growing and learning
Mapping the future: High school students tackle Austin's development challenges
Remember when you were a freshman in high school, and a city planner asked you to redesign your hometown? No? You must not have taken pre-AP Human Geography with Jamison Warren.
For the past few years, students in Warren’s class in the Academy for Global Studies at Austin High School have been redesigning sites including Highland Mall, the Austin State School and the Brackenridge Tract. Using giant maps, pencil, and concepts from class, they’ve been envisioning a walkable and sustainable future for Austin.
Ninth graders haven’t really taken over the city’s planning offices. The exercise is part of a unit that focuses on urban development and was the brainchild of Carol Haywood, manager of the city’s comprehensive planning division. She wanted to encourage Warren’s students to think of themselves as stakeholders in Austin’s future.
This is particularly important when it comes to the 30-year comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin. Haywood is blunt: “Thirty years from now I’m not going to be here. This is going to be their city, and the kids today are really bright, and they want a good place to live.”
An eye-opening exercise
AHS senior Emily Huang is one of those bright kids. When she was a freshman, her group redeveloped a tract of land near Cameron-Dessau Road and was invited to present its map to the city council.
"I think it’s important that we learn all of our options so that when things are developed, they’re developed into things that we would like to use."
“[The exercise] opened my eyes to how things are changing and we don’t really have full control over what’s going to happen,” Huang says. “But I think it’s important that we learn all of our options so that when things are developed, they’re developed into things that we would like to use.”
Huang’s group, and the others, imagined pedestrian- and bike-friendly, mixed-use developments in the style of New Urbanism. Many connected their projects to transit lines (real or imagined) and included large parks.
The mapping exercise let the students apply concepts they’d learned in class, including the importance of transportation options other than cars. Warren has his classes — which include students from downtown, Tarrytown, the Holly neighborhood and Oak Hill — compare their commute times and whether their neighborhoods have sidewalks.
The importance of walkability
The students also discover their neighborhoods’ walkability scores. “The idea is, can you bike? Can you walk? Are there retail shopping opportunities you can get to without driving?” Warren explains. “Or are you always depending on your car?”
His students are sometimes surprised when they compare scores and realize the opportunities kids in other neighborhoods have. “Especially for a teenager who can’t drive, walkability is huge,” Warren says.
It was huge for Huang’s group, which got most of its ideas from The Triangle. The students appreciated its mix of shops, restaurants and park space, all accessible by foot from the living quarters. They put a Triangle-like park in the center of their tract and built shops around it.
They applied other lessons from the Human Geography curriculum, too.
“One of the really interesting things we learned was about the structure of neighborhoods, and things that make neighborhoods work and not work,” Huang says. “When there are cul de sacs in neighborhoods it makes all the traffic direct to one major road that’s really busy, and it messes up the traffic flow. So we tried not to do that.
“Also, when roads are narrower, cars have to slow down, and it makes it more cycling friendly and pedestrian friendly. So we had more sidewalks and smaller roads.”
To demonstrate New Urbanism, Warren takes the class to the Mueller development. Some of those ideas found their way into the redevelopment projects, too — especially a mixture of housing types for different income levels.
“They thought that was very democratic,” Warren explains. “And then I asked them, ‘Is that what your neighborhood looks like?’ And they were like, ‘No, not really.’”
Warren, who notes that he has both students on free lunch and a student with a private plane, thinks his pupils would like to replicate this diversity in other areas of their lives.
But it is what Austin High looks like, with its mix of incomes, neighborhoods and ethnicities. Warren, who notes that he has both students on free lunch and a student with a private plane, thinks his pupils would like to replicate this diversity in other areas of their lives.
The exercise wasn’t without controversy — one group was assigned to redevelop the UT-owned Brackenridge Tract, which includes the Lions Municipal Golf Course (Muny), where many AHS families play golf. But Haywood and Warren both say the kids performed better than many adults in similar situations.
“The City of Austin planners commented numerous times on how much less friction and fighting was going on between the students, versus adults in the same scenario,” Warren relates. “The kids were coming up with these beautiful, really democratic, very utilitarian designs.”
Of course, this difference is due to the students’ limited life experience as well as teenagers’ limited ability to think into the future. “When you’re 14 or 15 it’s hard to imagine what’s going to happen next week,” much less 30 years in the future, Warren notes.
And like some adults who’ve participated in planning exercises, the students didn’t always take into account the need for a tax base in their developments. They created large parks, “which from a young person’s perspective makes a ton of sense,” Warren says. “But I don’t know from a practical standpoint how that land pays dividends back to the tax base.”
Practical or not, the exercise did introduce students to planning as both a profession and a process that affects their lives. Because so many graduates of Austin’s high schools stay in Austin, the city has an interest in helping them feel invested in the comprehensive plan.
And Emily Huang is even considering planning as a career. She’s been studying Chinese and sees opportunities for a planner in rapidly urbanizing China. The appeal? “You’re creating how people are going to live their lives every day — if they’re going to be able to walk to the grocery store, or to their work, or to the park. It’s almost like playing God in a way.”