2024 Austin Policy Wishlist

I apologize for the short five-year break in posting! I’ve been keeping busy with a job that now requires me to work during the hours they pay me for, a volunteer gig at Texans for Housing, and a full-time parenting gig. But let it never be said I abandoned you for more than five years, so here goes my list of top Austin urbanist policy targets for 2024!

Unfinished business

City Council has already laid out a ton of plans for 2024. Here are some of the ones I’m most excited for.

HOME Phase 2

Leslie Pool with lightning surrounding her.
Dark Leslie gathering her powers.

Leslie Pool has evolved into the most influential and far-seeing Council Member in quite some time. Her HOME Phase 1 allowed more duplexes and triplexes, rolled back limits on roommates, and fixed a handful of other issues in code. HOME Phase 2 builds on this, allowing more small houses on small lots.

Address the lawsuits

Desk as seen through flaming hoop.
Artist’s rendering of procedures Travis County judges believe Austin should follow to allow new housing.

Recently, a Travis County judge decided Texas’ procedural rules should be interpreted differently than they ever have been before or than they are interpreted anywhere else in the country. This oddball logic threw out three city ordinances: one reducing the distance that single-family houses can interfere with other zoning districts, one allowing more apartments near shops, and another allowing more apartments near shops but in a different way.

Fortunately, all of these measures remain popular with the vast majority of Austinites and Council Members so we should be able to jump through whatever hoops the judge says we need to jump through. And, hey, we have a couple years of data on their usage, so we might even be able to improve on them. Thanks Judge!

New business

More and Better Student Housing

An apartment complex with a large bike rack in front.

AURA and the University Democrats have drafted a nifty request for City Council to bring the myriad benefits of UNO, Austin’s student housing district, to the rest of the student housing areas in Austin. UNO has been super awesome so building on something that’s already working would be super double awesome. One thing that hasn’t been super awesome in UNO, though, has been that some folks figured out they could build and market rooms without windows to students, many of whom rent their room sight unseen and then find out that windowless bedrooms suck. So let’s fix that while we’re at it.

Bigger -plexes in Central Austin

One of the brilliant pieces of HOME was that, rather than doing artisanal, parcel-by-parcel planning around small pieces of the city, it created rules for the city as a whole. Anybody who wants can build a triplex or two in a standard lot. But everywhere in the city isn’t the same, or else people wouldn’t pay more for a dirt lot in Bouldin than they do for a brand-new house in Circle C.

I’m not particularly fussed if City Council wants to allow, say, 8-plexes on any lot in the city. But lots of people are. So let’s target 8-plexes to the places where dense housing would have the biggest effects, where land costs are highest (and need to be split between more people) and amenities like jobs, shops, parks, and transportation options are plentiful.

Quiet Zones

When we think of zoning, the first thing in many people’s minds is along the lines of “no smokestacks next to houses.” But there’s a lot of distance between “no smokestacks” and “nothing but long-term residences.” And while living near smokestacks isn’t very nice, living near a bakery can be really nice! I would like us to move back toward first principles here, and start reintroducing less disruptive shops and offices near where we live.

Safe Routes for Children

Safe Routes to Schools is a great way of prioritizing sidewalks and bike routes. After all, kids can’t drive, so they’re a captive market for sidewalks and bike lanes. And kids walking or biking to school can fix a huge traffic problem: the school pick-up and drop-off lines. But kids need to go many more places than schools! Libraries, parks, friends’ houses, ballet classes, soccer practice, corner stores, and more! Let’s start thinking about our next steps to make Austin a place any kid can get around without Mommy or Daddy Chauffeur.

Turning transportation on its ear: what we can learn about ground transportation from elevators

When we think about motorized transportation, we usually think about moving horizontally. Sometimes flipping your perspective and looking at a slightly different problem yields new insights. So let’s look at vertical transportation (that is, elevators) and see what we can learn about ground transportation.

1 Measuring people throughput is more important than vehicle throughput

How many people does an elevator car carry in an hour? You can’t just look at how many times the car travels through the shaft but also how many passengers are in the car each ride. If etiquette said we don’t share elevators but each take our own, it would take forever to serve a major tower.

