Karrie Jacobs writes a fantastic essay in Metropolis exploring how the word “urban” is going through a cultural makeover. Jacobs takes a trip to the outskirts of Austin, Texas — “the brink of nowhere” – where she discovers a shopping mall with “pseudo-urbanity” and a nearby hotel restaurant called “Urban: An American Grill.” Jacobs muses:
The word “urban” was big and bright red [on the restaurant]. I read it as a signal that mainstream America had finally begun to see itself as a nation of cities. You’ll recall that not so very long ago, the word “urban” was routinely used as a euphemism for “black”—as in “urban contemporary,” a radio format that generally involves a mix of R&B and hip-hop. Maybe this restaurant sign was the payoff of years of work by the New Urbanists, who assigned the word “urban” to pristine, lily-white subdivisions. Or maybe it’s the effect of recent pro-city polemics like Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, a book that argues, right in its subtitle, that our densest settlements make us “richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier.”
The mix-use development she discovered, known as The Domain, is a good example of this urban transformation. On the outskirts of Austin — an area where you might expect to see more cul-de-sacs than mixed-used developments — sits a walkable mall with apartments above it. Unlike the big box suburban “main streets” that traditional mall represent, this Austin development is working to turn this suburban development into a place where people — especially millennials — want to live, work, and play.
The Domain, like other recent mixed-use developments (Belmar, outside Denver, or Mockingbird Station in Dallas) is a conscious appeal to an emerging desire for urbanity. Bufkin believes The Domain will eventually blossom as Austin’s “second downtown, not competitive, but complementary.” He stresses it’s not as car-dependent as it appears—the city’s sole light-rail line has a stop about a quarter-mile east.
You know you’re in the midst of a cultural shift when a Texas city doesn’t want to come off as too car dependent.
The aspects that make cities great are leaking out into the edges of cities and the suburbs. Throughout the U.S., we’re seeing a trend to retrofit suburbs into walkable, connected urban centers, the suburbs of the future.
Photo: The Domain in Austin