The End of Austin

an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas

Interview with Geographer Eliot Tretter


What inspired you to write Shadows of a Sunbelt City? 

Two factors inspired me to write Shadows of a Sunbelt City. One was the very practical matter of needing to find a viable research agenda and publish relevant academic material. I wanted to do this, in part, so I could secure a more permanent academic position at a university. From 2005 to 2013 I held non-tenured appointments at UT Austin and Texas A&M in College Station. In this more tenuous position, I was unable to access substantial research funds that would have helped me revise my doctorate on Glasgow, Scotland, into a full-length book. In order to keep engaging in academic labor and to get a better job, I needed a new long-term research project. After doing some research on Austin, I was struck by how the problems, perils, and promises of Austin’s efforts to create a more sustainable city were related to larger academic debates about urban sustainability. While my first publications about Austin did engage my activist concern for social and ecological problems, Austin primarily provided a low-cost research environment for me to write relevant publications for academic audiences. A second reason for writing the book, however, soon became more apparent as I began to do more research. I realized that the standard account of what made Austin grow, something that I heard over and over again when reading doing interviews in Austin, was inconsistent with large parts of the historical record. I note a couple of problems in the book, but the most glaring issue was how these accounts completely overlooked the role of the University of Texas as a land-developer and the significant impact this role had on the city’s urban and regional development. I should also say that I became increasingly interested in seeing whether it was possible for me to give an account of Austin’s development, and the transformations of its urban form, in the terms of a school of thought in economic and urban geography that I had been trained to think with. The framing of the book’s theoretical section around rent-seeking and seeing the transformation of the urban environment as an environmental problem stems from the ways that recent critical geographers approach these issues. There will certainly be critics, but I think that on the latter two points the book, in my mind at least, is certainly a success.

 What worries you about Austin right now?

There is a lot to worry about in Texas, especially urban Texas, at the moment. I think the impact of global climate change on cities in Texas will be much more significant and negative than is anticipated by many people. In particular, I think there are a lot of false assumptions about the equilibrium qualities of ecological systems and the robustness of the ecology to withstand small but collectively significant changes. I think that the many small changes taking place in the ecological system could make the largely urbanized populations in Eastern Texas very vulnerable to a host of grave ecological crises. I think too that the widening wealth gap in Texas is cause for alarm. Large numbers of people in Texas’ urbanized areas live in terribly precarious conditions, and urban uprisings as a result of social polarization have not been as uncommon as one might expect in Texas’ history. But what most worries me in Austin is the belief that good planning and more building are enough to make Austin a more sustainable city. My good friend Rich Heyman, who sits on the CodeNEXT Advisory Group, recently noted that people are hoping that reforming the city’s land development code will solve all kinds of city problems, e.g., housing affordability, inadequate transportation infrastructure, unsustainable suburban growth, the need for better ecological protections, etc. But, he noted that “most of what people hope to see in those areas requires work outside of the code itself.” What Heyman is referring to is that it will require much more than simple technical solutions to the development code to solve the host of ecological and social challenges that confront the city. There are no simple fixes to a large number of the city’s most pressing problems nor are there cost-free solutions. In large measure these issues are political problems, in that they are created by human institutions (whether we are thinking about the market or the state), and they will require human solutions and particularly a strong political will. I worry that people will become so frustrated that they will give up on trying to implement difficult and creative socially and ecologically sensitive solutions to problems in favor of what is most expedient.

What has the impact of UT been on the city? 

