Preaching to the Converted

"Troubling Era"

Or NPR Talk of the Nation host Ray Suarez, author of the upcoming The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration and probably the best-received speaker at the conference: "We talk about what happened to the cities, about their wholesale abandonment, as if the citizens' reasons for leaving were as individual as a thumbprint. We allow ourselves the subsidized choice to flee the cities without imposing on ourselves culpability for the changes we left behind. ... Suburban America is comfortable using today's 'comeback' cities without moving back in. Why move back when you can enjoy all their vitality without paying for it?

Photograph of Carol Browner and Mayor Watson

Carol Browner of the EPA and Kirk Watson
at the Smart Growth Conference

photograph by John Anderson

"We live in a troubling era where a mayor can do everything right and still not restore his city's health," Suarez continued. "The suburbs are seen as the default standard, [and] we must come to grips with the tremendous cultural disadvantages that come with arguing for the cities. The cities have a steep burden of proof and the suburbs have almost none."

All of these speakers and others larded their presentations with the disturbing facts that have been very useful to Smart Growth evangelists. For every percentage point of population growth, American metro areas grow 10 to 15% in land area through low-density sprawl. The present rate of growth in American auto travel will, if left unchecked, within the next decade completely reverse all the impressive gains made over the last 25 years of the Clean Air Act. And the graying of the Baby Boom will quickly render this low-density, auto-dependent land use impractical in a terrifying way. "I don't know about you," Suarez noted, "but I don't want to get on the road with 30 million Americans in their eighties who have to drive, or otherwise be trapped in their homes."

This “ideal city” was one of several models on display at the conference.

photograph by John Anderson

What seemed missing, though, was enough exploration -- though there was some, and it was good -- of how the gospel gets applied in real life to move the Smart Growth ball forward toward its multiple goal lines. Of course, it's impossible to make this assessment without acknowledging our twofold Austin bias. On the one hand, under Kirk Watson's go-go reign, we've already done much of what the Smart Growth Solons recommend. We've already invested millions in open space and conservation easements. We've already okayed millions more, with the last bond package, in getting our public infrastructure synchronized with where we want people to build. We've already dived headfirst into rewriting our codes and ordinances to make Smart Growth possible and preferred.

And -- most importantly -- we've already built the partnerships that gave the Partners for Smart Growth Conference its name. By now, the sight of an assistant city manager, the president of the Real Estate Council of Austin, and the executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance all gracing the same stage and singing from the same page -- as Toby Futrell, David Armbrust, and Brigid Shea did at the conference -- no longer elicits murmurs of surprise. That does not mean, of course and of import, that the citizens of Austin are all willing to sit on what the ULI called, early and often, "the three-legged stool of Smart Growth" -- economic opportunity, environmental responsibility, and livable community. But the citizens who vote are eager to grace that honored seat.

However, Austin is only so big, which underscores the other half of our bias. Of the tools and strategies discussed from, for, and by other localities and regions, the ones that haven't been tried in A-Town often can't be contemplated in Central Texas. Since nearly half of the attendees -- and well over half on Thursday, the day devoted to local issues -- were from Central Texas, this created its own communication gap. It was perhaps unfortunate that Molly Ivins, who put our troubles most succinctly, didn't speak until more than halfway through the conference in introducing Suarez: "When you set out in Texas to tell people how to use their land, you have lots of visitin' to do ... for land-use planning is well known to be a Communist notion that came straight from the brain of Mr. Stalin himself."

Throughout the conference, when locals and visitors ended up cheek by jowl at programs, one could hear the locals explaining Texas truths: By the way, Kirk Watson, whose vision and message are nearly identical with Christie Whitman's, is considered Hard Left here in the Great State, and Gov. Dubya is the most moderate of the new crop of GOP state officials. By the way, counties in Texas have no ordinance authority and barely any power over land use, and all the great things a city like Austin is doing will mean less than squat one inch beyond the city limit line. By the way, the State of Texas, unlike New Jersey, has no planning department and next to no public land, and is in no hurry to acquire more, especially not to preserve it as open space -- indeed, as the Triangle development illustrates, the Lege is driven by exactly the opposite goal.

And furthermore: By the way, the Texas Department of Transportation wouldn't know alternative transit if the latter whacked TxDOT in its eight-lane butt. By the way, the agriculture industry in Texas, powerful as it is, has used precious little of its power to help keep farmland from being urbanized -- the secret to all those urban growth boundaries on the West Coast. And by the way, the elected official who has come to symbolize efforts toward regionalism in Central Texas -- Hays County Judge Eddy Etheredge -- just got bounced out of office by the red-dog Republicans.