You can say the same for car lanes. Vehicle throughput gets a lot more press but passengers per vehicle is just as important. When a car lane reaches maximum vehicle throughput, the only way to move more people is to get more people in the same vehicle by carpooling or taking buses or trains.

Some elevators only hold one passenger at a time.

2 Adding more elevators gets higher throughput but only up to a point

Small buildings often only have one elevator. As buildings get bigger, you need more of them to move all the people. But this process can’t be repeated indefinitely. Each new elevator shaft moves more people but also takes a bite out of the floor plate used for offices or homes. A tower needs to go ever higher to fit the same number of people. By the time a building reaches 50, 100, or 150 floors, this becomes a very important consideration. You need to make each elevator shaft more efficient because new shafts take away from the intended use of the building.

Overcrowded elevators? Just add another! The strategy works, until it doesn’t.

Lay that logic on its side and you get something interesting! The more lanes that you add to streets, the less room there is for destinations. The wider the streets get, the further apart homes and workplaces need to sprawl. Eventually, the strategy stops working altogether and the only option is to make streets more efficient at moving people per lane, not adding more lanes.

3 Reducing dwell time matters

One of the more interesting elevator innovations is destination dispatch, a system where users enter their floor prior to entering the elevator. One way this helps is that the elevator can get going more quickly after each stop, as it doesn’t need to wait for the new entrants to press the button for their floor. Combining this benefit with the benefit from grouping passengers more efficiently, some elevator companies estimate they can get more than 30% better throughput from the same number of elevators.

Fast elevators are great but not if you spend precious extra time not moving at all.

Transit users don’t usually need to designate their destination at the time of entry, of course. But they do sometimes stop and interact with drivers for a different reason: paying fare. Transit systems that allow riders to pay fare prior to entry can reduce dwell times for buses just like destination dispatch reduces dwell time for elevators. (This is also true for for-hire vehicles.) 

4 Circulation can help throughput

As buildings get taller, a single elevator shaft can get less useful: as there are more stories, there are fewer cars per floor and cars may have to travel further to pick a passenger up. You could potentially get multiple cars in the same shaft but you have to deal with elevator traffic!  If, though, you use an elevator that can go sideways, then you can sidestep another car in the shaft, go to another shaft, and keep moving.

An old technology does exist for getting more elevator cars per shaft: continuously moving elevator circulators. The downside is the need to be very quick in boarding!

In horizontal world, this can already be done! Unlike elevator shafts, it’s pretty easy for a vehicle to move from one street to another and sidestep traffic jams — if (and it’s a big if), there’s good “sideways connectivity” with many cross-streets allowing you to turn onto a different street.

5 Security matters

Elevators can be scary places. You’re trapped in an enclosed space with other people with nobody else watching. Since public elevators switched from a transportation technique with an operator to a self-operated transportation technique, there has been a continuous increase in security techniques to help people keep both being and feeling safe inside elevators, from emergency call buttons to surveillance. I don’t know what the proper security techniques are for public transportation, but evidence from elevators suggests that it’s a problem worth solving.

Not everyone wants to ride Gangnam style.

West Campus’ remarkable growth, charted

This blog has something of an obsession with West Campus. It’s the neighborhood that lives by upside-down, inside-out rules and it’s a window into the Austin that could be. So when we got a hold of data about West Campus’ growth, we pretty much had no choice but to put it in charts.

Part 1: Understanding the scale and speed of West Campus’ growth

West Campus has grown fast

Since the creation of the University Neighborhood Overlay in 2004, there has been a pretty steady growth of new homes with a brief financial-crisis-induced break in 2009-2010. The numbers are really quite stupendous: over the course of a decade, essentially a new town of 10K people has been added to what was already one of Austin’s denser neighborhoods.

In this chart, I show two equivalent axes: bedrooms (on the left) or % of UT undergrads those bedrooms represent (on the right). I chose to use bedrooms rather than units because of my intuition that student housing is typically occupied by one person per bedroom, so a 4-bedroom unit really does house twice as many people as a 2-bedroom unit. (In other housing, a 4-bedroom unit may mean that one or more bedrooms are being used as a study or guest room.) The blue line shows the number of new bedrooms created in the UNO overlay, while the red line hugging the bottom shows the number of new bedrooms created by new dorms on the UT campus itself. Numbers after 2017 are projections based on city filings rather than completed units on the ground. At the rate UNO is growing, approximately half of UT undergrads will live in new units created under UNO by 2023.

