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Environmental City

Environmental City
People, Place, Politics, and the Meaning of Modern Austin

A history of the environmental movement in Austin, Texas, that shows how it became a model for the national movement to build sustainable cities.

Series: Environmental Studies Endowment (NEH)

April 2010
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295 pages | 6 x 9 | 13 b&w photos, 1 cartoon, 7 maps, 5 graphs |

As Austin grew from a college and government town of the 1950s into the sprawling city of 2010, two ideas of Austin as a place came into conflict. Many who promoted the ideology of growth believed Austin would be defined by economic output, money, and wealth. But many others thought Austin was instead defined by its quality of life. Because the natural environment contributed so much to Austin's quality of life, a social movement that wanted to preserve the city's environment became the leading edge of a larger movement that wanted to retain a unique sense of place. The "environmental movement" in Austin became the political and symbolic arm of the more general movement for place.

This is a history of the environmental movement in Austin—how it began; what it did; and how it promoted ideas about the relationships between people, cities, and the environment. It is also about a deeper movement to retain a sense of place that is Austin, and how that deeper movement continues to shape the way Austin is built today. The city it helped to create is now on the forefront of national efforts to rethink how we build our cities, reduce global warming, and find ways that humans and the environment can coexist in a big city.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. The Environmental Meaning of Austin
  • Part One. People, Land, and Place
  • Chapter 1. The Theory behind the Connections
  • Part Two. The Landscape Emerges
  • Chapter 2. The Landscape Emerges
  • Chapter 3. Institutionalizing Environmental Concerns: City Government and City Politics
  • Part Three. The Environmental Meaning of Austin
  • Chapter 4. Of Neighborhoods and Environment: Contesting the Growth Machine
  • Chapter 5. The Environmental Meaning as Banner: The Save Our Springs Coalition and the Green Machine
  • Part Four. The Environmental City
  • Chapter 6. The Environmental City
  • Chapter 7. The Doing of It: Continuing the Environmental Meaning
  • Methodological Appendix
  • Notes
  • Index

William Scott Swearingen, Jr., teaches Environmental Science and Policy, Urban Sociology, and Environmental Sociology at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. He has been involved in the environmental movement in Austin for two decades.


The land and the times shaped the people. The people and their times shaped a city. And modern Austin—its look, its feel, its landscape, its meaning—was created in that crucible where the environment and the economy and the people met to practice politics.


As Austin grew from a sleepy college and government town in the mid-twentieth century into the sprawling city of the early twenty-first, two broad ideas of Austin as a place came into conflict. One idea was that Austin, like so many other cities in America, would be a place defined by economic output, money, and wealth. The other, which emerged over time as growth intensified, was based on a place defined by its quality of life.


The first idea was based on building a city that drew business so that businesspeople could make money. People who made their money in business, real estate, and property development wanted to see Austin grow, because for them, growth meant more money. Many businesspeople and civil leaders believed in growth because more people meant more overall business, a bigger economy, and hence more money to be made in any business endeavor.


For the most part, the growth interests wanted Austin to grow fast, grow big, and grow wealth for themselves. They were not terribly interested in preserving Austin's environment, because that environment was the land. In a capitalist economy, and especially in Texas, land is property. Property has monetary value, and in Texas, property ownership is seen by most as sacrosanct, conferring on its owner a God-given right to make money. Many people who wanted Austin to grow owned property and speculated in real estate. They knew that property values would increase if Austin grew, creating more profit for them.


The growth promoters in business and politics also had some natural allies in the city administrators who headed the bureaucracy, even if the administrators did not necessarily think of it that way. The city administrators of the 1950s to 1980s had learned their craft in schools that taught them the technical ways to build a city without regard to impact on the environment. They had been taught that their job was to facilitate the growth of the city by laying roads and sewers. They had learned, and were adept at practicing, the building of urban space over the natural environment, rather than with or into it.