A couple of years ago Blake Gumprecht published a book called The American College Town. It’s basically an attempt to classify and characterize different kinds of towns in the US whose growth and social and cultural life are deeply connected to a university, a college, or a collection of universities and colleges. For some reasons that  Gumprecht provides he decided Austin did not fit the mold of an American college town and he did not include it in his survey. To say the least, I found his exclusion of Austin to be very odd, as Austin is a city whose reputation, form of life, and urban fortune has been shaped in a vast number of ways by the domineering presence of the University of Texas.  So, to answer the question succinctly, its impact has been enormous. In fact, I do not think it is really possible to capture the extent of the university’s influence on Austin’s cultural or social life. All of the best manuscripts about the city, from Douglass Rossinow’s The Politics of Authenticity to Barry Shank’s Dissonant Identities to Anthony Orum’s Power, Money, and the People, point to the unique role of UT in their stories, whether their books are about the rise of the New Left on the “Thirdcoast,” the evolution of contemporary popular music, or the urban development of Austin. I am deeply indebted to all of these books, and many more, for the attention they give to UT. For me a main part of Austin’s uniqueness involves UT’s role as a land developer and intellectual property holder and the relationship of its endowment and the state government in propelling Austin’s regional growth.

 Your book suggests that business interests have a tremendous influence on the city, something that is often misunderstood or overlooked. How does that influence work? And why don’t most Austinites understand this basic fact of their city?

I should say that I think Austinites, or at least a certain group of them, are consumed, even obsessed, by a concern for local politics. If one were to read the three major news outlets, the Austin Monitor, Austin Chronicle, and Austin American-Statesman, one would have the sense, based on the coverage, that the workings of local government, especially the City Council, are very significant to many people. A strong subset of this very politically engaged group are members of the mainstream environmental community and neighborhood association activists and these people are very aware of the influence that the business community has on the local political agenda, particularly as it pertains to the expansion of roads and suburbanization and new infill developments. In this regard, all these people tend to see local politics as a matter of the local government and the various interest groups that seek to influence their representatives on the City Council. Some of these groups, especially some neighborhood associations, are very deft at getting parts of their agenda served, so it looks as if the ability to persuade the City Council is a real measure of a group’s power. I do not want to suggest groups other than the business community are not influential, they certainly are, but I do not want to limit an understanding of how influence in a city operates to the workings of the local government.

 Certainly, the ability to control what kinds of priorities are fulfilled by the “peoples’ representatives” in City Hall is significant. In this regard, issues like the extent of campaign financing and voter mobilization are very important because they can influence who has the electoral power. Looked at from this vantage point, the power to influence how the city develops comes from the local government. But what if I suggested that power is much more diffused into private institutions and that not all private institutions have the same capacity to influence the direction of the city’s priorities? In many respects the business community’s principal organizations have a lot more resources to persist much longer than other communities, a relatively low existential threat, and the capacity to mobilize a relatively uniform agenda over a large geographical space.  Furthermore, institutional rules make it easier for the business community to prevent policy proposals from being put on the table or stopping the implementation of democratically arrived at decisions by other means; these formal arrangements are also very important to local governance.

 Let us put aside the question of how issues or policy proposals even come to the table, i.e., what is taken as the acceptable courses of action, and focus solely on how some issues are taken off the table. For example, in the last 30 years, the business community has appealed to the Texas State Legislature to overturn Austin’s ordinances many times. One could also note the many items that have passed the City Council only to die in citywide referendums. Why do these items fail to garner the electorate’s support even if they are agreed to by the majority of the electorate’s representatives on the City Council? For sure some of these items were unsuccessful because a group failed to mobilize popular support (even if they had the support of large swaths of the business community). But if we look back over the last 30 years, we will see that there are very few successful referendums that did not have the full support of the business community. There are so few, in fact, that it would be hard not to assume that an item needs the business community’s support for electoral success. In fact, the few successful referendums opposed by the business community pop out as dramatic instances in the city’s history. This, I think, is why the success of the referendum for the Save Our Springs ordinance is so very telling about this situation — it is really the exception that proves the rule. I am not suggesting the business community always gets its way, nor are there secret conspiracies that shape the agenda of the local government, but to really understand how major issues in the city’s history were resolved, one needs to appreciate how the business community’s positions help set the boundaries and limitations of the city’s democratic institutions.

