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Boxing Ourselves In: Urban Development over the last 50 years

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The battle over the Wal-Mart Super Center that was proposed near MoPac and Slaughter Lane had all the makings of a classic Austin political story. It pitted big corporate interests and big box retailers against "mom and pop" stores, neighborhood activists and environmentalists.

Photo: Sherry Wagner

But the story is really about the choices we make as citizens and consumers. It's about the way we've allowed our cities to be developed over the last 50 years a phenomenon that some urban planners call "boxing ourselves in."

"The box is an interesting metaphor," says Sherry Kafka Wagner, an urban design consultant who is hired by cities around the world. "The reason now that people talk about thinking outside of the box is we've recognized this is a bad metaphor because it's not true to the way the world's made. The great design of the world is in a web of relationships."

Photo: Tom Terkel

Big box developers continue to build stores the way they do because it pays off. Corporations design stores as large boxes after much research in to what will sell, according to developer Tom Terkel.

"All of those types of retailers exist in the format that they do because they have experimented over the last 20 years with all types of different formats" Terkel said. "(They) discovered that the larger the store the more merchandise they can offer, the deeper the merchandise selection and the better their sales are and the better their profitability."

Terkel says he is now a convert to smart growth because of a project he proposed on the triangle property near Central Market. He had originally proposed a big box style development but changed his plans after dozens of meetings with residents.

Photo: Map of growth in Austin

The problem with the big box approach to urban design, according to Wagner, is that not much thought is given to how this design fits in with the other buildings around it.

"When we think in the box we do that because it's easier for us to think that way,"said Wagner. "But what we've come to recognize is that it led to so many traps because it's not an accurate depiction of human reality or the reality of the planet we live on."

Barbara Parmeter, a professor of the Community and Regional Planning School at the University of Texas, says that it's really the choices that we make in terms of infrastructure, water and waste water lines that will dictate how our city and our region grow.

"I came in August of 1982...a lot of people were complaining then about growth," said Parmeter. "But then there was a separate Round Rock, there was a separate Georgetown, a separate Cedar Park. There were separate communities around this area and what you've seen through that series is a sort of linking together of those communities especially to the west."

Photo: Map of strip center parking lot

Environmental leader Robin Rather said that the opposition of Wal-Mart projects isn't just about the run-off and pollution produced from the giant parking lots.

"I've never seen anything like the coalition that's come from opposing this Wal-Mart," Rather said about the withdrawn proposal for a Super Wal-Mart at MoPac and Slaughter Lane. "The neighborhood's concerns are traffic, light pollution, truck pollution, truck traffic, safety issues they have a long laundry list of their own very specific neighborhood issues."

Photo: Austin skyline and Mopac traffic

Urban design consultant Sherry Wagner said the difficulty with the way Sun Belt cities like Austin have been designed is that everything is designed within a separate box. Your neighborhood is in one box, your child's school is in another box and your community park is in another box. All of which require you to get onto a highway in order to get from one to another.

"When we design our whole built environment in boxes we confine ourselves to a very limited space," Wagner said. "I think what we have to look at is what we are costing ourselves as human beings, how we are limiting our human development and our human growth by placing ourselves in a series of boxes."

It's our choice how Austin grows in the future. Will we continue the big box development patterns we have chosen in the past or will we start thinking outside the box?

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Produced by Tom Spencer.


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