With porches and parks, a Texas community aims for urban utopia: NPR


Families hang out at the Mueller Farmer’s Market in Austin, Texas on a Sunday. In a state where cars are king, planners designed Mueller with pedestrians in mind.

Julia Robinson for NPR


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Julia Robinson for NPR


Families hang out at the Mueller Farmer’s Market in Austin, Texas on a Sunday. In a state where cars are king, planners designed Mueller with pedestrians in mind.

Julia Robinson for NPR

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 a planned and acclaimed community trying something different.

When Austin Municipal Airport closed 16 years ago, it created an urban planner’s dream: 700 acres of prime real estate near downtown. What emerged from years of public/private/neighborhood collaboration was the Mueller Community – often described as a masterpiece of smart urban design.

Mueller is the product of the concept of “new urbanism”: the idea that a built environment can create a meaningful community. City planners downplay the supremacy of the automobile and shape the environment around pedestrians.

Greg Weaver, Mueller Project Manager at Catellus Development, walks down a crushed granite path that circles a man-made lake with a fountain and diving ducks.

“People in the park there with the dog, the guy fishing there…the birthday party here is something that’s always been envisioned in paper and in theory – and it’s become a reality here. “, says Weaver.

A model of the Mueller Master Plan. With its goals of environmental sustainability and mixed-income home ownership, Mueller has become a model for development nationwide.

Julia Robinson for NPR


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A model of the Mueller Master Plan. With its goals of environmental sustainability and mixed-income home ownership, Mueller has become a model for development nationwide.

Julia Robinson for NPR

“People know their neighbors”

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

Mueller, on the other hand, is an intentionally dense development. Construction started in 2007, and today, walking along the sidewalks, you notice tiny courtyards and large, welcoming 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 lead planner.

“Every single family home has a porch, every townhouse has a front porch,” he says. “We have some ground rules; the porch is one of them, the location of the garage [in back] is another.”

One of the criticisms of New Urbanism is that its communities are too much like a movie set – too quaint, too utopian. Yet Mueller feels real, with its sweeping greenways, eclectic garden art, and craftsman-style homes built with plenty 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 patio of his home in Mueller. “People are on their porches, people know their neighbors. It’s a very friendly place.”

Solar Sunflowers, an art installation, greets visitors to the Mueller Shopping and Retail Center off Interstate 35. The panels power a nighttime display and return electricity to the grid. Once the development is complete, five miles of granite pathways will connect residents to its shopping and retail centers.

Julia Robinson for NPR


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Julia Robinson for NPR


Solar Sunflowers, an art installation, greets visitors to the Mueller Shopping and Retail Center off Interstate 35. The panels power a nighttime display and return electricity to the grid. Once the development is complete, five miles of granite pathways will connect residents to its shopping and retail centers.

Julia Robinson for NPR

Less driving, more walking

This friendliness, it turns out, is measurable.

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

The survey results appear to validate the gospel of the New Urbanist: good design, such as sidewalks, street lighting, wide pathways and parks, can improve social and physical health. Several mornings a week, a group of retired guys walk through Mueller.

“We’ve lost weight. We’re definitely in better shape than before,” says Don Dozier, a retired accounting professor. He and his wife, Janelle, moved here in 2008 from a conventional south Austin subdivision that had no sidewalks. “I think the bottom line is probably that we’ve made an incredible number of friends,” he adds.

This social commitment is what many residents mention. Retired television cameraman Frosty Walker recalls the cul-de-sac where he lived in northwest Austin.

“It was one of those situations where you walked into your house, and if a neighbor came, the garage door would go up, the car would come into the garage, the garage door would go down,” Walker says. “You saw and greeted each other once in a while, and that was about the extent of your relationship.”

Holly Adams (center) hugs her son Felix after soccer practice at Mueller’s 30-acre Lake Park. Many residents report having a high level of social engagement with their neighbors.

Julia Robinson for NPR


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Julia Robinson for NPR


Holly Adams (center) hugs her son Felix after soccer practice at Mueller’s 30-acre Lake Park. Many residents report having a high level of social engagement with their neighbors.

Julia Robinson for NPR

While Mueller residents burn more calories, they also use less electricity. A research group called Pecan Street Inc. has enrolled 250 homes here to connect to the smart grid to track their minute-by-minute energy usage.

You can see it in action at Janelle and Don Dozier. Upstairs, a computer terminal displays a multicolored graphic. “When we first got it, we checked it several times a day because it was really interesting,” says Janelle. “You could see when the air conditioner was going on, you could see when I was using my hair dryer.”

There are things they learned, she says, “that were helpful to us.” For example, that their solar panels create enough power to fully charge their Chevy Volt. “So basically we were driving the car in the 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 and welcoming neighborhoods is faced with racial incidents involving some of its own African-American residents who don’t feel so welcome?

We’ll continue to explore Mueller, and how he resolves tensions within the community, on Friday. morning edition.

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