With Porches And Parks, A Texas Community Aims For Urban Utopia | KERA News

With Porches And Parks, A Texas Community Aims For Urban Utopia

Feb 12, 2015
Originally published on February 17, 2015 11:25 am

This is the first story in a two-part report on the Mueller neighborhood for the NPR Cities Project.

In Texas, a state where cars and private property are close to a religion, there is an acclaimed master-planned community that's trying something different.

When Austin's municipal airport closed 16 years ago, it created a planner's dream: 700 acres of prime real estate close to the city core. What emerged from years of public/private/neighborhood collaboration was the Mueller Community — often spoken of as a masterwork of smart urban design.

Mueller is the product of the "new-urbanism" concept: the idea that a built environment can create meaningful community. Planners minimize the supremacy of the automobile and shape the environment around pedestrians.

Greg Weaver, Mueller project manager with Catellus Development, is walking on a crushed-granite path that circles a man-made lake complete with a fountain and diving ducks.

"The people in the park over there with the dog, the guy fishing over there ... the birthday party over here is something that was always envisioned in paper and in theory — and it's become a reality out here," Weaver says.

'People Know Their Neighbors'

The traditional model of residential American development is to lay out a grid of streets and line them with two-story houses featuring giant closets and voluptuous two-car garages.

Mueller, in contrast, is intentionally dense development. Construction began in 2007, and today, walking along the sidewalks, you notice tiny yards and big, inviting front porches. The car is still king here, but many of them are hybrids and electrics, and they're out of sight.

"At Mueller, every house has a garage, but they're always in the back. The porch is in the front," says Jim Adams, hired by the City of Austin as Mueller's master planner.

"Every single-family house has a porch, every row house has a stoop," he says. "We have certain fundamental rules; the porch is one of them, the garage location [in back] is another one."

One of the criticisms of new urbanism is that its communities look too much like a movie set — too quaint, too utopic. Yet Mueller feels real, with its ample greenways, eclectic yard art and Craftsman-style homes built with lots of native limestone.

"I mean, the whole idea of porches is a bit of a cliche, but it works," Adams continues, speaking from the back deck of his home in Mueller. "People are on their porches, people know their neighbors. It's a very convivial place."

Less Driving, More Walking

That conviviality, it turns out, is measurable.

A research team from Texas A&M University polled Mueller residents and what they found was striking. After moving here, respondents said, they spend an average of 90 fewer minutes a week in the car, and most reported higher levels of physical activity.

The poll results seem to validate new-urbanist gospel: good design, like sidewalks, street lighting, extensive trails and parkland, can improve social and physical health. Several mornings a week, a group of retired guys power walk through Mueller.

"We've lost weight. We're certainly more fit than we used to be," says Don Dozier, a retired accounting professor. He and his wife, Janelle, moved here in 2008 from a conventional subdivision south of Austin that had no sidewalks. "I think probably the main thing is that we have made an incredible number of friends," he adds.

This social engagement is what a lot of residents mention. Frosty Walker, a retired TV cameraman, recalls the cul-de-sac where he used to live in northwest Austin.

"It was one of those situations that you would come into your house, and if a neighbor came, the garage door went up, the car went in the garage, the garage door went down," Walker says. "You would see each other and wave every once in a while, and that was pretty much the extent of your relationships."

If Mueller residents are burning more calories, they're also using less electricity. A research group called Pecan Street Inc. has enrolled 250 homes here to plug into the smart grid to track their energy usage minute-by-minute.

You can see it in action at Janelle and Don Dozier's home. Upstairs, there's a computer terminal displaying a multicolored graph. "When we first got it, we would check it several times a day because it was really interesting," Janelle says. "You could see when the air conditioner kicked on, you could see when I was using my hair dryer."

There were things they learned, she says, "that were useful to us." For instance, that their solar panels create enough power to fully recharge their Chevy Volt. "So basically we were driving the car on sun," she says.

Mueller seems to have it all: electric cars, solar panels, green buildings, walkability and native landscaping. But what happens when one of Austin's most progressive, welcoming neighborhood confronts racial incidents involving some of its own African-American residents who don't feel so welcome?

We'll continue exploring Mueller, and how it's addressing tensions within the community, on Friday's Morning Edition.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Does the design of your neighborhood - the proximity of houses, the kind of home you live in - does it affect how you interact with your neighbors? Does it affect your health? We explore that today for the NPR Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Becoming a world-class city.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Engaging the neighborhood deeply.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sense of ownership that this is our community.

