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New Faculty Colloquium - The Urban Ecosystem and Affordability: A New Calculus for Planning in Austin

Professor Sarah Dooling (School of Architecture and the Environmental Science Institute )

Mon, October 4, 2010 | CPE 2.212

3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

Calls to plan sustainable cities have emerged in response to the mounting evidence linking settlement patterns, human behavior and environmental impacts (Ewing, Bartholomew, Winkelman, Walters and Chen, 2008).  Most sustainable development plans focus on increasing density and promoting greater mixes of land uses to support higher transit use (and less driving) by residents.  They often include urban and landscape design strategies that increase the neighborhood’s ability to sequester carbon and mitigate urban heat island effects.  Cities around the US are concentrating redevelopment efforts in central city neighborhoods along core transit corridors in order to achieve these goals.  Environmental rationales for mixed-use, transit-oriented development plans are also attractive to developers and to city elected officials for their economic benefits. More compact urban growth, by increasing land values, provides opportunities for redevelopment that will enable land owners and real estate developers to realize higher returns on their property. For city officials, higher land values generate higher property tax values and, potentially, sales tax revenue from the retail and service components of mixed use development.
The basic environmental and economic rationales both implicitly focus on the benefits brought by future residents of redeveloped neighborhoods.  An alternative assessment of transit oriented, mixed use redevelopment plans focuses on the lives of current residents, and asks how the proposed redevelopment will impact existing individuals and families while achieving broader goals.  This question is especially salient given that many of the neighborhoods targeted for dense, mixed-use development are composed of predominantly minority, low-income households.  Current settlement patterns are built upon past patterns of urban growth that generated spatial segregation, codified by plans and solidified through underwriting standards attached to federal mortgage insurance (Massey and Denton 1993; Jackson 1985).  Low property values in central core neighborhoods, produced through years of under- and disinvestment, make these neighborhoods prime locations for redevelopment efforts framed within the new transit-oriented sustainability planning framework.

The challenge: bringing equity into sustainability planning
In this paper, we argue that sustainability plans currently framed around shaping the housing choices and travel behavior of future residents must be grounded in an assessment of the current conditions and existing populations in these neighborhoods.  Drawing on the disaster management literature, we explore the concept of vulnerability to propose an alternative framework for assessing redevelopment proposals.  Our proposed framework rests on two premises: First, we see ecological and social problems as interrelated, and thus inseparable as objects of study.  Second, we understand social-ecological problems as neither static nor discrete, but as part of larger dynamic systems that extend spatially beyond administrative planning units and also extend back in time to reflect historical origins.  Through a case study of the planning process for a transit-oriented redevelopment plan, for a central neighborhood in Austin, Texas, we illustrate the difference between current approaches and an alternative approach.

Sponsored by: Center for Women's and Gender Studies

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