Austin. Is it merely an overgrown college town or will its Texas-sized sprawl one day rival that of Houston or Dallas? With all the quality-of-life accolades it has accumulated over the past decade, the city is no longer "that place where they film Austin City Limits." The influx of new businesses and new residents has changed this Central Texas city into a major metropolitan area. The population doubled in the past 20 years and has risen more than 25 percent since 2000.
It would be a lie to say Austin is taking all this growth in stride. But it would be equally untrue to say the city is being ruined by a growing number of inhabitants. Suburban sprawl is evident, but so are the city's parks and Austinites' penchant for progressive ideas. Austin is trying to figure out how to grow and green at the same time. With more than 200 parks, an ambitious public transit scheme, incentives for eco-friendly businesses and the greening of high-profile events like the South by Southwest Music Festival, Austin is not yet ready to begin singing the big-city blues.
Growing a green music scene
The South by Southwest (SXSW)
Music Festival grew out of Austin's roots as a music town. The event lasts nine days and draws hundreds of bands, as well as indie filmmakers, multimedia artists and hordes of fans. It has become one of the most talked-about cultural events in the country.
Can it become one of the greenest?
There's no way around it: Concerts eat up electricity with amps, soundboards and lighting equipment. An Austin-based company called Sustainable Waves
is perfecting the idea of solar-powered stages. In addition, the events' organizers are championing the use of biodiesel in some of the generators used to power concert equipment.
SXSW will go paperless
in '09 by relying on secure websites for booking and organization. There has also been a grassroots movement among advertisers and promoters to use recycled paper or paper made from certified renewable sources to print the ads and promotional material.
Growing a green transportation network
Traffic has become a problem in Austin, as existing roads are clogged with the ever-growing population's vehicles. The city's public transit authorities
seem to be up to the task, however, creating a bus system and a fleet of buses that can carry more passengers with better efficiency. A diesel-electric light-rail network is also in the early stages of development. Trains are rolling on one line (which opens to the public on March 30) and two more are in the works. Though these public-transit upgrades won't take all the cars off of Austin's roadways, the solutions that are in place or are being planned are among the most ambitious in the country.
While not on par with Portland, Ore., Austin does have a strong bike culture. Biking is a prevalent form of transport in inner-city areas, and local business Bicycle Sports Shop
has partnered with SXSW to provide rental bikes to attendees of the festival.
Austin is also a national leader in the lobby for plug-in hybrids. The city council is spearheading a movement called Plug-in Partners
, circulating a petition to make auto manufacturers aware of the public's desire for further development and greater availability of plug-in technology.
Growing with nature
Austin has long been known for its parks and public swimming pools. The highlight of these aquatic venues is the chlorine-free, spring-fed Barton Springs Pool
. The pool is cleaned by a high-pressure water system that removes algae from the natural, limestone floor.
Austin embraces nature, even if that nature isn't always green, flowering or cute. A large population of bats
, for example, thrives under the Congress Avenue Bridge despite urbanization all around them. The bats, which number more than 1 million, are visible most evenings during the spring and summer and have become a bit of a tourist attraction.
Austin's natural side goes well beyond watching flying rodents and splashing in nonchlorinated pools. The city has 206 parks
, 12 preserves and 26 greenbelts. While building is continuing at breakneck speed, there are still ample natural elements throughout the city.
Many hotels in the Austin area are leaning green with nontoxic cleaning products and recycling programs. One hotel in particular stands out: Using everything from solar panels to shade trees to high-efficiency air conditioners, Habitat Suites
has kept its energy consumption to a minimum without sacrificing comfort or design. Live plants in each room and extensive outdoor gardens make this one of the area's greenest hotels in color as well as catchphrase.
Austin's population growth continues, albeit not as quickly as it once did. That growth brings changes and challenges, especially when it comes to the environment. But this is still one of the most green-minded cities in the United States. Austin has plenty of chances to show it can be feasible and practical to grow up and grow green at the same time.