A lot of investment

How much does it cost to build out a neighborhood? Using 2017 tax valuation, the UNO buildings alone (not counting the land they sit on) were valued at a bit more than a billion dollars. For comparison, Austin’s last affordable housing bond was for $65m and the capital costs of Austin’s proposed 2014 light rail bond was about $1.5 billion. Each year, the buildings in UNO contribute more than $25m in property tax revenues to the various local government taxing entities: the city of Austin, Travis County, Austin Independent School District, Austin Community College, and Central Health.

A lot of new income-restricted apartments

West Campus is home to one of the largest concentration of developments in Austin with apartments specifically for people below certain income levels. There are two reasons for this: 1) as part of the new rules for building apartments, developers are required to set aside a certain number of units for eligible people, and 2) there has been a lot of development in West Campus.

Part 2: How UNO has changed over time

Buildings are getting bigger

Buildings are getting bigger overall, as expressed by number of bedrooms per project. I’m not sure why this would be; perhaps easier-to-finance mid-rise buildings have proven the way for larger high-rise projects. Perhaps the most easy-to-build sites were in the lower height districts and investors are moving on to the more difficult-to-build sites in high-rise districts.

Parking by bedroom

Over time, the number of parking units added per new bedroom built has dropped precipitously from a high of nearly 0.9 parking spaces per bedroom to 0.5 in 2016 and an anticipated 0.36 in 2019. Apparently, when we build places near other places, more people can get around without a car. There’s a number of ways these change might be explained:

  • Developers and financiers have become more comfortable with building less parking as earlier buildings saw less parking used than anticipated.
  • As more commercial amenities have moved into the neighborhood like the Fresh Plus grocery store, fewer students have needed cars.
  • Younger people more generally have lower preferences for having cars with them at school than they used to.
  • Developers have gotten better at managing city rules to find ways to avoid expensive required parking. (More on this later.)

Bedrooms per Unit

The number of bedrooms provided per unit is a major way that West Campus departs ways from the rest of Austin. Developers typically build studios and 1-bedroom apartments to accommodate the many 1- and 2-person households the city is adding. In West Campus, developers have always built more bedrooms per unit, probably because students are more willing to share a suite with unrelated roommates than many non-students. Of late, though, the  number of bedrooms per unit is going even higher. Why? I have a hunch.

Parking by Unit Size

This is a trickier chart than the others. On the bottom axis, there’s bedrooms per unit. On the left axis, there’s parking spaces required (not built) per bedroom. The dots and the blue trend line both show that, generally speaking, the more bedrooms provided per unit, the fewer parking spaces a developer is required to build.

Based on the trend toward less parking per bedroom and more bedrooms per unit, my hunch is that developers have figured out that parking is not an amenity that enough students want or are willing to pay for to justify the fairly high costs of building it. So now they’re trying everything they can to avoid the expense of building unwanted parking garages, including build bigger suites for which they aren’t required to provide as much parking. If this is true, it’s another example of a remarkable property of zoning codes: they always have unintended consequences. Zoning code didn’t set out to decide how many college students should group together into a suite, but it might well have decided it nonetheless.

[Edit: A dissenting view comes in from friend-of-the-blog Tyler Stowell.  See below.]


This has been a fun romp through a little dataset. Let’s reiterate some of the conclusions I’ve drawn:

West Campus shows little signs of slowing down

There are sometimes worries that when a part of town allows denser housing, there will be a big bang as all the most likely sites get developed and the ones that remain all have special problems. If that’s the case with West Campus no effects are obvious. New sites come on to the market all the time and there are still surface parking lots or low-rise buildings that are prime targets for redevelopment. We could well see new West Campus buildings account for 50% or more of the undergrad population before long.

The city still requires too much parking

The trend we observed toward fewer and fewer parking spaces being built — and especially the trend toward weighting the unit mix toward parking-light high-bedroom units — tells me that developers are seeing little use and little market for their parking. With Bcycle rideshare taking off on top of the existing walking, biking, and bus routes, most students in West Campus just don’t want or need cars. Eliminating parking minimums would also allow developers to be more creative in other areas, providing different amenities or lower costs.