The Jones Factor

So the sorts of strategies that work for San Jose and Newark, Portland and Minneapolis, ain't gonna work here, because they generally start with "Make a law that prohibits..." or "Get the Legislature to appropriate money to..." or "Create a regional organization with legal authority over..." And even if we could, there's plenty of folks even here in Liberalaustin who'd not go quietly. Least quiet of all, among the few at the conference, was ACAC and KJFK personality Alex Jones, who -- though he spends too much time relishing being the house freak -- raised more than one cogent point.

Photograph of people gathered outside the Austin Convention Center

Over 1,100 people converged on the Austin Convention Center for the second annual Smart Growth Conference

photograph by John Anderson

Though for Jones it seems that any "partnership" is by definition a conspiracy, he's right to argue -- as he did, from the floor at high volume, with Carol Browner -- that ordinary people who live in the suburbs can feel downright threatened by what the elites in the room think is common sense. By Thursday, Jones and various soulmates -- including on-again, off-again City Council candidate and full-time Slusher-hater Vic Vreeland -- were picketing outside the Convention Center and indulging in street arguments with attendees, including, memorably, Councilmember Willie Lewis.

Jones also grilled Michael Dell about his Chinese operations, but that was about as hardball as the reverential treatment of Richie Rich got. Which was unfortunate, for Young Mr. Dell -- the most eagerly anticipated and highly promoted speaker at the conference -- disappointingly fumbled even the softest questions. Tasked to talk about "Smart Growth and the New Economy," Dell basically (though not very lucidly) argued that, since Dell Computer was growing fast and the Austin metro area was growing fast, Austin should manage itself like Dell. Or something like that. Much head-scratching ensued.

So what if Michael Dell was a goofball? Because people like him are, certainly in Texas, the biggest obstacle and threat to the Smart Growth cause. Much was made at the confab about "public-private partnership." But while the "public" half of the term represented all that is public, the "private" half basically meant developers, with even their everyday partners -- banks and thrifts, real estate brokers, REITs -- out of the teepee looking in. And the "private" interests that are, without doubt, most important to Smart Growth -- employers, particular major employers, and especially New-Economy major employers like Dell -- have not yet found the reservation.

Photograph of Smart Growth protestors.

Alex Jones leads a protest against
the Smart Growth concept.

photograph by Mike Clark-Madison

It is, after all, Michael Dell who is more responsible than any other single person for the ballooning, unplanned, unsustainable growth of Round Rock, Pflugerville, and the lands in between, just as supposedly progressive high-tech firms have buckled the Sprawl Belt from sea to shining sea and now want other citizens to adjust it. (Probably the most offensive thing said at the conference came from a rep from IntelliQuest: "People in the high-tech industry work very hard and don't have the time to come out and get involved in this stuff, so you're going to have to meet us halfway." As if the hundreds of citizens who took time off work and ponied up at least $60 to attend the conference are living lives of leisure.)

Yet Dell, being held up as a SmartGrower to the multitudes, could not well explain why his facility projects are way the hell out of town (though, as he proudly noted, within Austin's Desired Development Zone), include no housing options for employees, no direct assistance to the school districts, no incentives for transit if indeed they are transit-accessible at all, and no inherent potential for reuse when they become obsolete, as one day they must. Instead, Dell Computer, the most profitable company in the history of the state of Texas, asks the public sector for incentives to use a modicum of common sense in its facility planning. Currently, Michael Dell criticizes Capital Metro for not providing adequate transit for his lower-wage Central Austin employees to his faraway edge-city locations, even though Dell earns enough money in about six hours to fund a year's worth of such service.

What ultimately, though, validates the success of the Partners for Smart Growth Conference is that observations like the above did get talked about in the halls, over coffee, and over bad cold luncheon salads, among what Smart Growth mother goddess Jane Jacobs called four decades ago "a neighborhood of interest" -- the people from all over the geographical map who share a vocation or avocation, meet and form the social networks that help keep a city going. In Austin, home of politics as leisure and leisure as politics, the local Smart Growth community is itself such a scene, and like the music scene or Barton Springs scene or disc golf scene, it's pretty creative and has fun. And right now it's fairly pumped up with adrenalin, as it realizes that, in comparison to the rest of the nation, Austin is working without a net.

So, despite this nice conference, we will all have to figure out ourselves what to do about the obstacles we encounter -- and problems we create -- as Smart Growth marches on. And to do that in Texas will mean refraining from talk about what people can't do with their land, their cars, their jurisdictions, but what we could do that would be better. In that light, though very obliquely, perhaps the most inspiring message at the conference came from Bill McDonough, the celebrated "Green Dean" of the University of Virginia architecture school and the Bigfoot of sustainable design: "We don't go up to a cherry tree in full flower and say, 'God, how many blossoms does it take?' We celebrate its beauty. If 'sustainability' is simply the edge between destruction and restoration, who cares? Where's the fun in that? We need to celebrate abundance instead of bemoaning limits... and create a modern revolution."

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Partners For Smart Growth Conference, Smart Growth, Christine Todd Whitman, Carol Browner, Michael Dell, Land Planning, Neighborhood

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