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Part of the Grand Rounds in Minneapolis, MN

I’ll try to tread carefully here because Austinites, like Minneapolitans, love their city and will eagerly defend it. Nonetheless, there are some critical things that need saying because blind devotion and unchecked authority are not hallmarks of Unserville. So, in advance I ask for forgiveness from Austinites. And mercy.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the drought we’re in today, Austin is located in what is known as “Flash flood Alley.” Devastation from floodwaters have plagued this city for years. It’s a tough, if not impossible, thing to fight, and what makes matters even worse is that all past and present planning in Austin is cursed by a tragically flawed understanding of how the natural environment, specifically waterways, can and should be incorporated in an urban setting.

A cyclist struggles to get to a trail along Shoal Creek in Austin

Shoal Creek has a narrow, shared-use trail along one side of its banks; Waller creek has on several points in time seen unsuccessful efforts involving a lot of concrete and steps, to create a footpath along its shores; and Lady Bird Lake (part of the Colorado River) has gravel trails along its shores; but not one of those trails is a loop, and none of those paths connect to one another. Along West Bouldin Creek structures were allowed to be built so close to the creek that the creek itself is now considered privately owned by a string of landowners, making it inaccessible to the public and virtually impossible for the city to provide trails along the shore. Along Boggy creek buildings were allowed to be built within its floodplain so, to prevent flooding, the creek beds were paved with concrete. The result here being that when rain does actually fall, an enormous volume of it is washed past land that used to benefit from the water and nutrients that used to seep into the soil from those creeks.

Waller Creek near downtown Austin

 

In Minneapolis, they understood the importance of connectivity. The paths around the lakes and creeks form what they call the Grand Rounds is comprised of “[a] dozen lakes and ponds, four golf courses, two waterfalls, natural and planned gardens, creek and river views, and 50.1 miles of hiking, biking, skiing and driving paths.” Folks like Theodore Wirth and Horace Ceveland had a vision for Minneapolis that extended far into the future and they understood that if Minneapolis was going to be a truly great city, care and respect of the natural environment was essential.

Minnehaha Creek in Minneapolis

 

In 1969, The University of Texas at Austin, destroyed part of Waller Creek to expand part of the football stadium, despite the fact that the School of Architecture provided them with an alternative to that destruction and despite the Waller Creek Riot in which students chained themselves to 30 oak trees trying to prevent them from being bulldozed. Today many students don’t even realize there is a creek that runs through campus because it is so neglected (volunteer groups regularly meet to clear the trash that accumulates in the creek). So, here you have a university that is blessed to have a creek running through its campus, and rather than highlight this extraordinary feature, it is seen as a nuisance that must be buried.

In addition to this poor understanding of how natural features should be used in an urban setting, there’s another problem. See, here in Texas, when you tell a man what he can and can’t do with his land and water, you better be smiling, and you better come with some back-up. They’ve got a different idea on how that sort of thing works, which, you know, is colorful and everything, but by not taking control of a situation like establishing the connectivity and controlling waterways within a city, you are forever at the mercy of individual disparate interests that are effected by these overarching systems. In other words, by establishing things like natural resources as a public good and understanding the ramifications of not protecting those resources, you have a unified interest and a clear directive. By not establishing those things, you have dysfunction and poor design.

More to come on this in the next post.


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