The city regulates way more private investment than it makes public investment

So far, rebuilding West Campus has been a $1B project, far dwarfing the amount of money the city has spent directly or indirectly on housing development. Most of the time, we don’t think of it as a single “project” because there is no one single coordinating entity controlling what buildings get built in what order. But it was created as a result of a city policy change. Even the smallest changes to city policy, in this case only affecting a single neighborhood, can end up affecting far more private investment than direct municipal spending affects.

[Note from friend-of-the-blog Tyler Stowell:] I’d disagree with one of your points though – my observation is that the higher bed/unit ratio isn’t a way around parking requirements, it’s a cost cutting measure. Bedrooms are cheap and pay rent. Kitchens and bathrooms are expensive and don’t pay rent. Diluting the cost of kitchens/baths over more beds equals higher profit for the developer. And this works in west campus for college students who might’ve lived in Jester last year. Not so much in other markets. The parking is always a target percentage of bedrooms and truly is market driven (eg. my last project the developer wanted to provide a space for 80% of bedrooms). Some projects take the full reduction allowed by UNO, but some go higher.

Vote on your favorite redesign of Congress Avenue!

We decided to hold a contest to let people have their say on a vision for what Congress Ave could look like. Today is the day you can help determine the winner, who will receive a gift certificate generously donated by Popbar. Here are the entrants!

#1 Jon Brewer

Jon’s Congress Avenue has center-running bus lanes with benches to wait for the bus, as well as room for sidewalks, bikes, parked and driving cars.

#2 Chris “Kaz” Wojtewicz

Kaz’s Congress Avenue has a more walking-oriented vision, with a generous sidewalk in the median. [EDIT: Kaz adds: “my vision includes a capped subway that StreetMix was unable to show.”]

#3 Mateo Barnstone (#1)

Mateo’s Congress Avenue has 8 (!!) rows of street trees, still with room for walking, driving, and parking for both cars and bicycles.

#4 Mateo Barnstone (#2)

Mateo’s other Congress Avenue has given up some street trees and median sidewalks for a pair of center-running tram lanes.

#5 Dan Hennessey

Dan’s Congress Avenue is our first asymmetric entry, with sidewalks, street maps, three rows of trees, transit, separated bike lanes, and transit shelters.

#6 Stefan Aleo

Stefan’s Congress Avenue has street maps, a bus lane, bike lane, driving lanes, turning lanes, parking lanes, and sidewalks, capped with a nice row of palm trees down the median.

#7 Ryan Young

Ryan has foregone car parking in favor of center-running transit lanes and edge-running bike lanes.

#8 Jacob Barett

Jacob’s Congress Avenue features transit, bikes, trees and sidewalks — including a bench-and-tree-lined median sidewalk — but no lanes for cars.

#9 Rocket Man John Dawson

John Dawson of Rocket Electrics has produced a bold vision for a Congress Ave with a wide median sidewalk, bike lanes (presumably including electrics!), and transit on the edge.

That’s it! Please step back, imagine yourself on each of these visions for Congress Ave and vote for your favorites.  Make sure to scroll down and click “Vote.” And while you’re at it, take the time to think of all the possibilities not only for Congress, but all of our streets. We get around on foot, bike, car, bus, train, scooter, and however else. And sometimes we don’t get around at all, but we just sit outside and enjoy the ambiance. But what we do is affected an awful lot by the environment we live in, so let’s dream for the best streets we can get!

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YIMBY is not left or right but both and neither

The YIMBY moment hasn’t exactly arrived in America but it’s on the platform and the train is coming. The framework for political arguments in many City Halls has transformed from “Neighborhood vs Developer” to “YIMBY vs NIMBY.” State Houses like California are being shaken up by YIMBY legislation, both passed and proposed.

The movement’s growth has created a scramble to define where it lies on the broader political spectrum. Various YIMBYs have staked a claim to be the true flagholders for popular local political labels, whether that be “progressive,” “free market,” or other. Opponents have been quick to identify YIMBYism with disliked groups in their local environments, whether that be United Nations Agenda 21 or the Koch brothers.

