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Austin City (Racial) Limits

City in a Garden

City in a Garden: Environmental Transformations and Racial Justice in Twentieth-Century Austin, Texas
by Andrew M. Busch

Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
323 pp. $85.00 cloth, $29.95 paper.

Reviewed by
Emily Spangenberg

Austin is often painted as an urban oasis: a blue bubble in a red state, a verdant natural playground surrounded by desert and swamp, a famously “weird” exception to the rest of Texas and to economic depression and environmental blight in cities nationwide. Austin’s explosive growth in recent years is linked to its popularized image as a progressive refuge untouched by economic downturn, which offers leisurely perks in its natural spring-fed pools, waterfront running trails, world-renowned music festivals, and bounty of breakfast tacos. In City in a Garden, Andrew M. Busch renders this imagined progressive oasis an actual mirage, providing a much-needed reminder of how, and for whom, Austin was designed. Busch applies critical race theory to Austin’s environmental history, illustrating how urban development schemes have spatially and racially segregated access to amenities and exposure to risks in the city. Busch shows that Austin’s oasis is a guarded space that has privileged white residents and entrenched racial inequalities since the city’s origins.

   Busch draws on George Lipsitz’s concept of “possessive investment in whiteness” to explain how environmental planning has conferred economic and structural benefits to Austin’s white residents. The book traces how Austin’s economy, which Busch calls an “industry without smokestacks,” has linked knowledge labor to environmental amenities while systematically denying minority (defined as non-white) residents the benefits of either. In the early twentieth century, this meant harnessing the Colorado River for energy provision, flood management, and recreational use; ensuring that white residents had exclusive access to properties with higher value (namely, those which were not located in floodplains of the Colorado River); and displacing African Americans and Mexican American residents to the eastern limits of the city through zoning laws, exposing them to hazards via their proximity to flood-prone riverways and waste dumping areas. The establishment of Austin as the capital of Texas and home of the state’s flagship public university attracted a largely non-industrial workforce, and one which was largely inaccessible to the city’s racial minorities. Busch argues that the maintenance of public green spaces and proximity to waterways added to Austin’s appeal in the region, yet, as he observes, these green spaces were constructed and maintained under segregationist policies that excluded non-white residents. Additionally, flood management and public utility and sanitation service provision remained subpar throughout areas where minority residents lived. Busch shows how the later decades of the twentieth century followed similar patterns. Even in the absence of de jure segregation, booming technology industries, business-friendly tax policies, and the attraction of the “creative class” to Austin encouraged gentrification, and further entrenched spatial, racial inequalities through displacement of minority residents.

   In tracing Austin’s environmental history, Busch highlights the uneasy relationship between sustainability and social exclusion in the city. Its development has always hinged on the protection and promotion of green space and avoidance of polluting heavy industry, yet its “green” economy has nonetheless created environmental inequalities and a dearth of social opportunities for the city’s non-white residents. Busch also points out that much urban planning in Austin has been conducted without genuine inclusion of minority residents, promoting a singular vision of what constitutes “the environment,” “development,” and “sustainability.”

   Busch’s emphasis on the tensions between “green” development and social exclusion, along with his outlining of how environmental inequalities can be formed even in the relative absence of toxic industry, provides a nuanced take on how to conceptualize environmental injustice. Scholarly literature tends to frame the phenomenon as a product of intentional siting of toxic facilities or waste in or near marginalized communities, and primarily understands environmental inequality in terms of people’s proximity to toxins. Busch’s heavy focus on water management, assignment of land values, and green space siting promotes a broader definition of environmental inequality that is rooted in other forms of hazards and institutionalized inequalities.

   Busch’s history of Austin’s economy as a major component of urban planning also expands thought on the links between labor, race, and environment, as it further illustrates how institutionalized forms of racism and privilege are the driving forces behind the creation of environmental inequalities. Throughout the book, Busch documents how the growth of the University of Texas, of Austin as a capital city, and of the technological and creative sectors have both physically displaced and socially excluded Austin’s racial minorities. Busch succeeds in showing the limits of ostensibly progressive ideals, in this case the promotion of environmental preservation and skilled labor, by describing their (often unintentional) social consequences.

   City in a Garden is a well-documented analysis of the role of whiteness in the creation and preservation of environmental inequalities, and the book’s structure effectively shows two sides of Austin’s urban development. Busch alternates chapters on urban planning that benefited white residents with subsequent chapters on their effects on minority residents, which provides the reader with a nuanced understanding of how Austin was built along racial fault lines. Chapters on whiteness are extensively documented, drawing on research of archival government documents, meetings, and anecdotes. Chapters on the effects and responses of minority residents provide less archival information, despite mentions of protest to unequal environmental conditions. While this imbalance does not detract from the book’s overall value or arguments about the possessive investment in whiteness, it does leave the reader curious about the details of life outside Austin’s privileged circles.

   The appeal of City in a Garden reaches beyond readers fascinated with Austin, as it situates the history of the city in urban planning trends at the national level. It will appeal to anyone with interests in urban planning, labor, environment, academia, and economics. Busch’s intervention challenges readers to rethink many buzzwords of our times – from progressivism to sustainability, from green development to smart cities—as tensions and injustices highlighted here are recognizable in and provide valuable insight for dozens of other U.S. cities.

Emily Spangenberg is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research examines the social roots and impacts of environmental contamination and natural disasters. Specifically, she is interested in the politics of environmental health risks in extractive economies.