UPDATE: Check out the lively discussion at r/Austin!
On a cold January day in Paris, a professor asked his architecture class, “Back home, where was your nearest bakery?” Like most of my suburban-bred peers, I had a difficult time remembering mine. I eventually recalled a donut and kolache shop that, though less than a mile away, was a good three-minute drive through the winding roads of my subdivision. He then asked us, “Where is your nearest bakery?” I immediately located a small bread and pastry shop just three storefronts from my apartment. Everyday I stopped there at least once—for a morning pastry, for a midday sandwich, and/or for an evening baguette. I knew the bakers, I recognized the customers, and I took comfort in the routine. The bakery was a center of my community; it reflected neighborhood values and encouraged local identity.
The professor nodded smugly and gave us our first assignment: In teams of two, take a subway to the Île de la Cité, choose a direction, and walk for five hours. Every thirty minutes, stop in a café, order a beverage, and record a conversation.
Seth and I set off for the south of Paris, from the Île to L’Haÿ-les-Roses. In the four kilometers before we left the Boulevard Périphérique, we enjoyed an afternoon of croissants, coffee, and poor French-to-English translations. We snapped pictures of our journey. Once we crossed the loop, however, the storefronts and conversations began to disappear. Where there were once people and streets and vibrancy, there were then cars and parking lots and sterility. It got colder, and the sun began to set. We took the train back to the city.
I did not realize it at the time, but that day my professor profoundly influenced the way I thought about places. In our report he asked us to map our routes’ gradients of influence, like ripples in an ocean. Where our ripples begin to disappear, he said, is where “water” meets “land,” or where the city meets the countryside. The residue left by the tide is a sort of “foam.” We must create something of it. We must surf it.
The difference between Paris and Austin is that Paris is more or less finished, permanent. The built fabric of its loop, which consists mostly of five-to-six-story mixed-use structures, is about as dense as it wants to be. Meanwhile Austin hardly has any “water,” and as it expands it is rapidly losing its “land.” The majority of the city is “foam,” ready to be molded and constructed.
In my study I compared Austin’s 2010 census population with thirteen other U.S. cities’ 2010 population densities. I asked the question, “If Austin’s population were as dense as _____’s, how small would our city be?” How navigable? How approachable?
I recognize that some may fear an Austin that is as dense as Paris, so I have included a wide range of city densities for comparison: Manhattan, New York City (the five boroughs), San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta—all of which are denser—and Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
If Austin’s 2010 population were as dense as 2010 Manhattan’s, the city’s area would be 11.38 square miles. If we assume that area to occupy the shape of a circle, as the crow flies the average person could walk from center to edge—or downtown to farmland—in 38 minutes. The pedestrian would probably pass a lot of bakeries. On the other hand, if Austin’s 2010 population were as sparse as 2010 Oklahoma City’s, the city’s area would be 826.42 square miles. Even the most ambitious marathoner would have difficulty traversing its 32-mile diameter in a single day.
As you reflect on the map, I ask my fellow Austinites to ask themselves, “Where is my nearest shop-around-the-corner? Where is the center of my community?”