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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.

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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.

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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.

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