JIM ADAMS: It's a very convivial place.

MARTIN: In Texas, where cars and private property are taken very seriously, there is an acclaimed community called Mueller.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's built on principles of new-urbanism - that the built environment can be intentionally neighborly and sustainable. Mueller opened in the booming city of Austin just a few years ago. NPR's John Burnett takes us to see how it's working out.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: When Austin's municipal airport closed on this site 16 years ago, it created a master planner's dream - 700 acres of prime real estate close to the city core. What emerged from years of public-private neighborhood collaboration was this, the Mueller Community, often spoken of as a masterwork of smart urban design.

GREG WEAVER: My name is Greg Weaver. I'm with Catellus Development and I'm the project manager of the Mueller redevelopment.

BURNETT: We're walking along a path next to runners and dog walkers and cellphone yakkers. Next to us is a man-made lake with a fountain and diving ducks.

WEAVER: The people in the park over there with the dog and a guy fishing over here is - you know, the birthday party over here - is something that, you know, was always envisioned on paper and in theory, and has become a reality out here.

BURNETT: The traditional model of residential American development is to lay out a grid of streets and line them with two-story houses featuring giant closets and voluptuous two-car garages. Mueller is intentionally dense development. Walking along the sidewalk, you notice tiny yards and big, inviting front porches. The car is still king here, but many of them are hybrids and electrics, and they're out of sight.

ADAMS: At Mueller, every house has a garage but it's - they're always in the back. The porch is in the front.

BURNETT: And it seems like every house has a porch.

ADAMS: Every single-family house has a porch. Every row house has a stoop.

BURNETT: Is that a rule, if you build a house here?

ADAMS: You know, we have certain fundamental rules. A porch is one of them, the garage location is another one.

BURNETT: Jim Adams was hired by the city of Austin as the project's master planner. He liked it so much that he and his wife moved here. We're talking on his back deck. One of the criticisms of new urbanism is that it looks too much like a movie set - too quaint, too utopic. Yet, with its ample greenways and eclectic yard art and craftsmen-style homes using lots of native limestone, Mueller feels real.

ADAMS: I mean, the whole idea of porches is a bit of a cliche, but it works. I mean, people are on their porches, people know their neighbors. It's a very convivial place.

BURNETT: It turns out conviviality is measurable. A research team from Texas A&M University polled Mueller residents and what they found was striking. After moving here, respondents said they spend an average of 90 fewer minutes a week in the car and most reported higher levels of physical activity. The poll results seem to validate new-urbanist gospel that good design like sidewalks, and street lighting, and extensive trails and parkland can improve social and physical health. So it's about 7]30 in the morning and there's a group of about a half a dozen retired gentlemen who walk every other morning in the Mueller development.

Has living in Mueller made you all healthier?

DON DOZIER: We've lost weight. We're certainly more fit than we used to be.

BURNETT: Don Dozier, a retired accounting professor, moved here from a conventional subdivision south of Austin which had no sidewalks.

D. DOZIER: I think probably the main thing is that we have made an incredible number of friends.

BURNETT: This social engagement is what a lot of residents notice. Frosty Walker, a retired TV cameraman, recalls the cul-de-sac where he used to live in northwest Austin.

FROSTY WALKER: It was one of those situations that you would come into your house and if a neighbor came, the garage door went up, your car went in the garage, the garage door went down. You would see each other and wave every once in a while. And that was pretty much the extent of your relationships.

BURNETT: If Mueller residents are burning more calories, they're also using less electricity. A research group called Pecan Street Inc. has enrolled 250 homes out here to plug into the smart grid to track their energy usage minute-by-minute. You can see this in action at the home of Janelle Dozier. Upstairs there's a computer terminal displaying a multi-colored graph.

JANELLE DOZIER: When we first got it, we would check it several times a day because it was really interesting. You could see when the air-conditioner kicked on, you could see when, like, I was using my hair dryer. And there were things that we found out that were useful to us.

BURNETT: For instance, the Doziers learned that their solar panels create enough power to fully recharge their Chevy Volt.

J. DOZIER: So basically, we're driving the car on sun.

BURNETT: Electric cars, solar panels, green buildings, walk-ability, native landscaping - oh, the perfection of human habitation. But what happens when Austin's most communitarian, welcoming neighborhood confronts racial incidents involving some of its own African-American residents who don't feel so welcome? Tune in tomorrow on Morning Edition for the second part of our report. In the Mueller neighborhood of Austin, I'm John Burnett for the NPR Cities Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.