A few months ago, an Austin writer took to the pages of the New York Times to fret about the fate of his city. Austin, it seems, is getting too big for its famously weird britches. Not too long ago, an older gentleman fond of wearing high heels and a thong in public ran for mayor three times, Richard Parker wrote. Now, Austin has a Grand Prix racing track, restaurants teeming with celebrities, and yuppies crowding out families.
“[I]n the wake of the Armstrong debacle, it’s hard not to think that pride does, indeed, go before the fall,” Parker wrote, referring to longtime resident Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of his Tour de France titles last year amid growing allegations that he cheated. “Hopefully, Austin can handle success without letting it go to its head; after all, that is precisely what destroyed the hometown hero.”
Parker painted a lovely, nostalgic portrait that simultaneously made me want to preserve Willie Nelson’s old stomping grounds and move there myself, furthering the problem. And indeed, to use Parker’s analogy, Austin is growing like it’s on steroids. The city’s population increased a whopping 51.1 percent from 2000 to 2010.
Is it possible for a city to grow quickly and retain its character? Can they keep Austin Austin? Lucia Athens, the city’s sustainability director, hopes so.
A Texas native, Athens grew up going to Sierra Club protests and outings with her father, who was chair of the San Antonio chapter. She learned the necessity of community organizing and why it’s important to get out in nature. “If you’re never out engaging with it, you never understand what you’re in danger of losing,” she says.
While she was well-trained in the old green tactics of protesting and planting trees in front of bulldozers, she saw a chance to effect change in a new way. “The green building movement became an opportunity to leverage something that was going to happen already in a better direction,” she says. She helped craft Austin’s first green building program in the early '90s before spending 10 years turning Seattle into a LEED case study. In 2010, she returned to Austin.
I talked to Athens several times over the phone for Knope and change, our series on the women working hard to green our cities. Here’s an edited version of our conversations:
Q. With SXSW's ongoing success and Austin’s perennial national reputation as a contender for coolest city, is Austin a victim of its own success? Is it possible to stay weird while getting big?
A. I think that’s the big conundrum. We’re experiencing very significant growth and we will be into the foreseeable future. That’s partly because we do have a very high quality of life here and a pretty good hip factor. We have a lot of young people who want to move here. We have a lot of jobs. With all that, it’s good for the economy, but we have to manage that increase in growth and population. That’s where we are going to be butting up against issues related to mobility, transportation, air quality, water. We’re trying to do a good job of balancing economic development and [population] growth with environmental protection and measures for quality of life. But there’s a long way to go. We just adopted a comprehensive plan that uses sustainability as its core principle, [and] it’s a pretty significant guiding document, [but] there are cranes all over town. We’re really trying to focus on steering that new development in the right direction and figuring out how we’re going to maintain the quality of life we have now with such a big increase in our population.
Q. How have you been able to steer development and population growth?