Naked City

Boom Gloom

On the face of it, last Friday's rain shower held greater promise than the news that Paul Robbins dropped on the nearly 100 people who had slogged through the noon-hour drizzle to the Austin History Center to celebrate the release of Robbins' fourth annual Austin Environmental Directory. Well, maybe "celebrate" isn't an apt description, but fellow enviros and a surprising number of county and city officials were in remarkably good spirits during the eat 'n' greet moments leading up to Robbins' slide show of his dismal findings. This year's directory -- in addition to its comprehensive list of green groups, services, and products -- provides an environmental report card that unceremoniously flunks the city in a number of areas and, on a larger scale, criticizes the lifestyles of 700,000 people.

"It seems Austin lives in a contradiction," Robbins told the standing-room-only assembly. "Austinites like to think of themselves as an environmental city. ... But what are we really accomplishing? We see urban sprawl eat land and watersheds on a daily basis. Traffic clogs our streets. Buildings are constructed as fast as they can be built, and we can only wonder if they were built with the environment in mind."

With that, Robbins proceeded to bear out his claims with a series of number-crunching charts, maps, and graphs. One of the directory's more sobering illustrations is a GIS map and charts showing the sprawl of impervious cover and subsequent loss of trees and vegetation across Travis County. Examining a 12-year period from 1985-1997, Robbins and GIS-map guru Jim Walker found a 32-square-mile, or 28%, increase in urban development. Almost half of the development took place in ZIP codes in the Watershed Protection Zone, while almost none occurred on the Eastside. Among the report card's other findings:

  • Austin's Green Building Program, while a national model, has averaged low participation since its inception in 1996, with only 11% of new single-family homes and 3% of multi-family developments participating in the program. The directory does note an improvement in the last fiscal year, however, due to the program's increased budget.

  • While Austin may have stepped up its recycling program, Robbins says, Travis County waste actually increased 48%. That's not all Travis County's waste, Robbins adds, because some 30 surrounding counties dumped their garbage in local landfills in 1998.

  • "It is patently untrue," Robbins writes, "that Austin spends more money on energy conservation than other places in the country." He points to a 1997 national study showing that Austin Energy was outspent by 12 other utilities.

  • The overall number of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) is higher than ever. Robbins says Travis County's VMT has increased 248% -- from 2.1 billion in 1975 (the first year records were available) to 7.2 billion in 1997. On a per capita basis, area drivers went from 5,800 vehicle miles traveled in 1975 to more than 10,500 in 1997.

    There's much more to the directory than bad news, however. For one thing, it's free and available from Clean Water Action, 2520 Longview, #315, Austin (78705), 474-0605; and Texas Campaign for the Environment, 611 S. Congress, #150, Austin (78704), 326-5655. Both groups will mail the directory with a $2 postage charge. Other locations will carry the directory in coming weeks.

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    Paul Robbins, Austin Environmental Directory, environmental report card, sprawl, Jim Walker, energy conservation

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