My home town of Austin, Tex. is, like many cities, experiencing rapid growth and all of the challenges that go along with adding hundreds of thousands of people to a region in the span of several years. Traffic, congestion, gentrification, etc. A lot of this growth and expansion is happening in the downtown core, which is an overall benefit to the city. However, downtown Austin was planned and designed in 1839 when the population was much smaller, and growth in the years to come was influenced by the automobile. Times have changed.
Modern city design calls for less emphasis on the car, and more on walking, cycling, use of green spaces, and safety. The car-centric model isn’t cutting it any more. But modernizing the urban core takes a lot of time, money, and political will – an annular eclipse of public policy.
To help share the City’s view of modern streets, and to get Austinites out of their cars and out and about, the City's Office of Sustainability put together the Viva Streets Festival. Two miles of historic Sixth Street were closed to vehicular traffic, crossing under I-35 (a physical socio-economic barrier that divides east and west Austin). Our temporary version of the new Times Square in New York City, I suppose. Or our version of The Wall from Game of Thrones.
Anyway. I grabbed my family and drove down there (I know..see!?). It had been years since my parents had been on Sixth Street. The portion west of I-35 is populated with bars and clubs, while the eastern portion was a great place to buy drugs and get murdered. That still happens, but less frequently now.
It was refreshing to be out and about, walking and dropping in on stores and vendors just to see what’s up. We spotted a Lady Gaga look-alike, and noted several restaurants to check out. All without fear of walking into oncoming traffic (there were a few close calls with bikes, but that’s another issue). Thankfully, I didn’t spot any Uni-Cubs. Changing a city is hard, and there is gentrification and all that happening in Austin, but the idea that downtown doesn’t have to be a place for taxi cabs and buses and black lung is promising.
I caught up with Justin Golbabai, a Senior Planner with the City of Austin, who was working a booth in the shade. He shared a bit of the City’s vision for downtown Austin: fewer car lanes to slow traffic and provide more sidewalk space and bike lanes, with trees providing shade for pedestrians and buildings. He had a mockup of all this made with spray chalk and several potted trees out into the street. This vision is wrapped up in the Imagine Austin plan, a comprehensive plan for how Austin should grow in the next thirty years. Based on the little taste of the future we had on Sunday, I hope it’s a little less imagination, and more tangible.
I shot some video from the fest to share with y’all, so check it out below.