Environmental City: People, Place, Politics, and the Meaning of Modern Austin

Environmental City: People, Place, Politics, and the Meaning of Modern Austin

Environmental City: People, Place, Politics, and the Meaning of Modern Austin

Environmental City: People, Place, Politics, and the Meaning of Modern Austin

Synopsis

As Austin grew from a college and government town of the 1950s into the sprawling city of 2010, two ideas of Austin as a place came into conflict. Many who promoted the ideology of growth believed Austin would be defined by economic output, money, and wealth. But many others thought Austin was instead defined by its quality of life. Because the natural environment contributed so much to Austin's quality of life, a social movement that wanted to preserve the city's environment became the leading edge of a larger movement that wanted to retain a unique sense of place. The "environmental movement" in Austin became the political and symbolic arm of the more general movement for place.

This is a history of the environmental movement in Austin--how it began; what it did; and how it promoted ideas about the relationships between people, cities, and the environment. It is also about a deeper movement to retain a sense of place that is Austin, and how that deeper movement continues to shape the way Austin is built today. The city it helped to create is now on the forefront of national efforts to rethink how we build our cities, reduce global warming, and find ways that humans and the environment can coexist in a big city.

Excerpt

The land and the times shaped the people. the people and their times shaped a city. and modern Austin—its look, its feel, its landscape, its meaning—was created in that crucible where the environment and the economy and the people met to practice politics.

As Austin grew from a sleepy college and government town in the midtwentieth century into the sprawling city of the early twenty-first, two broad ideas of Austin as a place came into conflict. One idea was that Austin, like so many other cities in America, would be a place defined by economic output, money, and wealth. the other, which emerged over time as growth intensified, was based on a place defined by its quality of life.

The first idea was based on building a city that drew business so that businesspeople could make money. People who made their money in business, real estate, and property development wanted to see Austin grow, because for them, growth meant more money. Many businesspeople and civil leaders believed in growth because more people meant more overall business, a bigger economy, and hence more money to be made in any business endeavor.

For the most part, the growth interests wanted Austin to grow fast, grow big, and grow wealth for themselves. They were not terribly interested in preserving Austin’s environment, because that environment was the land. in a capitalist economy, and especially in Texas, land is property. Property has monetary value, and in Texas, property ownership is seen by most as sacrosanct, conferring on its owner a God-given right to make money. Many people who wanted Austin to grow owned property and speculated in real estate. They knew that property values would increase if Austin grew, creating more profit for them.

The growth promoters in business and politics also had some natural allies in the city administrators who headed the bureaucracy, even if the adminis-

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