Between the property, business, and bureaucratic groups, a Growth Machine emerged in the 1970s that continues to this day. The Growth Machine is a metaphor used by Harvey Molotch to explain why cities grow. It describes how business, property, government, and ideologies all work in ways that together produce urban growth. The combined actions of real estate developers, landowners, businesspeople, the press, and government agencies promote growth in general because they all have some interest in it. As people move to the city, rising demand for housing causes land to become more expensive. Developers, landowners, and speculators make a profit from the increase in land prices. Businesspeople profit by selling their goods and services to the increasing population. Newspapers and media outlets tend to favor growth, because it increases their readership and thus their revenue. Government agencies are tasked with providing services to new development (roads, sewers, electricity, schools, etc.), and as these services are built they foster added growth.


Growth Machines are not propelled only by local businesspeople and speculators. Cities are tied to larger national and global capital markets that provide what Henri Lefebvre calls a "secondary circuit of capital." There is money to be made in real estate as cities grow, so investors and corporations from around the country and the world look at real estate markets in cities as an investment opportunity. Much of the capital invested in a city's real estate actually comes from outside that city, and Austin's fast growth brought it to the attention of multinational capital investors who invested in real estate.


These individuals and organizations do not necessarily work together in a dark, smoke-filled back room, although at times that does happen. For the most part, they are working on their own toward their own purposes: profit, business, laying pipe, organizing city government, etc. But since all of them are doing things that end up facilitating city growth, the sum total of all their actions creates a kind of machine of growth that no one particular person or group is necessarily in charge of. And that makes growth even harder to stop, guide, or control than if it were directed by one single person or group.


Cultural beliefs about growth, what we call the ideology of growth, also fuel the Growth Machine. The roles of the Growth Machine are filled by people, and these people act on the assumption so common in America that "growth" in and of itself is good. The business interests, especially, promote that assumption to the general public with the "rising tide lifts all boats" story. This story is true to an extent; rising tides do lift many boats, but they lift the yachts a lot higher, many smaller boats get swamped, and many just float along in the same basic shape they were in before the tide rose. Growth, like tides, wipes out or changes many things that people enjoy or need: the natural environment, neighborhoods, affordable housing, atmosphere, culture. The growth ideology neglects those pesky issues because it is promoted mostly by people who stand to gain financially from urban growth. But the idea is such a common explanation of our economy that most people seem to accept it as fact. When people in the public accept the assumption that growth in general is good for them, they too become part of the ideology of growth; as long as everyone from businesspeople to homeowners assumes that "growth is good," most people will go along with growth, and the people who make money from growth will come out ahead.


But a second idea of Austin emerged because there were lots of people who did not necessarily buy into the ideology of growth. They did not believe in undirected growth over everything else, and they began to think of their city in other terms. Many of these people did not make their living from jobs that required constant growth. They worked in state government and education, or in businesses that served those institutions. They did not need to think in terms of factories or real estate or big business. Instead of defining their lives in terms of profit brought by growth, they tended to define them in terms of an intangible idea called quality of life. For these people, Austin's quality of life came from cultural factors such as the music, the laid-back feel of a college town, the more liberal atmosphere. It came from the neighborhoods they lived in, and from the natural environment of the area: the heat, water, and sun that added to and accentuated the other things. It all went together, but in the end so much of the city's quality of life was provided by its natural environment that the environment became the main focus of concern for many people, and eventually the main arena of conflict between the quality-of-life groups and the members of the Growth Machine.


The conflict emerged when people who wanted to retain that quality of life began to try to direct growth and save some of the natural environment during the time that Austin was becoming a big city. The quality-of-life people defined Austin as a place that was pleasant to live in because of its natural environment—the hills, the river, the creeks. They wanted to preserve, use, and enjoy those environmental features in their daily life; to walk in the creeks, see the hills, feel the water. They were beginning to define Austin as a place that was built into and defined by those features, and they began to promote the idea that growth should be guided in order to save those features. But the idea of slower, more deliberate, and controlled growth that preserved the natural environment conflicted with ideas about growth for profit held by land speculators and many businesspeople. Those competing desires created the conflicts that have been fought out in city politics, lawsuits, and rulemaking for four decades, from the late 1960s until today.


