‘Smart cities’ advocates see Covid-19 policies as opportunity for change in Austin


As city leaders work to make progress with a number of programs quickly created to alleviate the effects of the pandemic, members of local urbanism and “smart cities” groups say the wave of public policy moves could help to advance causes that have been moving slowly for years.

New options for mass transit, smart city devices and better access to community resources are some of the areas ripe for change that were discussed last week during an online webinar organized by the advocacy group Digi.City.

Some of the concepts trace back to the city’s still mostly unimplemented Imagine Austin comprehensive plan, which envisions walkable community centers and clusters that are connected by comprehensive transit options. Jenell Moffett, director of research and analysis for the Downtown Austin Alliance, said the shift to working from home could place more importance on having most stores and community features located within shorter distances.

“If you’re building a city that is walkable, compact and connected, the concept around compact hubs relates to where you live and creating the needed transportation infrastructure and making sure those nodes meet the needs of the people in those areas,” she said. “If work changes – and it sounds like it is changing – then all those models have to look at how people are moving with the high amount to tech jobs and the large concentration of those people working from home.”

Decisions on the city’s land use code and a likely transportation bond, along with the next city budget, are headed to City Council before the end of the year, creating the possibility for widespread change and new policies.

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Chelsea Collier, Digi.City’s founder, said those actions are likely to bring criticism from many directions, and that groups like hers will need to voice support for ambitious ideas at the city level.

“We’re putting a lot of pressure right now on government leaders to make hard decisions and make transitions really quickly, and they need some air cover in order to experiment and be more agile,” she said. “I’m wondering how we can bring in big thinkers to support the folks in city hall and help in this important foundation setting.”

Joseph Kopser, a recent candidate for the Texas statehouse and tech entrepreneur, followed up by pushing for changes to the urban landscape that make sense alongside a need for social distancing and other public health precautions brought on by the virus. One example he cited was reducing on-street parallel parking to make more room for sidewalks and to prevent pedestrians from crowding together.

“We have to see this as a moment where just because we have a policy or a rule, procedure or tradition does not mean we have to keep doing that,” he said. “Conversely this is also a great time for business and government to realize, hey, we’re doing some new things and why should we rethink these new things and look at even newer ways to do them, like widening sidewalks even more and getting rid of more parking.”

Moffett said initiatives favored by urbanists and data-forward advocates could be more easily achieved if they are tied to milestones that can demonstrate progress to less-involved members of the public.

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“When you make a rule or a law or something, qualify it with some sort of data or metrics that says once we hit this milestone then we feel like we can go to this next level at city, state or federal government,” she said. “We have the assumption in public policy that we’re doing what is best for the community, and having that milestone language in place helps bring more people to the table to have conversations about how to change our cities.”

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