Commentary: We failed Austin with overbuilding


In his wistful ballad “Sugar Baby,” Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan tries to make sense of failed love — of how fast happiness can vanish and sadness take its place, and how by trying “to make things better for someone, sometimes, you just end up making it a thousand times worse.”

He shifts from you to I and then to we, seeking some perspective, giving and taking advice at the same time. He sings a truth life teaches all of us if we live long enough: “You can’t turn back you can’t come back, sometimes we push too far / One day you’ll open up your eyes and you’ll see where we are.”

I have had this song rattling around my own brain lately as I try to come to terms with what Austin has become. Two days ago, I made the mistake of answering a call from an unknown number from Bastrop that had called me three times. I was concerned that it might be my 80-year-old friend, Terry Orr, a current teaching assistant in classics — the oldest one our department has ever had — a former mayor of Bastrop, and senior member of the Austin Warrior Chorus troupe of military veteran story-tellers.

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER: Viewpoints delivers the latest perspectives on current events.

It wasn’t Terry on the line, but a voice doing a survey about Austin on behalf, I was told, of a coalition of like-minded businesspersons aiming to change Austin for the better. The questions galvanized for me thoughts about what our city has become that I have had for a while.

When I started visiting Austin in 1983, the population was around 375,000. In 2016, it was just over 925,000 — a staggering 150-percent increase in 33 years. In 1986, when the Hyde Park and Hancock neighborhood associations discovered that many venerable old trees were being tagged for removal by Austin Energy for no good reason and investigated why, it was determined that Austin’s urban tree canopy had declined from about 33 percent to 25 percent in nine years. When I went down to talk to City Council members about this, one minimized my concern by saying, “Well, that’s only an 8-percent decline.” To parody “Apollo 13,” it was then I knew, “Austin, we have a problem.”

You can now consult Austin’s Urban Forest Plan online and discover that the disappearance of trees around us, by their statistical measures, has an explanation. After some pretty rosy statistics, we read that “recent declines in canopy cover are most likely due to natural factors such as extended drought periods, as well as human impacts such as urban development.”

In other words, they have identified the problem. The recent destruction of our trees has a simple explanation: We are engaged in “human impacts,” like overbuilding our city without check. This reminds me of W.H. Auden’s lines from the early 1950’ about his modern world: “Out of the air a voice without a face / Proved by statistics that some cause was just / In tones as dry and level as the place: No one was cheered and nothing was discussed.” Things have only gotten worse.

LIKE US ON FACEBOOK: Our Lone Star Politics page brings Texas news to your Facebook feed.

The telephone survey voice made this world of Austin seem more surreal, asking whether I would be in favor of aggressively expanding Austin’s highways to alleviate congestion. Between 7:30 and 9 a.m. 4 and 6:30 p.m., it takes me on average 45 minutes to drive 4.5 miles between from my home off East Riverside to MLK and Brazos. I have to budget at least 45 minutes on certain Thursday afternoons to drive 21 blocks from MLK and Brazos to Sixth and Colorado. So, I replied that even if we built an effective Autobahn system, we could not unstrangle our high-rise, infilled Manhattan on the Colorado.

This has a human impact. The university is virtually impossible to reach easily at from 8-9 and 4-6. And rising costs have made parking on campus prohibitively expensive for locals who might want to take advantage of public lectures at a public university that is more and more like a like a medieval town surrounded by a traffic-jam moat.

The survey voice finally asked cheerily whether I would favor returning Austin to its small university town values. To borrow an idea from my colleague Eric Pianka, named Texas Distinguished Scientist in 2006, only plague, famine or warfare could take us back to the city we did not protect. Stuck in traffic, we can see where we are with our eyes closed.

Palaima is a professor of classics at the University of Texas.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Texas cities should follow San Antonio’s lead on new tobacco law

San Antonio recently took a major step to protect its residents’ health by passing a law that prevents merchants from selling tobacco products to anyone under age 21 within city limits, becoming the first Texas city to do so. Other Texas cities should follow San Antonio’s lead. First, some facts. Currently, 14 percent of people in Texas...
Opinion: Come to this island, before it disappears

KUTUBDIA, Bangladesh — Anyone who doubts climate change should come to this lovely low-lying island, lapped by gentle waves and home to about 100,000 people. But come quickly, while it’s still here. “My house was over there,” said Zainal Abedin, a farmer, pointing to the waves about 100 feet from the shore. “At low tide...
Opinion: Trump right to push school choice over Left’s failed policies

Amidst the ongoing political noise and distractions in Washington, D.C., President Trump continues to focus on and address the nation’s most deep-seated problems. Trump proclaimed the week of Jan. 22 as National School Choice Week. It began in 2011. Trump’s proclamation notes a commitment to “a future of unprecedented educational...
Partnership rethinks how we treat mental health issues in Travis
Partnership rethinks how we treat mental health issues in Travis

The new mother struggles with postpartum depression. Her regular doctor, having tried to treat it, suggests it’s time to see a specialist. The new mother looks for a psychiatrist, but she finds that almost no one takes her insurance, and those who do are booked for weeks. So she is left alone with her illness. This story occurs commonly across...
Abbott shouldn’t mess with Austin’s success
Abbott shouldn’t mess with Austin’s success

Gov. Greg Abbott wants to have it both ways: Proclaiming Austin’s success as one of two Texas cities that made it to the elite 20 — the cities Amazon named last week as finalists for the tech giant’s second headquarters, called Amazon HQ2. Meanwhile, doing all he can — along with his self-described wingman, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick...
More Stories