It seems that local media outlets constantly bemoan the statistic that 110 people move to Austin on an average day. Tall buildings, skyscrapers, 10-to-50-story buildings full of people are presumably to blame. Meanwhile, the city is still not as dense as it was in 1950, 1960, 1970, or 1980.
In fact, 2015 Austin is only 68% as dense as 1950 Austin.
1950 Austin had no towers. An aerial photograph of the city shows a downtown almost entirely covered with trees and buildings, the tallest of which was the Texas State Capitol.
1950 Austin had no I-35. Residents traversed the city in buses manned by Austin Transit Corporation, Greyhound Lines, and Continental Trailways.
On the other hand, 2010 Austin had eighteen towers taller than the Texas State Capitol. It had I-35, Loop 1, SH-71, and US 183. While it may appear that our present-day city is more crowded and the traffic less manageable, that feeling of encroachment is most certainly due not to an increase in people but to an increase in cars, an increase in asphalt. Over time blocks of historic houses were destroyed to make way for expressway feeders. Parks and greenbelts were devastated to make way for commuters’ vehicular storage. Previous generations literally “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
We saw in 1950 Austin that density + transit = no traffic.
We saw in 1990 Austin that sprawl + cars = traffic.
We see in 2015 Austin that density + cars = more traffic.
Why not take a leaf from our own city’s history book?
Speakers against the many “funneling project[s]” of the freewheelin’ sixties, like Mr. Sam Dunham, argued that “in building a transportation system, a lot more is being done than creating ways for cars to travel.” Meanwhile, Mr. John Gallery of West Austin Citizens and acting Dean of the University of Texas School of Architecture in 1975, protested the following issues associated with midcentury expressways and sprawl: substantial noise, less desirable and widened streets, resident flight, the elimination of parks, and infrastructure spread too thin.
On July 26, 1973 Mr. Jim Phillips, on behalf of Mr. Lyndon Henry and the Texas Association for Public Transportation, argued in favor of a viable alternative: rail. He pointed out “environmental benefits, minimized land uses [sic], preservation of green belts, and by taking cars off of the streets, 46,000 pounds of air pollution would be eliminated per day. Other advantages would shape urban development with more desirable patterns in their growth; highrise and multiple unit developments would leave land for other things.”
In the mid-1980s, Greyhound Lines and Continental Trailways moved their bus terminals away from downtown. The 1990 U.S. census revealed Austin’s most sprawled population yet.
Today the Austin Neighborhood Council’s mission statement reads: “Austin is often described as an oasis in central Texas, envied for its natural beauty with the hill country and the Colorado River, and is home of the University of Texas and our State Capitol. The charm of Austin is also reflected in the many wonderful vibrant neighborhoods throughout the city, each with its own unique character and spirit, much like the pieces of a lovely patchwork quilt.”
Density does not favor the built environment over natural beauty. It favors localizing the built environment so that its natural beauty can flourish. Portland, San Francisco, and New York City are both denser and greener than Austin; Portland’s park area amounts to 17% of its land area, San Francisco’s 19%, and New York City’s 20%, compared to Austin’s 14%.
Density does not favor towers over neighborhoods. Density is not synonymous with high rises. We saw in 1950 Austin that we can have an efficient midrise city, complete with thriving communities, diversity and originality.
The solution lies both in our people and in our transit. Not all people cause traffic; pedestrians don’t, cyclists don’t, transit riders don’t. Drivers cause traffic. As we search for our city’s ideal balance between density and transportation, that thread which ties our patchwork quilt back together, one thing should remain certain: our first priority should not be to “find parking.”