Cities are dynamic. They change in thousands of big and small ways. The thing cities don’t do is stand still. They are either growing or shrinking — and I have had a front row seat to both.
I was born in Detroit in its peak population year, 1952, and spent nearly three decades watching it up close. Since then, I’ve been reading, visiting, and hoping its long-predicted renaissance will finally occur.
In 1981, I moved to a neighborhood of modest cottages close to downtown Houston and marveled that I could buy a house for a fraction of what similarly located homes would cost in Chicago, Washington, San Francisco or New York. I lived there nearly three decades as well. I watched it go from hick to hip, big to enormous and my neighborhood from “Aren’t you scared to live there?” to the coolest place in town. Having lived in a shrinking city and an explosive growth city, I’ll take the latter — but there are lessons from Houston I carry to my third city: Austin.
I attended the April 28 public hearing on CodeNext. I didn’t stay through the end — but if anyone was not opposed to smaller lots and more multifamily dwellings, I did not hear it. Austin’s planners are trying to create a blueprint for the future while tasked with considering people who resist change — who believe gentrification is evil and a synonym for racism.
The concept of density gets similar treatment, but I think it’s the only realistic choice for two simple reasons:
• First, affordability and mobility are not separate issues. We stay home when we’d like to go out because of traffic. Jobs are turned down because a 10-mile commute could take an hour. Folks want to live near where they work and play, though this demand over supply causes mind-boggling prices. In Houston — a city that only recently embraced some density — the building of freeways and toll roads never stops. A portion of Interstate 10 there is 26 lanes wide. Twenty-six lanes — yet it still slows to a crawl during rush hour. The more roads, the further out things are built — plus, we now know, they’re sometimes built in flood plains, or areas that become flood plains, because more and more land has been made impermeable. It’s a vicious circle. I chatted with a woman at the meeting who said it was horrible to have your house surrounded by tall buildings. I said, yes, it is, but it’s worse to be evicted. In Houston, I watched as thousands of houses and apartments, shopping centers and even my YMCA were forced out by eminent domain for the sake of more lanes of concrete.
• Secondly, I noticed that most of the meeting’s attendees looked like my peers: old. CodeNext isn’t about us; it’s about the young — the people who researchers tell us are not nearly as interested as baby boomers have been in owning cars, large houses, big yards and the acquisition of stuff. CodeNext is about the future — not just the next few years, but decades ahead when we gray-haired will be gone.
Desirability is Austin’s blessing and burden. “Density” and “gentrification” may be dirty words here, but in Houston, we sarcastically said, the dirty word was “planning.” Hurricane Harvey showed the world the results. We aren’t like Houston — and should never try to be.
Austin will grow. New buildings will appear. How much will be vertical and how much horizontal? More sprawl or less sprawl? More sprawl brings worse traffic and dirtier air. If we address mobility by adding many more freeway lanes or toll roads, people’s homes will be taken, sprawl will be further encouraged and those who cannot afford $50 or more a week in tolls will still be in stop-and-go traffic.
CodeNext needs editing — but as someone with a long-time interest in the death and life of great American cities, I see no place that has been able to freeze theirs in amber. We can accept that growth necessitates change and address the inseparable issues of mobility and density — or we can continue this stalemate and watch the problems get worse.
But seriously, if the Koreas can come together …
Sorvari, of Austin, was an activist in Houston for historic preservation and permeable-cover laws.