 Austin likes to think of itself as unique (“the live music capital of the world,” home of the “weird”), but is it just another sunbelt city in most ways? 

I do not think we can call any city ”just another Sunbelt City” because every city has different characteristics that make it unique and Austin certainly has distinctive cultural and social currents and a particular physical geography. But I think that people might be surprised how much one can learn about Austin, especially the features of its urban governance, by looking regionally to other Sunbelt cities, and especially other cities in Texas, but also to cities in California. I learned a lot from reading about and comparing Austin to other studies of the political economy of cities in the western and southern United States such as Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, Robert Self’s American Babylon, Clarence Stone’s Regime Politics, Joe Feagin’s Free Enterprise City, and Stephen Elkin’s City and Regime in the American Republic. These books, in addition to many others, helped me to think about issues that I raised in my book like how institutional racism shapes urban growth, the limits of mainstream environmentalism as a force for radical progressive change, the politics of neighborhood associations, and the role of non-local forms of government. Let’s take Elkin’s book, a book that is primarily concerned with Elkin’s frustration and preoccupation with how undemocratic urban governance is in Dallas. Elkin’s study continues to stand out to me because of his focus on the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, and particularly the Dallas Citizen’s Council, and his concern with how private-public organizations come together in Texas to shape democratic possibilities in local governance. So, yes, people might be surprised that many of the features found in Austin can be found in cities throughout the Sunbelt, such as its strong boosterist ethic (sometimes this has taken forms of self-promotion that have swerved into outright deception); the importance of state laws for imposing significant limits on local government decisions, which is often related to constraining popular control over the local development process; and the strong developmentalist agenda that is supported by close formal and informal institutional collaborations between the local government and the business community, particularly the Chamber of Commerce.

 What does Austin need to do differently?

One could answer this question in at least two ways, in terms of either policy or theoretical prescriptions. In terms of policy, I think Austin needs to improve its public infrastructure. It is really amazing  for such a large city that it is nearly impossible to get from one place to another in a reasonable amount of time without the use of a single-occupancy vehicle. There is a lot working against implementing a host of important changes in the city, such as a very unfriendly state legislature and electorate. Moreover, the impact of the city’s mass transit efforts may be too limited and selective to make a substantial difference regionally. But there are also some things to be hopeful about. Significant parts of the business community now see the need for a comprehensive and integrated mass transit system, at least to be able to move people to and from some of the outer suburban rings and within some of the central areas. Furthermore, there is a lot of precedent in Texas for enpowering local authorities to intervene to create better and more comprehensive transit systems in ways than just building more roads. I think there is more room to deliver progressively on this issue than, say, on the problem of housing affordability, despite my belief that it is more important for the city to create a more comprehensive network of public or permanently subsidized rental housing opportunities throughout the city. Theoretically, I see this question as strongly related to your previous one. Austinites, I believe, need to think less about what makes the city unique because doing so can block out what can be learned from other cities and places. I do not mean to say that Austin could just adopt wholesale the “best practices” of other cities, like Bogota’s TransMilenio or New York’s PlaNYC. I mean that Austinites should engage in a critical self-reflective process and try to understand their city’s opportunities and challenges better by looking at the successes and failures of projects from other cities as they attempt to transform Austin’s urban form.

Eliot Tretter is Assistant Professor of Geography and Undergraduate Advisor of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Calgary. Before coming to UofC, he was a Lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on the political economy of urban development, especially in the emerging fields of critical sustainability and knowledge studies. He received his PhD in Geography from Johns Hopkins University. His academic work has appeared in the Journal of the Urban Affairs, the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Antipode, Geopolitics, The Professional Geographer, Urban Studies, and Environment, Space, and Place. He is the author of Austin Restricted: Progressivism, Zoning, Private Racial Covenants, and the Making of a Racially Segregated City and Shadows of a Sunbelt City: the Environment Racism, and the Knowledge Economy (University of Georgia Press). An excerpt of this book is part of the summer 2016 issue of The End of Austin.

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