This ideological mishmash is more than rhetoric. I correspond daily with (or twitter my life away, my wife would say) folks with radically different beliefs about economic systems who nevertheless work together toward a common goal of addressing the housing shortage. It doesn’t feel like an uncomfortable alliance of convenience, but rather a group of friends with different ideas. In a world where we’re constantly reminded of evergrowing ideological divides, how does this movement maintain this hodgepodge? 

Jaap Weel gets to part of the answer here:

YIMBYs believe places should accommodate as many of the people who want to live or work there as they can. This belief is so simple and the need so basic that it can fit into nearly any ideology. Indeed, human beings have been building and designing cities since millennia before Adam Smith or Karl Marx. Rather than saying that YIMBYism is socialist or capitalist, it’s more accurate to say that socialism and capitalism can be YIMBY or not.

A free market YIMBY platform could be “abolish height limits and developers will build more housing to meet market demand.” A socialist YIMBY platform could be “raise property taxes to build public housing.” An environmentalist YIMBY platform looks like SB827 while a social justice YIMBY platforms can focus on ending practices that exclude people from the best jobs or schools. All of these policies share the fundamental assessment that there aren’t enough homes (and/or workplaces, etc) and we need to build more of them, but they accomplish that goal through different mechanisms.

Many YIMBYs are inspired to ideas based on their previous ideas about economic systems (“cut regulations”, “community land ownership”, “better planning”). But further complicating the ideological picture, policies are often judged within YIMBY circles based on their ability to address the housing shortage and not necessarily based on ideological priors. It’s not uncommon to see the same person arguing for different solutions that could be glossed as “socialist”, “planned market”, or “free market.” Some ideas defy easy classification: for example, many YIMBYs believe that transit planning should be pushed to the local government level while land use planning should be pushed to higher levels of government. If you insist on looking at their ideas through a prism of capitalist vs socialist, this would be hopelessly confusing. But if you understand all of these as potential ways to get more people access to the places that they want, it makes sense.

So here’s a challenge: try to, instead of judging whether YIMBY as a whole is more an offshoot of one ideology or another, fully understand what problems it’s trying to solve and how you think those problems would best be solved. 

Welcome to Bizarro Austin

There’s a neighborhood in central Austin that everybody knows but only its true students really understand. It’s a place where the normal laws of neighborhoods (or zoning ordinances at least) don’t apply. A place where up is down, zig is zag, and 40-minutes cursing at bumper-to-bumper traffic on MoPac is 15 minutes humming with your headphones on the walk home. This magical place is Austin’s secret midrise neighborhood: West Campus, where development never stops. I’ve long been fascinated by this little neighborhood, precisely because it’s so different than the rest of Austin’s neighborhoods. In walking through it, I came to a realization: West Campus is Bizarro Austin. Every thing about Austin’s standard development model is turned on its head. Here are six ways:

1. In Standard Austin, prices go up. In Bizarro Austin, buildings go up.

Austin’s central core has seen an unrelenting tide of changes over the last couple decades. Central core neighborhoods have moved from eclectic refuges of Austin’s storied slacker past, where you could get by on a part-time job and a roommate who never does the dishes, to red-hot real estate extravaganzas, with first-day bids $20K over list price and rents only a landlord could love. For the lucky folks who owned houses before the boom hit, that can be a bonanza and a nest egg. But for renters and first-time buyers, this has caused a lot of consternation. 

In Bizarro Austin, instead of prices rising, buildings have:

With way more than double the number of apartments available in Bizarro Austin than there were just 15 years ago, more students can afford to rent in Bizarro Austin than ever before. While some of the new rentals have brought luxuries never seen before in Austin student living, older apartment complexes compete on price and some of the new ones have had to as well.

2. In Standard Austin, activists decry new buildings with studios and 1-bedrooms. In Bizarro Austin, 3, 4, and 5 bedroom units are commonplace.

You’ve heard the lament. “Yes, the developer is building new apartments, but they’re all studios! You can’t raise a family in those!” You must be living in Standard Austin. Because in Bizarro Austin, multi-bedroom units are not only present, they’re common. Of course, most are rented out by groups of students, not families. But if a large family were to want to rent a large new-construction apartment, they may find no place with more of them than Bizarro Austin.

A colorful complex of multi-bedroom apartments.

