Preserving a 'Special Kind of Place'
Scott Swearingen on the 'environmental city'
I sat down recently with Scott Swearingen to talk about his new book, Environmental City: People, Place, Politics, and the Meaning of Austin. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Austin Chronicle: What were your goals when you started this book?
Scott Swearingen: The SOS [Save Our Springs Alliance] movement in the 1990s ... a lot of people sort of thought, oh, this is brand new. ... It turns out that's not the case. SOS was actually just mostly the next iteration of something that had been going on for 20 years or 30 years before it, and so I really wanted to write the book ... to try to show people that the desire for environmental protection and to create and preserve a special kind of place with a special kind of feel to it has been going on since the 1960s. It's not something that just started with SOS; so that was the main driving reason. And the second driving reason was because at that time, in this town, we have the Statesman, which is the monopoly daily corporate newspaper, and until the Chronicle came along, we didn't have a mainstream media outlet that could give any kind of different perspective. So another reason why I wanted to write this is because the history of the environmental movement that had been written – there were little bits and pieces in the Statesman about it, but those bits and pieces were coming from the corporate, growth-oriented perspective. ... So we had this thing going on in the Eighties about "environmentalists versus developers." In the Nineties it was "environmentalists versus developers," too. And of course the Statesman spins it as "growth versus no growth," but that's bullshit. It was never really about a bunch of people trying to stop growth. ... It was about a bunch of people who wanted to protect and preserve the special feel of Austin as it grew. But you never ever got that kind of understanding and perspective by reading the Statesman. And then the Chronicle came along ... and was covering it, but because they were covering day-to-day and week-to-week stuff, they couldn't really give this long-term perspective. And of course they were much better at it than the Statesman, but I thought: Somebody should write a book about this – there's a history here; it's not being told. ... This [movement] is not really that nonsensical notion of "growth versus no growth." It's very much about: OK, Austin's growing, everybody knows that – all we're trying to do is say, while it grows let's protect the greenbelts, let's protect the creeks, let's not have Lake Austin look like a parking lot like Lake Travis now. Let's build hike-and-bikes; let's try to retain open space while it grows. And the Austin Tomorrow plan was a huge, massive, outreach to the citizens of Austin that included thousands of people from all over town who came together to write that plan, and they crafted a plan that said: Austin's gonna grow; we know that. All we want to do is guide the growth. And so what we want to do is guide it into the north/south I-35 corridor; we want to protect the Hill Country; we want to protect the Barton Springs. We will have priority growth along the preferred growth corridors, and we'll have low priority for infrastructure in the Hill Country and the Blackland Prairie, and what happened was a few – not all, but a few – suburban developers who wanted to get rich by developing the Hill Country did everything in their power to make that not happen.
AC: The Austin Tomorrow plan seems like a particular tragedy, the story of how high the hopes were and how far they fell.
SS: Yeah, it fell pretty hard. ... There was a tiny bit of success from that in that city offices and bureaucracies today even now do actually implement plans based on the Austin Tomorrow plan. I didn't even know that myself until recently. ... So, apparently it did have some effect.
AC: And it did affect the development of the neighborhood organizations, too?
SS: Right, that's the key effect. The real effect was not planning; it was politics. It was the case that the people who did Austin Tomorrow hoped they were crafting a plan that would guide growth and preserve those parts of Austin they felt gave it its distinctive identity. And the parts that give it a distinctive identity were historical, they were cultural, and they were environmental, because the environment provided such a feel of the place. ... After you've been here a few years and you live through a summer, you get a sense of what the land and the water and the air do when they mix together in the summers. And if you've ever spent a day on the lake, what you want at the end of the day – I don't know about you, I want Mexican food; I want beans and cheese and a lot of it. And I want my margaritas. Or you want barbecue and beer, but it all goes all together.But the environment provides such a feel of the place that the people who did Austin Tomorrow were really cognizant of that, and they really were saying, "We have got to make sure that the Hill Country continues to look like country rather than get paved over by suburban development." And it utterly and completely failed – I take that back, it didn't utterly and completely fail. The Austin Tomorrow plan was not successful, but what ended up being moderately successful was the [Balcones Canyonland Conservation Plan]. We actually did end up saving huge chunks of the Hill Country in the Northwest through the BCCP program. ... Austin Tomorrow as a plan was not instituted and therefore was unable to preserve the Hill Country and the Southwest, so that's kind of why I wrote Chapter 6 in one sense is because ... I tell people that Austin Tomorrow was not able to be used to guide growth because some but not all suburban developers were absolutely against it. And they were the suburban developers like Gary Bradley, not him by himself, but people like him who had land holdings in the Southwest, and they just said: "No, I'm gonna make a profit. I don't give a rat's ass about Austin Tomorrow. I don't give a rat's ass about what the people of Austin want. Screw you; I own all this land; I want money." So he and people like him do absolutely everything in their power to make sure that the Austin Tomorrow goals of guiding growth were not in place, and they were very successful, mostly because they lobbied the Texas Legislature.
