Balancing Growth and Equity in Metro Austin

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  • November 21, 2013

By Barbara Ray

Austin, like other metro areas in the Southwest, has experienced rapid growth over the last decade.  That growth has brought many opportunities with it, but rapid growth also comes with its own set of challenges.

As the “Imagine Austin: Comprehensive Plan” puts it:

“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.”

Indeed.  But to get better not just bigger means asking some pointed questions. How does a fast-growing region keep housing affordable for everyone?  How does it avoid sprawl and the commuter nightmares that come with it?  How do localities ensure that everyone has access to the areas where new jobs are locating?

And, when poverty spreads to the suburbs — as it has in the Austin region, which ranked first among large metro areas for percentage change in the number of poor residents between 2000 and 2012 (162 percent) — how do suburbs build their capacity to support these families and ensure they are connected to the types of services, education, and job opportunities that can help them reach a more stable economic footing?

Those were some of the questions posed at the Community Advancement Network conference in Austin on November 3.  The conference brought together a range of experts, including Elizabeth Kneebone, to discuss strategies and policies to help Austin and its metro region balance growth and equity.

Transit often leads an agenda in cities like Austin with considerable sprawl. Advocates of transit-oriented development (TOD), a frequent proposal, hope that creating walkable neighborhoods close to public transit centers will help the environment, lower traffic congestion, and make it easier for families, including suburban families, to get to work and to connect with critical work and safety net supports.

Creating an accessible network of social supports is particularly important as the suburbs diversify with more low-income and immigrant families who need job supports, health care, child care, and other services. Panelists at the November 3 conference noted the difficulties organizations have in expanding such services further out into Travis County, particularly into the unincorporated Travis County where need has grown faster than the capacity to support it.

Currently, only about one-half of residents in Austin’s low-income suburban neighborhoods have access to reliable transit, for example.  One-half might sound promising, but it’s one thing to have access to a bus or train and another thing to get easily from that transit to work. In fact, only 12 percent of residents living in Austin’s low-income suburban neighborhoods can get to work within 90 minutes using transit.  And increasingly, this daily commute is a suburban commute. The share of area jobs located in the suburbs of Austin has increased from 29 percent in 2000 to 37 percent in 2010.

TOD can help.  However, without smart planning and inclusive alliances, TOD can also have unintended consequences.  Without a focus on equity, TOD can spur gentrification and divert limited funds to trains instead of the bus lines that many low-income workers rely on.  In “Bringing Equity to Transit-Oriented Development:  Strategies, Systems, and Regional Resilience,” Rolf Pendall and colleagues find that having multiple jurisdictions, community members, and power brokers at the table is the key to success.  While it is never easy, developing a regional view of transit’s role in the area’s prosperity can move the projects along with equity for all still a centerpiece.

These changes and the diversifying suburbs in Austin call for new approaches and partnerships, with different voices and constituencies at the table. The Community Action Network has been especially adept at forging these partnerships. As a neutral convener, CAN has convened a diverse group of people to plan for the future. Our own Policy Recommendations page has other suggestions as well.

Both the “Imagine Austin” and the “Opportunity Austin” plan—the latter a regional economic development plan spearheaded by the Chamber of Commerce— gives a nod to this need to think as a whole and join forces in working toward a united goal of inclusive growth.

In their book Just Growth, Chris Benner and Manuel Pastor were struck by how the most successful metro areas were adept at moving beyond the classic business goal of “getting to yes” to “getting to we.”  Doing so means “creating a shared vision, a shared discourse, and a shared destiny.”  Bringing people to the planning table who represent different constituencies and different perspectives, Benner and Pastor write, will be critical to getting to that “we.”

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