Austin’s Planning Timeline

Legal framework is not often based on the whims of the public, but on the whims of the people who put the laws in place. Like the Constitution, most laws are drafted by people who were less engaged with the majority of the population and more concerned with how to maintain their standard of living. The Constitution was supposedly drafted for all men to be a part of the new country; however, the different between most of the people drafting the laws and the people actually given voice within the narrative of the United States was land ownership. After viewing the rules within the city of Austin, land ownership is still viewed as more worthy than any other component of citizenry.

What was clear throughout the planning history of Austin is that even if something was explicitly wrong, like segregation or planning discrimination, the city decision-makers found loopholes that would maintain their idyll of what the city should be. Even though segregation was illegal, they managed to designate parts of the city where they expected certain populations to live. Even though the rights of a property owner were supposedly sacrosanct, slum and blight designations would allow the city to reappropriate parcels of land for their own purposes. The environment was obviously on both sides of the highway, but certain constituents designated parts of the city as within an “urban watershed,” while the rest of the city was in the “Drinking Water Protection Zone.” No rules were ever considered morally irrevocable for marginalized populations.

Public transportation was never considered important enough to wrest control away from private entities, even though the city has always maintained a healthy service sector. Therefore, the needs of the populace were unimportant as the private entity running the transit could decide whether it would run at its own discretion. Because of the nature of private entities, there is very little information about how the working poor were able to navigate the city before the official designation of CapMetro as the transit authority for the city. After all, private entities maintain separate meetings and are not answerable to the voting booths.

When certain residents felt like their neighborhoods were under attack, they would not only enlist the help of the city, but the help of the state. In neighborhoods where professional class employment is enjoyed by many, among them were most likely several city staff and lawyers who were familiar with government administration–and who could make themselves heard outside the city council dais. After successfully capturing the attention of the local government, those constituents would then take their show to the Legislature, confident in their success. Activist and community organizers in distressed neighborhoods were given no such access and were forced to watch as the city council allowed private consultants to woo them without the benefit of lobbying laws until 1976. By that time, most of the populations of color had already been alienated or constrained.

While laws are supposedly chosen by elected officials, one must also remember that the city has enjoyed an unequal history of attention to just one quadrant: west of East Avenue (later I-35) and north of the river. Everyone else has been forced to watch in frustration as scant attention was paid before moneyed interests could be persuaded. Only when the city might have lost accreditation in the eyes of the outside world did any of the issues receive the least relief. In that sense, Austin has maintained its reputation as a true Texas city.

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