AC: Yeah, it seems like every time environmentalists had some little victory, the fight just escalated, mostly by people going and whining to the Lege.
SS: That's what it was. The Legislature has been the best friend of suburban developers that they ever had. ... The Austin-bashing laws are the things that have kept this city from being able to institute the Austin Tomorrow goals flat out. It is the Texas Legislature that is to blame, period. And the reason the Texas Legislature keeps passing these laws is they're composed of a bunch of people who believe that money and private profit are more important than any kind of, dare I say, democratic feelings about guiding growth. They just simply, literally, do not believe that a lot of citizens should be allowed to plan where growth goes. They just simply do not think that that is the correct use of land. For the people in the Legislature that pass these laws, their belief is that private property is there for the individual person to make a living. It has no relationship to the will or needs of a larger community. ... Bill [Bunch] and the SOS guys were the sort of lifeboat guys during that time period [the Nineties], and they kept saying: "Fuck 'em. We're going to sue their ass. We're going to defend this in court. We're going to win." And there was a long, long period when no one knew what was actually going to happen. And there were a lot of hair-thin wins where the council was four-to-three for several years in favor of environmentalists, which allowed the environmentalists on the council to vote to keep defending against the lawsuits, because the nonenvironmentalists on the council, they wanted to settle. ... It was the feeling and fervor and intensity of desire to save something that kept that political movement alive all through the Nineties when things looked very grim indeed – and allowed finally for the city to win all of the major lawsuits. ... The city won all the lawsuits, save one minor one, but they won all the major ones. Basically they won the battle. The lawsuits were basically trying to overturn SOS [Ordinance], and SOS was ruled constitutional in the end – that was the idea. But what they could not do is they could not overturn the will of the Texas Legislature. If the Texas Legislature writes a grandfathering statute, which is what it did, there's nothing we can do as a city about that.
AC: Did you have to reconcile a lot of different versions of the stories in this book?
SS: When you read the book, you notice it is history told from the perspective of a social movement to retain a special feel of place. That is the perspective; there's no question about it. ... I didn't go and put lots and lots of quotes from development actors in this because I feel like they had their time in the Austin American-Statesman. They also won. I don't see any reason for me to go explain their views all over again – I think their views are now poured into the concrete that's all around Austin. ... The real differences are between the old [pre-Nineties environmentalists] who had been around, who had been working that for 20 years, versus the newer folks, and the newer folks kind of had the attitude of, "You guys have not succeeded – you haven't saved anything." And the older folks are like, "Whoa, we've been here for 20 years, and we actually have succeeded in doing something." Town Lake, Barton Creek Greenbelt, Shoal Creek, the preserves in the West, all of that was accomplished. Town Lake was built by these people.
AC: When you're reading about these accomplishments, you really feel like environmentalists should puff up their chests. Why do we have Lady Bird Lake? Not because of developers – because of environmentalists.