Larger national environmental trends and programs of the time influenced what happened in this conflict. In the 1960s and 1970s, the ideas of the national environmental movement were beginning to influence the way many Americans thought about their urban environments, and many people who lived in Austin existed in daily contact with a strikingly beautiful environment that was being degraded by urban growth. The national environmental movement found fertile ground in Austin, and many people active in the preservation of Austin's environment saw their action as part of a larger environmental consciousness. The local was influenced by the national. As former mayor Frank Cooksey (mayor of Austin's first "environmentalist council" in 1985) put it to me in an interview, "The place has always boasted of the Hill Country. At one time it was spoken of as the violet crown—that was the hills, you know. The natural environment was something that everyone was happy about. When the [national] environmental movement started, it caught on big here—it had meaning here."


The Clean Air and Water Acts, federal programs enacted to address pollution, and later the Endangered Species Act gave people in Austin ways to clean up existing pollution and alleviate some of the negative consequences of urban growth. These programs helped people in Austin create a landscape that retains some of the natural environment of the area in a less degraded state, allowing people to enjoy the river, creeks, and hills.


On one level, then, this is a history of the environmental movement in Austin: how it began, its connection to the larger national trends, how it promoted ideas about the relationship between people, cities, and the environment. But it is also about a deeper movement, a movement to retain a sense of place that was Austin. It is a history of how the environment emerged as the main component of the fight to preserve some of Austin's special feel, how it became a movement that symbolized that deeper movement for place. The movement for place was the underlying cause of Austin's environmental movement. Early on, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the environment was one of several defining aspects of place that people worried was being destroyed by growth. The efforts to preserve hills, creeks, and lakes were one part of a larger struggle to preserve things that were "Austin": historical features, neighborhoods, cultural events, music venues, etc.; things that gave the city its special feel. As time went on, though, the environment became the central symbol to those who believed Austin should be defined by its quality of life rather than its size or economic output. By the 1990s, the "environmental movement" and "environmentalists" were thought of as the main group that fought against "developers," who symbolized the Growth Machine. This book is organized around that history—how it happened, who was part of it, and what it did to create the Austin of today.


This book is also about broader issues that influenced and still influence both movements. It is about the larger relationship between people and their environments. It is about the way a particular kind of natural environment, mixed with a particular kind of economy in a particular historical period, shaped a social movement: how that movement shaped a discourse and a meaning of the city, and how that meaning has shaped Austin today. In this larger sense, the story of Austin's environmental meaning is an example of how the relationship between natural environment (the land, waterways, flora, and fauna of an area) and social environment (our economy, politics, and ideas) can shape a city. It is a particular story, but the forces involved are at work in many cities across America and the world.


One way to understand the relationship between people and their cities is through a discourse analysis. On one level, a discourse is how people talk and think about a place. But a discourse is more than that. The way social geographers use it, a discourse is a communication between social groups and their physical landscape. It is this communication between people and their natural and built environments that creates a meaning of a landscape. The meaning resides in our minds—it is the symbolic representation of the landscape that we carry around in our minds, a way we understand how the people, the buildings, and the natural go together to produce some unique place.


Those words and ideas in turn influence and are influenced by the kind of urban space—the cities—people build. A discourse includes both the physical structure of the built environment and the ways people think about that environment. The two shape each other. Words and ideas are shaped by the environment people build and inhabit, and built environments shape the way people think about the place. The things people build are thus both outcome and producer of the words and ideas used to describe a place.


Austin's discourse emerged from a four-decade battle to preserve some of the city's natural environment in the midst of growth. That discourse has become institutionalized in the landscape, politics, and administrative machinery of modern Austin. The movement to direct growth preserved some of Austin's natural environment in a system of parks, greenbelts, and preserves that allow Austinites to experience an unbuilt, "natural" setting in the midst of a city. It also enabled the movement for place to get a seat at the table politically, allowing quality-of-life advocates to win elections as city council members, who have some ability to influence the way city space in Austin gets built. Perhaps most importantly, the movement has been able to make significant changes in the way the city bureaucracy carries out the technical requirements of laying water lines, sewers, roads, and infrastructure in more environmentally friendly ways.