3. In Standard Austin, sidewalks are a hopeless tragedy. In Bizarro Austin, sidewalks are a point of pride.

Standard Austin is proud of a lot of things: our live music, our breakfast tacos, our history. But sidewalks aren’t one of them. We have a 99-year backlog of sidewalk projects to get built. Where they exist, they’re often crazy cracked and cramped. They end abruptly and restart on the other side of the street. I have literally had a police officer pick me up off the street because “this didn’t look like a safe place for you to walk” and drive me back to where there were sidewalks.  

In Bizarro Austin, sidewalks are wide, shady, filled with benches and fancy street lamps. They are well-used and safe. They are still a little patchy — fancy in some places and not in others. With each new building that gets built, the sidewalk in front of that building is upgraded to this pedestrian paradise. 

Sidewalks in West Campus have trees, fancy lighting, and well-used bike racks.

4. In Standard Austin, development is seen as a threat to trees. In Bizarro Austin, new development creates new trees. 

When a lot of central Austin neighborhoods were built out, they didn’t have many trees. In a land where temperatures are high and energy bills higher, this is less than ideal. Understandably, neighborhoods have come to cherish the shade-giving trees they do have and fight hard to keep them.  Bizarro Austin has found a different technique. With each new building that goes up, trees go up with it, lining the sidewalk with shade. Soon, Bizarro Austin may have the most tree-lined streets in all of Austin. 

Young trees growing up in Bizarro Austin

5. In Standard Austin, cars are needed for chores. In Bizarro Austin, stores come to you.

I’ve heard this question more than a few times: “Hey Dan, I’m moving to Austin. Do I need a car?” Well, I don’t have one, but unless you’re crazy, chances are you probably need one. Even I now live in a car-lite household, though I myself don’t drive. Life in Standard Austin without a car is possible but certainly difficult.

In Bizarro Austin, not only are the sidewalks pleasant and walkable, but every year, more and more stores are coming to the residents. It started with convenience stores, then neighborhood restaurants, then grocery stores, martial arts dojos, and dessert shops. The neighborhood is rapidly becoming a complete place — somewhere residents can find more and more of their needs a walk or bike ride away.

With enough residents in the area to support it, a Fresh Plus grocery store opened right in the middle of the neighborhood.

6. In Standard Austin, street parking divides visitors and guests. In Bizarro Austin, street parking pays dividends to residents.

“We’re not against this bar, we just want them to have enough parking so none of their customers park on our streets!” Street parking is a divisive issue in Standard Austin. Residential-only parking areas force customers of nearby shops to wander deep into side streets before they can park their car.

Bizarro Austin, situated as it is next to one of the biggest attractions in all of Austin (the University of Texas), is no stranger to parking by, well, strangers. However, in Bizarro Austin, street parkers aren’t just a nuisance, they’re a revenue stream. Bizarro Austin has a parking benefit district, which means that every time somebody pays the parking kiosk, a percentage of their money goes back to the neighborhood. This money has been used for improvements to sidewalks and lighting.

Many students have decided to forego cars and park their bicycles instead.

We could take some lessons from Bizarro Austin

One of the reasons few among us know about Bizarro Austin is that most post-college adults don’t want to live where convenience stores sell bundles of ping pong balls and Solo cups. Many folks probably lived in West Campus more than a couple years back when it was part of Standard Austin and don’t realize how otherworldly it has become. But there’s a lot to like about this place and a lot of lessons we could take for Standard Austin.

Why so many folks are drawn to the urban form

There’s a budding YIMBY movement across the country and across the world. Folks who enjoy cities and say “yes” to development near them. The reaction to this movement from anti-development advocates has frequently been to assume that the folks who want development are somehow a “front group” for developers. Perhaps some folks simply can’t understand why it is people would want development. So here’s five reasons people get drawn to varieties of different (and denser) housing forms, to an intermingling of commercial and residential uses,  to connected street grids. In short, this is why people say yes to urban forms and yes to development in their back yard!