SS: We wouldn't have a Barton Creek Greenbelt except Janet Fish decided to spend $5,000 of her own money – well, we'd have the greenbelt, but we wouldn't have hike-and-bike along there. And that becomes – the term "hike-and-bike" enters the national scene because this "little old lady in tennis shoes" in Austin, Texas, wanted to have a trail on Shoal Creek. Town Lake would not have come to [fruition] had it not been for the [Austin] Environmental Council [Austin's first environmental umbrella organization] pushing it, [Roberta] Crenshaw pushing it. Later on in the Eighties, it was the old-timers, the pre-SOS folks, the Save Barton Creek folks, the neighborhood association folks, the WE CARE Austin folks. ... Town Lake completely is their success story. Barton Creek, the first half is their success story. We got the second half in the Nineties when we were doing SOS. ... We passed a lot of money for bonds in the Nineties to get that upper portion there. ... Anyone who goes and swims in Barton Creek, they ought to know that that doesn't exist because the city did anything. The city was too busy putting in pipes out to Gary Bradley and Jim Bob Moffett to go do anything. The environmentalists are the ones who raised the bond for that, who ran the election campaign, who won that election campaign, and got the money for that. So yeah, they should puff up their chests. There are real disagreements today within environmental circles, and these are policy disagreements about what works. These disagreements revolve around clusterings, around transportation, around New Urbanism. I'm an urban sociologist, and I see a lot of positive things that New Urbanism can bring. And as an environmentalist, you want New Urbanism to be successful. ... You look at ideas of New Urbanism and say, "I really want that to work." I really hope it's true that if you can build densely clustered living units and preserve open space, by doing so that that will work. The big problem is that that will work under certain conditions, and the big question in my mind – and a lot of people's minds in town – is: Are those conditions being met? If we had 100 people moving into Austin every month, and we build 100 New Urbanist units for those people, and those units are affordable – meaning that a 3/1 condo costs 150 grand instead of 450 grand – and if there's only a few people moving in, and if we did build for the new people moving in, I think the whole concept of New Urbanism would be working fabulous. But those are some pretty limiting conditions that I just listed. We have thousands of people moving in. ... You're not going to be able to "New Urb" your way out of that, is the problem. So you get into these big battles. ... A lot of people say environmentalists are just West side activists who want pretty land on the West side; they don't care about the Eastside at all. That is simply not borne out by the history of Austin, Texas. This is a key element of the book, another reason to write it. You just do not understand this from the Statesman or the Chronicle because it's a long, long history. But the progressive movement in Austin has always been fueled by people who were progressives in the Sixties and Seventies. Those people were progressives almost invariably because they were for civil rights, because they wanted to reduce economic inequality, because they wanted to bring poor and minority communities into the mainstream and give them a voice. And that means that the progressive movement in Austin began where a lot of the progressive movements in the U.S. – the modern progressive movements – began: with the civil rights struggle. ... I heard Molly Ivins on the radio the other day; they asked: "Why did you become a liberal? Why did you become a progressive?" and she said, "Three words: race, race, race." She said: "Because when I was growing up, all we heard in school is: Everybody's equal, all Americans have the same chances, we're all afforded the same opportunities. And at the same time all my family was telling me, 'Don't talk to the blacks; the blacks can't get a job here; the blacks can't work with us.'" She said, "So many of us became liberals or progressives because we lived in that very hypocritical time." Well, Austin was no different. So, many of the people who become environmentalists began not as environmentalists at all but as civil rights activists and anti-war activists. And those battles, if not completely won, there were victories. The Civil Rights bill passed. ... The war in Vietnam ended. So what happens with this progressive movement? Where does it go next if the basis of liberalism and progressivism is the idea that the mass of people should have as much say in their lives as a few elite rich people? Where does that ideology go next? ... A lot of the progressive fervor enters into the environmental movement because the environmental movement nationwide is based on this basic idea that everyone has the right to clean air, clean water, and space. It's based on this basic idea that you should not be able to pollute the air or the water for private profit to the harm of other people. It's based on the idea that everyone deserves access to open space and recreation, not just the few rich people who can own a ranch in California or Colorado. ... See how well that meshes with the political ideology of progressivism? Of liberalism? It's very much an egalitarian sort of philosophy. So in Austin, as in nationwide, a lot of progressive energy moves into environmentalism. Austin is a special case because right about the time that was happening nationally, Austin was growing locally, and we did Austin Tomorrow. ... One of the key components of Austin Tomorrow was preserving the environment, especially the creeks and the lakes and the rivers and Barton Springs, and so the local becomes a reflection of the national. But it becomes a special reflection in Austin, because what develops in Austin is a bunch of people who have this progressive or liberal ideology that says that the mass of people should have some greater voice in running their own lives. ... That becomes tied in with urban planning and urban growth. And we have the University of Texas, a bunch of upper educated people here. We got people that know stuff here; this is not a small town in Texas where a few rich guys can just go tell everybody what to do. We got a bunch of hard-headed civil rights activists, we got a bunch of university graduates, we got a bunch of people that can say: "No, I don't think that you should just have suburban sprawl everywhere. I don't think that's a good idea, and here's why." So the environmental movement in Austin really is part of a larger progressive agenda, but what happens is that in the 1980s – this is why I wrote the chapter about the 1980s – that is when the environmental movement emerges as the standard-bearer for the progressive and liberal ideas.
AC: And that's where Austin departs from other cities, typically?
SS: That's typically where we depart. Atlanta, their progressivism continued to be based on race and racial integration at the business level. Boulder, Colorado, might have been the closest thing to that. But Portland, the progressive agenda is driven very much by urban planning, and in Austin the progressive agenda is driven by urban planning, but the environmental movement throughout the Eighties emerges as the standard-bearer for that.
