- City in a Garden: Environmental Transformations and Racial Justice in Twentieth-Century Austin, Texas by Andrew M. Busch
As "sustainability" remains a buzzword within urban planning, community leaders rarely presume that the greening of urban spaces might have negative ramifications. In City in a Garden, Andrew M. Busch awakens readers to the hidden costs of green growth for minority communities. Weaving together urban environmental history, twentieth-century urban planning, and social history, Busch masterfully chronicles the history of Austin, Texas, from the 1890s to the 1990s, as it rose to become an economic powerhouse with an environmental conscience. At first glance, Busch argues, Austin's reputation as a "green city" distinguished it from its Sunbelt neighbors. Sustainability, progressive urban planning, and economic growth undergird the conventional telling of Austin's recent history. However, hidden beneath this veneer of a prosperous city within a garden is a long history of social inequality and racial discrimination. Examining the ways in which this contradiction has become inscribed within Austin's landscape, Busch poses his central paradox: "why the concept of urban sustainability has developed in a way that seems to exclude so many people from its benefits and why Austin is a city so tied to its natural environment yet so bifurcated by race" (2). As Austin's leaders and urban planners crafted an idealized environmental city that invited economic development and boasted a high quality of life, they attempted to render invisible the unsightly byproducts of this seemingly benign and natural growth—including industrial complexes, landfills, power plants, and wastewater treatment facilities. Racial privilege shielded white communities from these eyesores and health hazards. Systematic racial segregation—in the forms of zoning laws, restrictive covenants, and mortgage and tax policies—made marginalized minority neighborhoods the dumping grounds for Austin's environmental risks.
Attending to the racialized politics behind the production of space in Austin, Busch structures the book around how shifting ideas about nature, race, and economic opportunity became intertwined across three periods: first, from the 1890s through the New Deal, then from World War II through the early 1970s, and finally from the 1960s through the 1990s. In this first period, technocratic experts and progressives sought to rationalize and control Austin's natural environment in order to spur economic growth and engineer a more stable [End Page 1428] society. However, Jim Crow laws ensured that the environmental benefits from these infrastructural projects overwhelmingly benefited white homeowners. Key to taming Austin's unruly environment was damming the Colorado River—a task that challenged local leaders for fifty years, and was only accomplished with the aid of the federal government's New Deal investment in water resource development. The dam system provided hydroelectricity, flood control, irrigation, and new recreational sites. Yet minority populations lacked access to these outdoor leisure areas, as well as the dam system's cheap power and water. In the years leading up to World War I, discriminatory policies excluded African Americans and Latinos from Austin's improved communities. Busch argues that the siting of garbage dumps in nonwhite neighborhoods epitomizes how Anglo Austinites deemed minority spaces fitting places for environmental hazards. Austin's post-WWI embrace of urban planning and engineering increasingly equated urban improvement and beautification with the removal of racial minorities. Racial segregation became more rigidly codified from 1918 through the 1930s, particularly through urban planning measures like the Austin City Plan of 1928. Conjured up by Austin's "Business Progressives," the city plan embraced land use zoning to subtly achieve segregation and boost real estate values for white homeowners who occupied the "residential-natural section" of the city. With a city manager form of local government, white elites implemented zoning laws to ensure that minorities remained in Austin's less-desirable "urban-industrial section" (76).
Moving to the post-World War II period through the early 1970s, Busch returns to water, highlighting how Austin's many reservoirs have been central to the city's collective identity, facilitated a new commodification...