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Population Growth and Environmental Stewardship: Battle or Balance?

April 28, 2015

Protection of our natural resources through regulations that are supported by Austin’s community values is a signature of Austin’s brand and appeal as a leading city to work, live and play.

But regulations have not slowed Austin’s population growth, and a lot of that growth has moved to the region’s outer limits instead of the urban core. Not only is this trend outward exacerbating our traffic issues, but it’s negatively impacting our air quality and further depleting our already scarce water resources.

One reason for the shift to the suburbs is because developers want to avoid the often stifling development process in Austin (see the Zucker Report). Instead, they’re heading where regulations aren’t as onerous – places like Kyle, Buda, Bastrop, Dripping Springs, Cedar Park, Georgetown and beyond.

Unarguably, some regulations work to protect what makes Austin beautiful and healthy for both its citizens and our natural environment; a balance which we should all continue to support and maintain.

But when did the goal of balance become a battle?

We have to be careful not to use “protecting the environment” as a weapon to cripple inevitable growth and push it “down the road” and out of the city’s core where many people want to live, but can’t afford it. Our neighbors have already experienced the fruits of that process.

Instead, we should harness the energies of Austin’s best and brightest to work with our city leaders to manage continued growth and make our city even more sustainable. The quality of the professionals in the development industry is a resource we are lucky to have.

We have to change the culture and attitude of the regulatory process from a defensive stance to a team effort. We need to tackle the uncertainty and pitfalls in the land use and development process. Currently, it’s a quagmire of overlapping and contradicting layers – layers that don’t necessarily protect the environment and make navigating through the permit process more costly. 

Let us never forget – if we have a roof over our heads and a sidewalk under our feet, it was likely built by a developer.  So these very real cost increases affect us all, often excluding some of our citizens from a life within our city limits.

Let’s continue to strive for complete, compact and connected neighborhoods that don’t just exist downtown. We have to assist neighborhoods on the “outskirts” to densify too so that these “activity nodes” have the opportunity to benefit from mass transit systems, bicycling and walking to live work and play. This is the vision of the city’s own adopted comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin.

Changing our culture of growth to more sensible solutions like densifying nodes can help us retain citizens within our city limits, reduce our water and energy needs and our carbon footprint and improve the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Sadly, rather than recognizing growth as an opportunity for advocates to join their energies and spur innovative solutions, too often we see environmental champions line up alongside NIMBY neighbors to “push back against growth.” By pretending we can return Austin to the good-‘ole-days of cheap housing and free-flowing traffic, we are actually contributing to making our problems much, much worse. It’s time to give up this outdated battle and begin a new era of balance.

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