a lack of direction. Or rather, it suggested that the act of providing direction would be undemocratic, disloyal to the local civic culture. I also realized that what I was seeing was an aversion to authority in built form—not typically the kind of environment in which civic beauty thrives. Not that I expect weird-ass Austin to morph into anal Portland. But if the city is going to grow as much as the planning department expects, it will need to know exactly which way it’s going, and it’s going to have to implement a vision. And that may not be a democratic, small d, undertaking.
The first issue is the masquerading attempts towards grandeur. This and all comprehensive visioning plans like this pose as big, transformative moments. But very little ever happens. A project here or there, but largely superficial changes. Very little is done or suggested with regards to transportation funding, the tax code, or the zoning code. The result is no systemic change.
By suggesting a giant influx of population, seems little more than a scare tactic. I am all for planning, but is it realistic? Is all growth exponential or will there be asymptotic forces that govern the way cities and populations grow? That is a rhetorical question.
Furthermore, these public planning processes put maps and pictures in front of people often with an expected answer. Even if there isn't and we go along with the charade that we will stick with whatever "vision" err drawn representation of a theoretically possible city, the recommendations are already foregone conclusions, nearly all of which are still superficial.
Lastly, because they ask non-experts to be experts in things they don't fully understand the planners in charge ensure two things: 1) that public participation will wane and therefore 2) they get to remain the gatekeepers of information. They get to retain control. Hardly democratic. Any democratic process requires knowledge for it to function, however no boring hour long presentation will make citizens expert in picking one map from another.
All human progress throughout history is the process of taking information, knowledge, out of the hands of a few and giving it to the many. These large public planning processes, if they have any benefit, is the slight uptick in broad awareness, but this is not enough for what goes into larger planning decisions and urban form.
What we should be doing is empowering neighborhoods, where citizens actually are experts. They know their neighborhood better than anybody. In a way, this is about affecting the large scale by working at the small scale, fractally, many small changes repeated ad infinitum until massive change is produced. This is actually how cities function properly.
By returning planning to the neighborhood unit level, we would be prioritizing local connections. For example, if a neighborhood says, "this arterial is big, ugly, unsafe, and traffic choked" the appropriate response isn't to make it bigger and uglier, just because it is a "regional connector" or some other meaningless word on an arterial plan. The answer is to restore local connectivity, rebuilding local neighborhoods, unit by unit.
The modern public planning process attempts to change the big, but ultimately only changes the small. By changing the small, over and over again, we change the big. While the article above questions the role and ability of democratic process in city building, this solution maintains it, empowers it, if not outright unleashing it. The real challenge is for those in control to let go of the supposed democratic planning process.