Activating the Alleys of Austin

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Reeves, Blake
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A wealth of converging forces has created a situation in which downtown Austin, Texas is losing some of its greatest historic and cultural assets. At the same time, this prominent and recognized core of the city is rapidly increasing in density without corresponding plans to increase the number and quality of public open spaces. For five of the last six years, Austin has ranked as the fastest growing city in the nation (Carlyle), yet relatively little work has been done to invest in the downtown’s public realm, an area which should be functioning as the “living room of the city.” Compared with earlier periods in our country’s history and the standards currently set by other nations, American cities are no longer in the business of creating these types of rich, communal spaces. This trend could prove problematic for Austin, except that Austin has-- to put it proverbially-- an ace up its sleeve. The city’s historic framework contains over half a million square feet of publicly owned land that is currently underutilized and ripe for redevelopment as public open space. This space exists in the service alleys of the existing block structure. Austin’s original city plan and street grid included alleys within the blocks of all 196 blocks, and the large majority of the network remains intact. At current, the alleys provide invaluable service functions for businesses and residents, but these utilitarian activities occupy the alleys for less than 1% of day. The minimal demands of these services do not prevent the alleys from adopting other roles. In short, the alleys have a much greater capacity to provide value for downtown than the minimal ways in which they are currently being used. A number of projects around the globe have revealed that cities can transform residual public space and city infrastructure into dynamic and valuable offerings for residents.
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