AC: What about the role of PODER and the Eastside activists?
SS: There is some truth to what ... people say, that the environmental movement was more about preserving the West side environment than helping the Eastside. But at the same time, I just documented a history where all the major wins for both social equity and environmental protection have come through an alliance of the two groups. ... Are the West side people leaving the Eastside people out? ... Every major electoral victory that the progressives or liberals have had in Austin has come because there was a conscious alliance between West side environmentalists and neighborhood activists and Eastside social justice activists – every single one. The [Jeff] Friedman council was elected because of those alliances [in 1975]. The [Frank] Cooksey council was elected because of those alliances [in 1985]. Town Lake exists as it does today because of those alliances. SOS could not have passed without those alliances. ... So I know that that argument is made that environmentalists on the West side are – it's pretty much all a white thing. ... This history simply doesn't bear that out. If that were the case, I do not believe environmentalists would have won any of the victories they won. Darryl [Slusher] even said this when he did his farewell speech; he'd finished his two terms [on City Council]. ... He said: "As long as the environmental movement in West Austin continues to be allied with the social justice movement in East Austin, both sides will win. But if that alliance and those bonds fall apart, neither side will win." And I think he's absolutely right, and I think what propelled the victories of the quote-unquote environmentalists was the entire progressive movement of East and West side, white and black and brown. Because the environmentalists, all they all are, if you look at them all, they're all social justice activists, basically. And what happened was in Austin, the attempt to save the environment from a few suburban developers just got so intense that for a while there in the Eighties and Nineties, our political system had two parties: environmentalists and developers. But that hid the real underlying dynamics there. "Environmentalism," the word, stood for thousands and thousands of people who were basically advocating for a sort of progressive or liberal version of life, which is that a whole bunch of people deserve a say in what happens to them in their life and in their environment. It is not in fact fair for a few rich guys to fuck it up for their own personal profit. In that sense, the environmental movement is a flag that flies over the progressive agenda for 20 years. And at the very same level, the word "developers" was a flag that flew over some but not all developers. That's very, very important: There were a lot of people who did housing development that were reasonably happy with Austin Tomorrow. They were like: "Sure, fine, whatever. Just tell me where to go, and I'll build it." That was their perspective, but there were a few suburban developers who said, "No, I'm not going to do that."
AC: Tell me more about Eastern Travis County. You end the book with a discussion of the aquifers that are over there, which a lot of people aren't aware of, and the endangered Blackland Prairie.
SS: I think it is very, very important for everybody in Austin – the West side people specifically – to understand that we have preserved a huge amount of open space in West Austin. I wish there was a lot more, certainly I don't like seeing houses along Barton Creek, and certainly I want to preserve even more land in the Hill Country, but – and this a big but – the city of Austin has this special feel of an environmental city because we've preserved so much open space in the middle of urban development. That's why I call it "environmental city." It feels like an environmental city because we can walk in the greenbelts, because we can walk in our creeks, because there's some open space in the Hill Country left, because you drive a little bit out of the central region and perceive that there's some countryside there. But that's all on the West. We need to move East. We've got to start to moving East. There's a bond election coming up [in November]. Part of that bond election will ask for money to buy land. I know that the environmentalists on the West side are going to advocate as strong as possible that that money goes to buy land in the Hill Country. I think a lot of that money ought to go to buy land in the Eastside. Eastern Travis County is gonna grow faster than Western now, and we have got to get out there and buy as much land as possible along those creeks – and on top of those aquifers Kevin [Anderson] is talking about [in the book] – now, because we weren't able to do that in West Austin until the cost was prohibitive. We still have a chance right now to get ahead of the cost curve, get over there into the Eastern part of Travis County where growth is going to occur, grab that land up, and make us some beautiful walking ways along the creeks over there. And if we can do that, we're going to enlarge the environmental city. We're going to take what was begun on the West side and move it onto the Eastside, and the Eastside of Austin will have greenbelts and massive parks and open space just like the West side, and that means that children growing up there and people who move in there over the next 20 years will be able to experience an environmental city. And if we don't do that, if we only spend this bond money on the West side, that means the place that's growing the fastest in Austin will never experience an environmental city. ... We need to continue to build that kind of city. It needs to move, because if we don't, what we will have done is we will have built a special city for some and regular old suburban crap for others. So I think that we need to start spending money in Eastern Travis.