All of this became possible because the quality-of-life advocates were able to build political power around the environmental movement. They won elections, and they found ways to work within the bureaucracies to change the rules. But in order to do that, they had to build a wide base of support in the population. That support came mostly as the people and the movement began to think and talk about Austin in ways that made the natural environment a central symbol of the city's quality of life. Because the symbolism of the environmental movement in Austin allowed people to attain political influence, and thus influence the shape of urban growth, it became for a time what Orum calls a "banner under which the struggle [for the administrative apparatus of the city] is carried out." The environment became the strongest symbolic component of Austin's quality of life, and that symbol allowed the quality-of-life advocates to organize an effective political base that won them a seat at the table of political power. Since it was under the banner of "the environment" that so much of this political base was organized, I call this symbolic definition the environmental meaning of Austin.


A History of a Meaning


The environmental meaning of Austin emerged over time through the political, legal, and bureaucratic arenas as the growth and environmental factions fought over rules, regulations, and preservation. It was incredibly contentious, so contentious that many people claimed Austin had a two-party system from 1980 on: developers and environmentalists. It was not exactly that simple—there were neighborhood and social activists involved at least as much in the early days, and they have continued to be integral to the efforts of the "environmentalists." Not all developers were against environmental protection, and there were always some fractures in the "developer" group. But by the mid-1980s, the phrase "environmentalists vs. developers" was pretty much how people saw the issues surrounding growth, and it symbolized the two sides of growth.


In the early years of growth, concerned citizens pushed for the creation of citizens' boards in the administration that would allow them to write environmental protections into the building codes of the city. Various groups also wrote a series of water-quality ordinances in an attempt to force the development process to take account of the natural environment. These were efforts to make the administrative machinery of city hall codify the importance of preserving the environment in the midst of growth.


But these efforts were only moderately successful. The Growth Machine—all the economic and bureaucratic elements that promote and shape growth—had little interest in preserving the environment. These elements of the Growth Machine acted upon a meaning of Austin as a place defined by growth and economic output, and they planned its built environment in ways that grow over the environment rather than into it. Citizens who wanted to build the city into the environment rather than over it were forced to turn to electoral politics to try to take control of city hall. The political campaigns over city council races, bond issues, and road placement became the most obvious and public fight over the meaning of Austin. The terms of debates in these political battles—the way people framed their arguments—were the main kind of public communications in that discourse of the city. In the political battles over bonds, city council seats, and parkland acquisition, the environment emerged as the defining symbolic component of quality of life in Austin. From these battles came the definition of the conflicting groups in Austin, solidified in the discourse of "environmentalists vs. developers" of the 1980s and 1990s. And from that discourse emerged the environmental meaning of Austin as a political banner and cultural symbol of the landscape.


This book tracks the emergence of the environmental meaning through a history of the landscape, people, and politics of Austin. The environmental meaning emerged through four time periods that roughly parallel the decades from the 1960s to today. The first chapter, "People, Land, and Place: The Theory Behind the Connections," introduces the theory and concepts I use from sociology and geography to examine how it did emerge.


The 1960s and 1970s shaped the environmental meaning primarily through landscaping projects and administrative policies. Chapter 2, "The Landscape Emerges," details the way a built environmental landscape emerged in reaction to growth. The third chapter, "Institutionalizing Environmental Concerns: City Government and City Policy," details the way quality-of-life advocates and environmentalists found a way to influence the bureaucracy of the city to make growth slightly less damaging to the environment, and increase participation of citizens in the planning process.


Chapter 4, "Of Neighborhoods and Environment: Contesting the Growth Machine," covers a period defined by the political battles over growth in the 1980s, which created the "environmentalists vs. developers" discourse of Austin's politics. During this period, "the environment" emerged as a defining aspect of Austin's quality of life. The political campaigns over growth in the 1980s furnished a set of words and symbols that defined Austin as a place based on its natural environment. It also solidified a social network of activists and residents who would begin to vote for policy based on this sense of place.


During the 1990s, those groups developed an organizational structure that allowed them to compete effectively with the Growth Machine for political power. The fifth chapter, "The Environmental Meaning as Banner: The Save Our Springs Coalition and the Green Machine," details how these elements came together to build a political coalition that found a way to utilize the environmental meaning of Austin as the banner under which they competed, relatively successfully, with other interest groups.


