Austin Leads the Way As A Sustainable City With New Green Buildings

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Austin has always had the “cool factor,” but now it is leading the way as a green and sustainable city as well…

The city of Austin has long been a rebel in the state of Texas, boasting a culture of progressiveness and innovation. With Austin’s population projected to double within the next 15 years, sustainability is key, and the city is hard at work improving its infrastructure and design to serve more people in a more sustainable way. Not only are they “reengineering streets, wiring, and sewers to limit vulnerability to drought, flash floods, and other perils of a warming earth,” according to a recent article in National Geographic, but they are also making strides in green building design, and have declared the lofty goal of becoming a “carbon-neutral” city by the year 2050. Part of this initiative involves developing a new standard that states that all new home builds must be rated “net-zero capable,” which means they must be able to produce as much electricity as they consume.

But this isn’t all. Austin has also recently added affordable green apartment housing in its downtown area, and converted abandoned buildings such as an old power plant and airplane hangar into a thriving city center with sustainable features.

Here is more on how this “cool” city is fast becoming one of America’s most sustainable cities as well:

Austin’s green building movement dates to the 1970s, when residents fought a nuclear power plant that the city planners decreed was necessary to meet the city’s increasing power needs.

“They told us we needed this incredible amount of power,” says Peter Pfeiffer, an Austin architect who designed houses to deflect heat from the blazing Texas sun. “Then somebody had the creativity to ask: based on what assumptions? Why don’t we manage demand a little more aggressively? And that was the birth of Austin’s green movement.”

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Today the threat to Austin is not the size of the homes but the number of them. Austin is the nation’s fastest-growing metro area, part of a worldwide trend that will turn two-thirds of the world’s population into city dwellers in the next 35 years. Driven by expansion on its outskirts, Austin’s population is on target to double by 2030. (Read about how Austin’s growth impacts its new food future.)

All of that growth feeds sprawl, the natural enemy of sustainable cities. To that end, Austin is filling in its interior, putting up high-rises where parking lots and decaying low-rise buildings took up valuable space.

“Where you build the building has a much bigger impact than how you design the building. It’s location, location, location,” Lucia Athens, the city’s chief sustainability officer. “Not only is it key to climate change, it’s key to many other sustainability benefits, like living in a compacted and connected community where you can walk to get a quart of milk instead of driving, which is bad for the environment, bad for traffic congestion, and bad for your health.”

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The jewels of Austin’s urban renewal are two entirely new districts that have risen from a pair of defunct industrial sites—a decommissioned, 1950s-era steam power plant and the outdated municipal airport, which closed in 1999.

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The Seaholm EcoDistrict is an 85-acre development on the edge of downtown, facing the shoreline of Lady Bird Lake, some of the most sought-after real estate in the city. Once dominated by the city-owned power plant and a water treatment facility, Seaholm today is a high-density, pedestrian-friendly enclave of shops, restaurants, new offices, and open spaces that invite gatherings such as the kind of music events Austin is known for. It is home to a new public library, set to open in May, and several residential high-rises, including one under construction that will be downtown Austin’s tallest building, The Independent, at 58 stories.

On a walking tour, Athens shows off Seaholm’s perks: a small forest of trees, public art works, recharging posts for electric cars, a solar-powered park bench for recharging smart phones and laptops. The Art Deco power plant has been preserved and remodeled into office space, housing a healthcare company and Boiler Nine Bar + Grill, a new restaurant with plans for a roof garden to grow salad greens and other vegetables. Walking paths reconnect the site to the rest of downtown on one side and to a pedestrian bridge over the lake on the other.

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Learn more about Austin’s green building program at NationalGeographic.com

 

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