The End of Austin

an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas

Interview: Imagine Austin

Approved by the city council in summer 2012, “Imagine Austin” is a 30-year plan based on 18,500+ ideas and contributions from Austinites. According to the plan’s authors, “Imagine Austin” provides “a vision for how the city can grow in a compact and connected way'” that addresses “quality of life issues beyond land use, like investing in our creative economy and advancing healthy, affordable living.” TEOA asked the “Imagine Austin” team to tell us more about their planning document and what it means for the future of the city.

imagine austin logo

How did the plan come about?

The Planning Commission advocated updating the 1979 Austin Tomorrow comprehensive plan, and when Marc Ott was hired in 2008 as our City Manager, he recognized the need for a citywide comprehensive plan and championed the launch of Imagine Austin.

Can you summarize the vision that is articulated in the plan for those who haven’t read it yet?

The vision has seven themes and here is the preamble:

A Vision for Austin’s Future. As it approaches its 200th anniversary, Austin is a beacon of sustainability, social equity, and economic opportunity; where diversity and creativity are celebrated; where community needs and values are recognized; where leadership comes from its citizens, and where the necessities of life are affordable and accessible to all.

Austin’s greatest asset is its people: passionate about our city, committed to its improvement, and determined to see this vision become a reality.

What is its current status (in terms of reception by the public; implementation by the city; etc.)?

Imagine Austin was endorsed by a diverse citizens advisory task force 21-3, recommended unanimously by Planning Commission 7-0, and adopted unanimously by City Council 7-0 last June.

Our consultants helped identify different levels of implementing comprehensive plans and we are actively working on all of them.

Foundation: Community Engagement
Meaningful involvement of citizens and stakeholders in plan development.

Level 1: Regulations
Revise development codes, ordinances, and incentives to support plan implementation.

Level 2: Capital Investment
Use plan to set capital investment priorities and secure funding sources for implementation.

Level 3: Organizational Alignment
Use plan to guide and integrate work programs and decision-making by administration and departments.

Level 4: Partnerships
Leverage partnerships and resources for implementation.

The City of Austin is currently organizing its operations, core services, decisions, and investments around Imagine Austin. We are also working with community partners to achieve the collective vision laid out in our 30-year comprehensive plan.

Transforming vision into reality will require incremental steps over time. Eight priority programs provide the structure and direction to implement the plan. These programs build on some existing initiatives and are guided by community input provided during the process to create Imagine Austin: priority programs

There are still a lot of people in the community interested in learning about the plan and wanting to help implement it: ways to get involved

Why is it important for cities to have this sort of planning document?

The distinctive benefit of a comprehensive plan is that it confronts big issues in a big-picture way. Other City of Austin plans are more focused and deal with topics such as parks, solid waste, transportation, water, or smaller geographic areas. But only a comprehensive plan fully considers how the whole community’s values, needs, people, and places are interrelated and interdependent. In creating this plan, we identified the defining issues that are central to Austin’s future success.

Is it particularly important for Austin to have this sort of planning document at this point in time? (Are we at a fork in the road in terms of development, for instance?)

Yes, as a fast-growing city whose population is projected to nearly double over the next three decades, we are becoming more urban and diverse each year. Our attractiveness brings a central challenge: how to accommodate more people, in a considered and sustainable fashion, while preserving what we value so that we get better not just bigger.

Many of the changes Austin has seen are positive. Growth in recent decades has brought more employers and varied job opportunities; more interesting people with whom to meet and connect; a broader population base to support the visual, performing, media, and interactive arts, as well as our many nonprofits; a revitalized downtown; new transportation options; and greater tolerance and diversity. We have gained public parkland, a wealth of entertainment and dining choices, and many other amenities to enjoy with family and friends.

But other changes are negative. We now suffer from serious traffic congestion, loss of natural and open space to urban sprawl, Central Austin housing that is increasingly unaffordable for individuals and families, a sense of loss about a simpler Austin of the past, and too many low-wage jobs that lag behind Austin’s cost of living. Most troubling, at least 20 percent of our children live in poverty, go to bed hungry, go without health insurance and adequate healthcare, and fail to graduate from high school.

The challenge now before us—in shaping the Austin of the 21st century—is to energetically leverage our strengths as we grow, while turning around the negatives. The Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan provides the roadmap. The stakes are high. We must embrace the future that we want and work to make it happen.

What are the greatest challenges that our city faces? What are our greatest assets?

Austin’s greatest asset is its people: passionate about our city, committed to its improvement, and determined to see this vision become a reality. Page 4 describes six key challenges and opportunities: Preserving Our Livability, Expanding Transportation Choices, Tackling the Ethnic Divide, Protecting Our Natural Resources, Promoting Prosperity for All, and Collaborating Regionally.

The Austin Spirit

There’s a spirit that animates Austin’s people and special places.

Something both laid back and passionate, built on unlikely pairings, like the State Capitol and the University of Texas, blocks away but worlds apart. Sometimes these happen in brief, beautiful moments, like the coming together of college students and cowboys at Threadgill’s Tavern and later at the Armadillo World Headquarters. Sometimes it’s a generations-long courtship, the way Austin’s most substantial pro-development effort, rural electrification of the 1930s and 1940s, later led to the creation of one of Austin’s defining and beloved environmental features, the Highland Lakes, and then to the country’s premiere efforts in green energy and green building. Even the land brings together the Hill Country to the west and the Blackland Prairie to the east.

While no City program is ever going to be responsible for this spirit, nurturing it in whatever forms it takes in the future is as important to Austin’s success as anything else in this plan.

Learn more about Imagine Austin here.

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