Chapter 6, "The Environmental City," brings us to the present. It provides a general overview of the physical and social landscapes that continue to shape the meaning of Austin today: a seat at the table of political power for the quality-of-life people, a series of energy and building codes called green energy and green building, a nonprofit group called Liveable City that includes businesspeople and environmentalists on its board of directors, a land-buying organization called the Hill Country Conservancy (also a mix of businesspeople and environmentalists), and the ongoing advocacy work of the Save Our Springs Alliance. The chapter ends with a description of how the people of that movement for place have changed the way Austin's city government works, which is one of the most important changes the movement has made. These are all the present-day outcomes of the battles over growth that began in the 1950s, and they continue to shape the landscape of modern Austin today. They are at once the outcomes of the environmental meaning and its modern incarnation.


The Environmental City Today


That meaning is no longer simply local. Building environmental cities is an effort taking shape across the United States today to address global warming. Because of its efforts to become a green city, Austin has become known nationally as a place based on the environmental meaning—it has become an Environmental City in the minds of people all over the country. Austin is seen as a city at the forefront of adopting building and energy strategies meant specifically to alleviate the problems of global warming.


One reason Austin politicians and city departments have generated their green-city programs is because the environmental movement in Austin has created a powerful political constituency, influencing who gets elected to the city council and mayor's offices. Anyone who runs for those offices must at least talk green, but more importantly, many of them really are green. It is no longer just "environmentalists" who propose environmentally friendly policy. Some of Austin's modern leaders are businesspeople who see the need to use city policy as a tool to address local and global environmental issues. Former mayor (now state senator) Kirk Watson was a lawyer and Chair of the Chamber of Commerce who served as mayor during the "Green Council" of the 1990s. He found a way to get businesspeople and environmentalists talking; pushed the "three-legged stool" of environment, economic growth, and equity as the key to Austin's future; and helped pass bonds that bought thousands of acres of land to protect the Edwards Aquifer from development. While they were on the council in 2006, Mayor Will Wynn, who had spent twenty years in commercial real estate, businessman Brewster McCracken, and former navy pilot Lee Leffingwell launched the Austin Climate Protection Plan, a set of city policies designed to meet the goal of making Austin carbon-neutral by 2020. Building a city and being green are no longer opposite actions; they can be put together through a new way of looking at growth that is taking shape at the national level as well as in Austin.


Another reason for the city's innovative programs is that Austin's environmental movement produced people who know how to work the bureaucracy to create environmentally friendly policy. Some of those people were early advocates of environmental ideas and got their start in the city politics of the 1970s. They are people like Roger Duncan, who was active on the anti-nuke side of two major elections in the city in the 1970s (described in chapter 2) and then served as a city council member in the 1980s (chapter 3). Duncan has used his position in the city's public utility to create several nationally known green-energy programs for the city, and has been a leading actor in creating Austin's Green Building Program.


Austin also serves as a laboratory for ways that cities can protect and restore their natural environments. Finding ways to keep land free of development is crucial. The voters of Austin have passed several bond issues to buy land. Local officials have worked with federal agencies to preserve even more land. The city has begun a program to restore some of these lands to natural vegetation that was destroyed through ranching and agricultural practices of the past. Local land trusts are working hard to set aside even more, through conservation easements that keep land development-free. In addition to building the physical component of Austin's environmental meaning, this effort is an example of ways cities can build in more environmentally friendly ways.


More than just land acquisition is involved, though; there are some real gems in Austin that few know about. The City's Hornsby Bend water-treatment facility, for example, is more than just a waste facility. It is a multipurpose facility that recycles the city's wastewater (the stuff that goes down the toilet) through natural biotic processes. These biosolids are mixed with yard trimmings, grass, and leaves picked up curbside from homeowners every week, and composted to create Dillo Dirt. Dillo Dirt is sold as compost to consumers in Austin at gardening stores. The ponds at Hornsby Bend attract migrating birds by serving as habitat for so many different varieties that birders nationwide know of the site.


These government entities and programs are outcomes of the landscape and movement that produced the environmental meaning of Austin, but of course the story doesn't really end here. It goes on into the future. The environmental meaning will have an influence on the way Austin looks as it grows even larger. The ongoing change from city to metropolis is an even bigger change than from town to big city, and the challenges to the environmental meaning of Austin are enormously greater today because of it. The next decades will present an even bigger challenge than the growth boom of the 1980s and 1990s. The change from city to metropolis doesn't just herald a change in size; it heralds a change in structure of the area that will have major consequences for the environmental meaning of Austin. Whether that meaning, and the physical and social landscape that created that meaning, continue into the future is a question that is being answered as you read this book. And it is pertinent to other cities as human populations continue to grow and concentrate in urban areas.


