Students in the city

Dave Player

Seventeen years ago, Maxis Software released SimCity 2000, a city-planning computer game that would go on to become a best-seller. The game allowed players to take control of a city and build it up into a metropolis. To do well in the game required a careful plan for your city; without a plan you might find your new mass transit center miles away from your grid-locked highway junction. Without a long-term vision, your city would soon fall victim to suburban sprawl or urban decay.

Now Austinites have the opportunity to play real-life SimCity, although this time a more fitting title would be “SimAustin.” Last spring the city of Austin debuted a new initiative designed to solicit feedback from citizens on Austin’s long-term city plan. The program, labeled Imagine Austin, will host a series of community forums and take surveys of opinions on city issues such as traffic, environmental impact and land use. The city has posted four possible scenarios for the long-term growth of the city and will use Austinites’ feedback to help shape the city’s comprehensive plan for the future.

However, one group you’re unlikely to see contributing input is UT students. Of the nine community forums, only two are located near the UT campus: one at David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in East Austin and another at St. David’s Episcopal Church downtown. While student critics could decry such a cold shoulder as another example of their interests being ignored, city officials could just as easily argue that student populations are not included due to their own oft-cited apathy. It’s hard enough to get young people to turn out for major national elections; trying to get them to care about local municipal issues is near impossible.

Both arguments have the same source: UT students are a transitory population. While some of us will stay in Austin, especially considering the city’s booming economy, most of us won’t be here in four years, much less 40. As such, we tend to be minimally invested in this community, especially on issues such as city planning that focus on long-term goals.

Some city neighborhoods have formal mechanisms for gathering student input. The University Area Partners, who oversee West Campus issues, currently have two members appointed by Student Government. However, West Campus is only one neighborhood, and while it may be one of the closest to campus, most students don’t live there.

In contrast, the Riverside neighborhood in Southeast Austin has a very large student population that has continued to grow in recent years. Traditionally, Riverside has received scant attention compared to West Campus — from this paper, Student Government and the University as a whole. The last time the city re-evaluated the neighborhood plan for Riverside in 2004, the only student input came from a single focus-group meeting.

While critics may claim that college students do not constitute true “stakeholders” and as such should not have a say in long-term neighborhood plans, that simply is not the case. Neighborhoods such as Riverside and West Campus depend heavily on student populations to provide revenue for renters and local businesses. To ignore their interests is hypocritical. Any long-term city plan that includes the Riverside neighborhood — or any other neighborhood with a heavy student population for that matter — must look to provide some formal structure to continually solicit student input, in much the same way that UAP has in West Campus.

While not readily apparent, the city’s long-term comprehensive plan will have a major impact on the University and its students. One scenario has urban growth continuing on a north-south axis along Interstate Highway 35. What impact would that have on the city’s mass transit capabilities? What would it mean for the future of the University’s Brackenridge Tract on Town Lake?

Another scenario seeks to contain growth within a concentrated block centered around downtown. What implications would that have property values, and subsequently, for the student housing market?

These are questions that need to be asked not just by Austin residents but also by UT students. There’s nothing stopping students from contributing to the Imagine Austin campaign except our own apathy. Students have a duty to make sure the city’s long-term plan contains student input and reflects student needs.