1. Urban forms fight global warming

Everybody knows about substituting solar electricity for coal power, Priuses for pickups, and getting better insulation for your house. Moving from suburban to urban forms, though, can bring about changes that aren’t merely substitutional but transformational. Trading a large house for a smaller townhouse or apartment–even one that hasn’t been specially designed for environmentalism–means using less energy to cool and heat, both because less air needed to be heated and cooled but also because shared walls benefit from their neighbors’ climate control. More people living and working in close proximity to each other means shorter trips. This saves on gas in the car, but more importantly, makes it easier to take some or all trips using less polluting travel modes like walking, bicycling, or taking the bus.

2. Urban forms prevent habitat loss

People can live without green space, but most people don’t want to! Suburban forms answer this need by dedicating more green space to each house. Larger houses on larger lots with larger gaps between the houses provides room for everybody to have their own lawn or garden. You could think of it as borrowing a bit of nature from the countryside to live with you. And if this is what you want or need to be happy, I say more power to you; find that house! But if all of us have a nice big lawn, then as the population grows, we’ll need to pull ever more land out of its natural state to accommodate our houses and offices with their own lawns. Urban living offers the possibility of something different. Apartment dwellers sharing a courtyard or neighborhood park; small lot homeowners foregoing the large lawn; coop dwellers sharing a single big house. All of these folks take a little bit less of the rural into the city with them and leave it there for the critters!.

3. Urban forms give people access to more things to do

I grew up in a suburban environment: large house on a large lot, lots of green space, and strict separation of residential from commercial uses. It was a nice place to be and a nice place to walk but it was very hard for me to find things I needed! Within walking distance, I had zero jobs, one restaurant, and zero grocery stores. When I moved to a more urban form, my world came alive: libraries, universities, jobs, food and culture from all around the world became open to me.

4. Urban forms allow more affordable access

Whether you’re talking houses, townhouses, condos, apartments, or any other form of housing, there are some things that set expensive construction apart from less expensive construction: granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, hardwood floors, high-design finishes. In a place with more land than people, this is what sets apart a fancy house from a cheap one. But when you get into the city, the biggest factor in the price of most homes isn’t the construction, but the access. Is this my dream neighborhood? Is it close to schools, jobs, parks, play structures, music, food? In Austin, an empty lot in a great location can sell for twice as much as a fully built house in the suburbs! An empty block downtown can be 100s of times more valuable. Most mere mortals can’t afford to buy a full parcel downtown by themselves, but when folks pool their wealth together and build vertically, the price of that access can be split across hundreds of people, bringing it down to affordable levels.

5. Urban forms Allow variety

If you want excellent food from one culture, you go to the source, where that culture developed. If you want excellent food from many cultures, you go to a city. Cities are places where people of different backgrounds, jobs, and social statuses interact every day. There’s rightfully a lot of soul-searching on ways in which cities fail at this, from exclusive enclaves priced too high for much variety to two-tier public transportation systems. But cities face these questions because we know and expect that a city is a place for people of all stripes to come together and learn from one another.

Living in a big ole city: Taylor Swift Urbanism

If you listen to a lot of bluegrass and country, you’d think cities were the worst thing that every happened to humanity. J.D. Crowe and the New South ask why they ever left their plow behind to look for a job in the town:


Hank Williams, Jr. thinks that you’ll only get mugged if you go downtown.  If you keep watching, you find that this is exactly what happened to the narrator’s friend!


Dave Grisman didn’t get mugged, but still found himself impoverished:


Taylor Swift, on the other hand, can portray a positive side of cities: cosmpolitan places to escape bad relationships, meet new people with different life experiences, and grow your dreams.

In White Horse, she reminds herself that small towns are difficult places for dreams to come true:


In Fifteen, she describes a process where girls growing up in small towns can be encouraged not to dream big dreams (though she herself, she reflects, has moved on to bigger, better things):

In Mean, she holds out the hope for city living as a way of escaping abusive relationships holding her back:


When she finally reaches the big city (New York), she is overwhelmed with the possibilities. People come from all over the world, feel free to explore their sexual identities, remake themselves, and try to achieve their dreams:

Real-life Taylor Swift is a fantastic example of somebody who achieved her dreams by moving to a specialized city, Nashville. Nashville has grown and evolved a cultural and economic engine in country music that allows young people like herself to meet like-minded, skilled people to collaborate with. Good for Taylor Swift for recognizing that the same process means cities can allow for personal growth in other dimensions, by exposing people to others from all over the world and all walks of life.