Biography and History: How This Book Came to Be Written


I would like to add a word about my own role in this history so that readers might understand the way I wrote it, and why I wrote it. I grew up in Austin when it had a relatively small-town atmosphere. What I thought of as Austin, as a young person in the 1960s and 1970s, was essentially bounded by US Highway 183 to the north, Airport Boulevard to the east, Lake Austin Boulevard to the west, and Ben White Boulevard to the south. These features formed a kind of box that defined the city (see map 2.3). A big part of my perspective of Austin came from living in the central part of this area, and growing up in Austin gave me a perspective on the city's environmental history that is somewhat unique. When I was growing up, we kids rode our bikes to Lake Austin and swam in it. We walked Barton Creek, swam in it, made out with girls in it. We drove insanely fast along the narrow two-lane roads and highways through the Hill Country (and some of us died on them) in order to go "out to the lake" (Lake Travis), where we would spend the day or night swimming, waterskiing, and having fun. And we hung out at Barton Springs, a spring-fed pool where Barton Creek flows into Town Lake. For us it was the perfect place where our social and physical worlds intersected. Our friends were there, the girls were there, and the water was there.


It wasn't just the physical environment that did so much to define our lives growing up in that town that was Austin. It was the music, the more liberal culture, the laid-back feel of the place. I grew up watching Willie Nelson play and sing at events; we learned what marijuana smelled like by walking past the performers' tents, and snickered at our mothers' comments about "that smoke." I sat on the side of the stage at free outdoor concerts where Stevie Ray Vaughan taught us about blues music, listened to local bands play the Armadillo World Headquarters the week it finally closed for good. We all went to Aqua Fest every year, a summer festival featuring motorboat races on the lakes, various parties, and ethnic nights—Czech night, Spanish night, German night, etc.—with appropriate foods and music. We lived in a diverse city, and the arts and entertainment reflected it then, as now.


Austin is a liberal city, one of the few places in Texas that is liberal, and that was due in large part to the University of Texas. There was (and is) a kind of trickle-down phenomenon in education as the larger intellectual environment fostered by a major university shows up in the education of school-age kids. Many UT graduates stayed to teach school here, and because of them we learned things in high school that many others never did, questioned some things that others would not have. I probably became a sociologist because the unbelievably good teachers at Austin High School were Kennedy liberals who thought the government was supposed to do things to help the majority of people rather than just the rich, or the already powerful, and they instilled those ideals in us.


All of which is to say that I grew up living and experiencing those things that were so important to the creation of that movement for place that was then gaining steam. I was too young to explain it or define it, of course, and even the adults in the process of creating that movement were still groping for the words and phrases that would define it (the phrase "quality of life" ended up being the main one). But growing up in such a place and time was an experience I tapped later, when I began to write this history. What I call the environmental meaning of Austin was forming in me as well as in others.


Leaving Austin reinforced that meaning in my head: I left Austin to go to Texas A&M University in College Station in 1980, just as things were really heating up politically at home. The socially conservative, physically flat landscape of the A&M area reinforced my sense of Austin as a place by illustrating graphically what Austin has that other areas do not: hills, creeks, lakes, and the culture of the town. I came back to Austin in 1985, got my teaching certificate, and left again in 1988 to teach in El Paso. That change was more startling than moving to A&M; I nearly went insane looking for a body of water to swim in or a tree to climb. At least there were mountains to climb out there (which kept me from suicide or murder), but again the stark contrast between the social and physical elements of Austin and not-Austin reinforced my mental image of Austin. So I ran back to Austin in 1989 to enter graduate school, having missed out on all the major action of the 1980s.


The change from laid-back town to big city was drastic. The core city was still there, but many friends had moved out of it into the northern or southern suburban areas. The "Y" at Oak Hill, where two highways diverge, had been country when I left. One drove through pastureland to get to it. When I returned, it had become part of Austin, developed all the way to the small town of Bee Cave, which was itself rapidly becoming a mere dot in the suburban sprawl still moving west today. Suburban North Austin now looks exactly like any place in Dallas or Houston. Housing and strip malls had appeared on many of the spots we had walked or swum as kids, and buildings were covering the hills that had been green only a few years before. Austin was looking different, and it felt different.


