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Austin’s grid circa 1940

August 20, 2013

On Twitter, Niran Babalola linked to this great map of Austin’s grid circa 1940 made by the Texas State Highway Department:



Back then, “planning” chiefly meant “planning streets.” It’s a shame that planning lost that focus. The street grid that permeated Austin in 1940  is of course still with us, and forms the backbone for a number of quite livable neighborhoods. 

So what happened? Developers building large, planned subdivisions (Allandale, Barton Hills) continued to add decent street networks after 1940. But the City itself appears to have gotten out of the grid-planning business not long after this map was made. 

Consider the area bounded by South Lamar, Manchaca, Bluebonnet, Del Curto, Clawson and (today’s) Highway 71, outlined in red in the 1940 map:

This is a large tract of land:  a little over a quarter mile wide at its widest point and about 1.3 miles long. It’s remarkable that, 73 years later, there is still no path through this tract, other than a token street (Fortview) at the southern edge. Topologically, it’s a single block: 


The large, triangular tract bounded by South Lamar, Manchaca and Ben White is about as bad. Collectively, these could and should have been platted into 40 or so city blocks. Instead, they remain two big blobs of land. The lack of connectivity funnels traffic onto South Lamar and Manchaca; impedes east-west mobility, dividing eastern and western neighborhoods; forces people to make circuitous trips to run even simple errands; and forecloses any sort of low-intensity, mixed-use development in the area. Then there’s the sheer loss of public space: South Austin should have a few more miles more of public, connected streets than it has today.


One can’t even defend this runt network on the grounds that “people prefer it this way.” Residents would say they prefer it this way if you took a survey, of course — they’d say so sincerely, too — but property values tell a different story. If the lack of connectivity actually made an area desirable, then this would be the most expensive residential real estate in South Austin. But it’s not. It’s the cheapest. The really expensive residential real estate in South Austin all lies on the old grid, in Zilker, Bouldin Creek and Travis Heights, not on these dead-end streets. The homes in Galindo, on the other side of the railroad tract, are also more valuable and, not coincidentally, sit on at least a rudimentary grid.

I’m not suggesting that we try to fix this now. It is not fixable. There are physical impediments (i.e., “houses”) in the way. And it would be politically impossible to install a grid now even if the City had the will or the way. The homeowners living there simply wouldn’t stand for that kind of radical change.

Which makes it all the more a shame that the City got out of the grid-planning business after 1940.

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