Austin at Large: Cracking the Code
Change in our city will move at the speed of trust
As I was being reassimilated into the body of the Chronicle, before CodeNEXT got dragged behind the barn in August, I told folks here I had no interest in writing about it; to do so was senseless as long as we continued to pretend (as a city, not just as a paper) that the bloody, polarized, politicized conflict it spawned is really about land use. Rather, we're fighting a proxy war – or I should say, another one – about the Soul of a Changing City, about what our values are and whom those values should favor, and who has the power to police them. You know, winners and losers. Instead of having those conversations directly, we'd rather have them in code, which saps our time and energy and pushes us away from civic life.
As it happened, by the time I moved back into the building, CodeNEXT had been euthanized and a city election cycle was at full steam, one where the "development" vs. "preservation" conflict – again, code words – had been fully joined in both Council races and with citizen ballot initiatives, ending last month in a clear victory for one side. But again, this cannot be understood as a verdict rendered upon our approach to land use. It is instead an invitation to do something else, something more important.
More Voters Means More Voices
When we decided six years ago to move our civic elections to even-numbered Novembers, we created a new body politic, one colored by the broad palette of sociopolitical and cultural and partisan choices that influence all Austinites, not just the 10% who give a rip about land use. That was a more consequential change than moving to the 10-1 district Council, which so far has only modestly altered the balance of power among the city's interest groups and political actors. By going to 50%+ turnout in our election cycles, we gave ourselves bigger stories to tell and more interesting decisions to confront. We gave ourselves a mandate to address social justice factors not just as pleasing cultural signifiers for a largely bourgeois, white, liberal electorate, but as real problems that need to be solved for real people who have a voice in civic affairs. That may be how we finally stared down the police union and got genuine oversight in the new contract, which had eluded us for nearly 20 years, during most of which time nobody who was really affected by police conduct had any real stake in our electoral politics.
Planning to Save Our Lives
This framing may be a little overdramatic, sure, but while we're here, now let's think about our land use code. What real difference does it make in people's lives? How does it help us master the challenges facing our times?
I shared some of my thinking on this with Doug Farr, a good friend whose work I admire. He's an architect and planner whom locals may know from his efforts at Austin Oaks and Colony Park; he's also a past president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, just as I'm a past president of CNU's local chapter. His new book Sustainable Nation makes a much more dramatic case for smart planning and placemaking – of the kind CodeNEXT was supposed to facilitate – as a lifesaving strategy in the face of climate chaos, rampant obesity, and the unchecked sprawl that helps drive both.
Simply beating down the NIMBYs, as was done in the last election, isn't enough to create the change we need as fast as we need it, Farr says, because "change happens at the pace of trust." In a nation where 58% of people say one of their greatest fears (much greater than death itself) is talking to strangers, it takes a lot of one-on-one conversations and direct engagement with each other, with the hopes and fears that coalesce into the battle cries of our proxy wars, to make sure we all continue to have a safe and welcoming city to live in.
Farr is admittedly a bit right-brained when he talks about planning and urban policy via the principles he learned at Burning Man, but I think we could stand to be a little more radically inclusive and less guarded and snappy and snippy when we talk about our future. Whether we move quickly to re-animate the corpse of CodeNEXT or slowly retrace our steps of the last 30 years, we can do so from the frame of mind of decent people, of citizens and of neighbors, who care about each other and about the future we and our children will all share.
It's true that a lot of NIMBY-adjacent Austinites have lived through the tremendous change and growth and gentrification and urbanization of our city over the last three decades and feel that none of it has been for the better, for them; it's all been painful. It's also true that a lot of young urbanist Austinites feel directly, personally, painfully excluded by a complacent political consensus that, largely out of laziness and conflict aversion, has given to a handful of mostly older white people actual veto power over their future livelihood and happiness. Pretending that we're really deeply moved to anger and tears about f'ing building heights isn't doing either of these factions any favors, and it simply bores and confuses all the folks in the middle – the folks who now, in the new Austin politics, vote.