In 1991, the furor over the Barton Creek PUD (a proposed development) blew up, and along with many others I went down to the city council chambers to register my disgust with "developers," their projects that were ruining the place where I grew up, and the power of money and influence to roll over public opinion. When the SOS (Save Our Springs) Coalition ran its petition drive, I was, as Brigid Shea would later put it, "one of those hundreds of people who wandered in and said, 'What can I do?'" And I spent the next decade as a minor foot soldier in Austin's environmental movement, passing out flyers and working phone banks and elections and such. Volunteering on so many campaigns gave me some insight into the times and the people and the movement, and I got to know many of the people personally. Some of the details in this book come from that experience, but more importantly the overall theme: The environmental movement is an outcome of a deeper movement for place. The environmental movement served as a symbol of that deeper movement for a time in the 1990s, but the movement for a sense of place has been around longer than the "environmental movement" of the late 1980s and 1990s. All of us who worked in this movement in various capacities heard the way it was put, heard the leaders and the volunteers and the general public talk about it. The environment was part of Austin, one of the things that gave the place its feel. That deeper movement for place still exists today, even though the "environmentalists" and the environmental meaning are no longer the only ones driving it.


My participation in the movement also helped define my academic interests, and my academic training helped define my understanding of the movement, its people, and my own role in it. If my childhood shaped my emotional and psychological ideas about this place we call Austin, my academic background and occupation shaped my intellectual curiosity about it. In urban sociology I found a literature that synthesized my interest in social inequalities with my concern over the changes in Austin. In the urban literature I found the idea that cities are the built forms of unequal social structures, especially the political economy of capitalism. It was in this literature that I found a way to understand the changes in Austin in terms of larger social structures. In the writings of Anthony Orum and Mark Gottdiener, I found ways of thinking about cultural events such as SOS in the wider political economy. Sharon Zukin's works on lofts and the landscapes of power brought together the concepts of political economy with the concepts of landscapes. It was in their writings that I was first introduced to the idea that cities have meanings, that they are meaningful constructs to the people who live in them, and that these constructs matter to residents.


My experiences of Austin from my childhood, my participation in the environmental movement, my academic training; they all interact up there in my head, bouncing off each other, trying to understand it all in various ways. Sociology helps explain the power and economic relations that cause social movements. The social geographers who talk about images of the city and the discourse of the city help explain how the physical and the social and the ideal go together. Frame analysis from sociology helps us understand the way ideas are communicated between social groups. When you put all three of these together, you get a pretty good idea of how the environmental meaning of Austin emerged, and how it shaped the way Austin looks today. The reason I use the concepts of landscapes and frames and discourse is because they help explain what I and so many others have experienced. In my intellectual interests I wanted to apply those concepts, and from my experience in Austin, I saw what I considered to be a natural laboratory to explore them. I wanted to see how a particular group's meaning of a particular city could affect the creation of urban space in that particular city, and these concepts help me do that. I hope they will help others do the same as they consider Austin or their own city spaces.




So this book is my way of understanding what has happened in the past that has led to the present in Austin, Texas. It is a history of one set of Austinites who thought about their city in a particular way. It is not the history of the movement; it is a history, but I think it hits the main events and groups that have created the city of Austin today. And it is my attempt to do two things at once: tell a history and analyze the causes and effects of that history.


I offer this history to other Austinites, especially newer Austinites, as a primer on how our city came to look as it does; the people who shaped it and the battles they fought. I offer the book to sociologists as a case study of the ways people, place, and politics come together to shape urban space. The case study of Austin is one part of the larger effort to understand how particular forms of urban space are created in particular cities. I offer to readers in general this brief glimpse of modern Austin as a story that explains why you think of Austin as the Environmental City. Austin is known nationwide by its environmental meaning. It is thought of by many as a cool, laid-back place with a pretty environment. That idea of Austin exists in the national consciousness because of the people who built the Environmental City. This book will introduce you to them and show you how they have done it.



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This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca