Does New Urbanism Have a Racial Problem?

In two parts, NPR's City Project examines Austin's premier mixed-use urban village built on the 700-acre site of the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport which relocated in 1999. Part 2 is about racial tensions that have surfaced in the community.

2 minute read

February 16, 2015, 5:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid

Austin Race map

Eric Fischer / Flickr

"Mueller is an award-winning master planned and designed community, [built] in accordance with new urbanist principles," according to its website. And it has won a lot of awards, from protected bike lanes to sustainability to landscape architecture.

Construction began in Austin's "new urbanist enclave," as John BurnettNPR's southwest correspondent, refers to it, in 2007. In Part 1, and archived in NPR Cities Project, Burnett does an excellent job of describing the design of the mixed-income, mixed-use community.

"But what happens when one of Austin's most progressive, welcoming neighborhoods experiences racial incidents involving some of its own African-American residents who don't feel so welcome?" he asks.

Burnett describes several incidents that showed that residents were suspicious of the presence of African Americans in the community, who turned out to be residents. The close-knit community, helped by the physical design of the community itself, recognized there was a problem and acted.

Taken together, the incidents convinced some Mueller residents that they needed to open a frank dialogue about race in their community. Two neighborhood meetings have followed. NPR was invited to the latest one, in early December.

"By and large, there was a collective sense of both outrage, shock and honest, sincere sadness," says James Nortey, 28, a black attorney in Austin and president of the Mueller Neighborhood Association

A broader issue is the state of race relations in the state's capital, Austin, population 885,400. "University of Texas report on U.S. Census data reveals that Austin is the only large, fast-growing city in America with a declining black population," writes Burnett.

From 2000 to 2010, Austin's general population jumped 20 percent, but the number of African-Americans shrank by 5 percent. Among the reasons given in the study: high property taxes, bad relations with police and disparities in public schools.

That's not to say that Austin is not completely lacking in racially diversity. Although Austin-Round Rock was rated #30 by the US2010 Project at Brown University, according to The Wall Street Journal (and posted here in Sept., 2012), the Hispanic share of its population was 31.4 percent.

Burnett ends his piece on an optimistic note. Referencing the racial strife that has erupted due after the Ferguson, Mo., shooting last August and the resulting calls for a national dialog on race, he writes that in Mueller, "that conversation is already quietly taking place."

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