How did life come to be left out of Austin’s future?
Hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornados are considered forces of nature. With these, we expect the worst. A force of nature, beyond our control, is to be feared.
Life itself is a force of nature. Life, as a force, is inexorable, relentless. Life, too, is beyond our control. We can destroy life. We cannot create new life where none existed before.
Life expands and evolves to fit every niche and opportunity, given enough time and progeny. The more diverse the niches available (like a tropical rainforest), the richer and more varied the life that occupies them.
Biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth at all its levels, from genes to ecosystems. Biodiversity also includes the ecological and evolutionary processes and functionality that sustain it. How well an ecosystem is functioning is a critical concern in the conservation of ecological systems.
Cities have biodiversity, too, usually a shadow of what existed before. Mirabeau Lamar visited Waterloo (the village that preceded Austin) in 1837, and shot a bison near what is now the corner of Congress and West 7th. The bison are gone from Austin. John James Audubon, visiting Galveston the same year, saw more ivory-billed woodpeckers along Buffalo Bayou than any place he had previously visited. The woodpecker is extinct.
Imagine Austin is Austin’s newest comprehensive plan for the future. One way to plan for the future is to learn from the mistakes of the past. As George Santayana said,
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
The environment is one of the eight priority programs listed in Imagine Austin. The plan states,
Our open spaces and preserves shape city planning, reduce infrastructure costs, and provide us with recreation, clean air and water, local food, cooler temperatures, and biodiversity.
Not much more is said about biodiversity in the plan. In other words, not much more is said about the diversity of life, or about Austin’s natural patrimony.
CodeNEXT is the current phase of the Imagine Austin visioning effort. CodeNEXT will rewrite the Land Development Code (LDC). The most recent draft is titled The Next Austin: Manage our growth, keep our character, and details strategies to “preserve, protect and enhance the City’s natural and built environment.” Biodiversity is mentioned only once in this draft, and no strategy is presented to conserve or restore biodiversity.
There are easily one thousand species of terrestrial and aquatic plants and animals in the Shoal Creek watershed. If we add soil bacteria, nematodes, earthworms and the like, the number would jump even higher.
The greatest threat to biodiversity in our watershed is development. The logical remedy is to regulate development. CodeNEXT is going to shape the next LDC, the regulations that control development. On biodiversity, this first draft is silent.
The greatest threat to biodiversity in our watershed is development.
How did life come to be left out of Austin’s future? Curiously, there is little mention of historical preservation in the draft, either. Heritage is only mentioned when it references trees.
Here is one possible explanation. Complex, amorphous issues such as biodiversity and historic preservation are difficult to shoehorn into forms that fit well into regulatory codes. In preservation, cities focus on preserving distinct architectural styles that are simpler to quantify and define. Although the end goal should be to preserve the cultural and social fabric of the community (i.e., people), what is reflected in code is the protection of old buildings (i.e., things).
The same is true for biodiversity. City planners cannot begin to address the conservation needs of the thousands of species within the city’s limits. Therefore, planners and regulators focus on a manageable number of species that are easily recognized for their aesthetic value – trees. For the remaining species, the vast majority of what comprises biodiversity, the codes and regulations are silent. Barring the presence of an endangered species (a federal law), biodiversity other than trees is unprotected.
Imagine Austin does profess a commitment to conserving biodiversity, but only within the context of “our open spaces and preserves.” Yet, CodeNEXT takes this aspiration no further. Shouldn’t goals be established for biodiversity conservation and restoration within all of our open space? Shouldn’t funding be identified for such an effort?
Most cities are becoming more sensitized to protecting and restoring heritage landscapes, not less. The good news, however, is that the flaws in the current draft are acts of omission. My concern is with what’s missing.
My suggestion is that natural and built landscapes be separated, and a completely new strategy be developed for the conservation and restoration of Austin’s biodiversity. In addition, the strategy for built landscapes will need to be rewritten to include historical and cultural preservation.
Given that the current team of experts is responsible for the gaffe, I would suggest inviting a few new team members to help save this draft from an ignominious fate. Without a major rewrite to integrate the conservation and restoration of biodiversity in our region into our building codes, this draft is unacceptable both as a statement of principle as well as policy.