Two major steps in establishing the city of Austin were the arrival of the first railroad in 1871, and the establishment of the University of Texas in 1881 (Moore, 2006, p. 32). Ther region’s poor land quality meant there were agriculture opportunities so most jobs were in the education sector (Moore, 2006, p. 35). Starting in the 1960s, microtechnology companies such as IBM, Texas Instruments, and Motorola came to Austin, creating a high-tech pocket in an agricultural- and oil-dominated state (Moore, 2006, p. 36). This history reveals an atypical city development, as the education and high-tech sectors formed the city’s foundation.
Austin’s location and geography are also of importance. Austin spreads outwards from the Colorado River in Texas (Moore, 2006, p. 32), and lies at the intersection of prairies and dry hill regions. The Barton springs are sourced from an aquifer underneath the Balcones escarpment, and are the inspiration for much environmental advocacy (Moore, 2006, p. 60). The first notable conflicts related to environmental issues were over water quality in the 1970s (Moore, 2006, p. 36). The awareness of this issue continues to play an important role in city design today. Urban planning began in earnest in the 1980s and 1990s (Moore, 2006, p. 38). A divide grew between those who wished to follow the path of growth and development versus those who prioritized environmental protection. The term “smart growth”, although a short-lived success, was created in 1997 as a way of bridging the two movements (Moore, 2006, p. 42). At present, the divide between views is more complex, although notable divisions remain between views of typical American ‘individualism’, and typical environmental ‘preservation’ (Moore, 2006, p. 68).
Although Austin has a reputation for being green, not much attention is attributed to its green spaces or its public transportation systems. Citizens have regularly voted for much of Austin’s progress in environmental policies, and around 2006 Austin had about 68 m2 of green space per person (Moore, 2006, p. 163). Texas is a state of low-density suburbs (Moore, 2006, p. 60). Although a bus system was already in place, in 2005 the low-density and car-dominated city passed a vote to fund a commuter rail system (Moore, 2006, p. 166). The city’s demographic groups are geographically divided between social classes, and both extremes are under-provided with public transportation (Moore, 2006, p. 170). Neither Austin’s green spaces nor its public transportation system seem to attract much publicity, perhaps because their importance is belittled by other, more interesting policies. Three notable policies and programs will be quickly summarized in the following paragraphs.
The Austin Green Building Program recognizes the impact of buildings on watersheds and local ecosystems. Minimizing water consumption is a key priority in this dry area intersected by the Colorado River. Organized water distribution from the river started in 1871 (AWU, 2012b). The treatment of water taken from and returned to the river is very energy and resource intensive – efforts are therefore made to minimize water consumption (AEGB, 2010, p. 15). In one day, Austin residents consume about 163 gallons per person; the government’s goal is to reduce this to 150 gallons by 2020 (AEGB, 2010, p. 13). Landscapers are encouraged to use native, drought-resistant plants (AEGB, 2010, p. 13). In-house appliances are adapted to minimize their use of fresh water, using rainwater and stormwater used whenever possible (AEGB, 2010, p. 13). The goal of reducing water consumption is seen as especially important in light of the looming impacts of resource depletion and climate change, which will put significant strains on water quality and availability (AEGB, 2010, p. 13). Concerns about water consumption and water quality date back to the 1970s, and continue to be a high priority in Austin today.
Austin Energy emphasizes both the importance of reducing energy needs and shifting towards renewable energy sources (AEGB, 2010, p. 9). To reduce energy demands, new buildings under the Austin Energy Green Building project have strict energy efficiency guidelines (AEGB, 2010, p. 9). In addition, the citywide building code is renowned for its progressive requirements (AEGB, 2010, p. 9). The second measure used to reduce the impacts of energy consumption is the “GreenChoice” program. This program allows residents to opt-in to pay for a selection of renewable sources of energy from Austin Energy (AGCP, p. 1). This program encourages the expansion of Texas’ renewable energy sources (AGCP, p. 1). For example, they plan on expanding wind power resources from 439 MW in 2010 to 1,001 MW in 2020 (AEGB, 2010, p. 12). Likewise, solar power is planned to grow from 6.4 MW to 201 MW (AEGB, 2010, p. 12). As has been examined, Austin Energy is wise to focus both on energy efficiency and energy quality.
The well-known “Dillo Dirt” program in Austin has been composting ‘yard trimmings’ and sewer sludge since 1989 (AWU, 2012a). Yard trimmings consist of 15% of the city’s recycled materials (HBBM, p. 2); the composting of this has an immediate impact by reducing the amount of material going to landfills. In addition, this method of disposal is also cheaper option (HBBM, p. 2). After a multi-step process spanning months, the compost program distributes Environmental Protection Agency-approved soil back to the city, through private sales and to public areas (AWU, 2012a). Austin’s avant-guard composting program is a model for other cities wishing to reduce their footprints that makes use of sewage sludge, reduces the amount of solid waste sent to landfills, and increases the health of green areas.
In summary, Austin, Texas has a unique political history where focus has been primarily on water conflicts. However, Austin has been not only a leader in water management, but also in waste management, green building design, and renewable energy sources.