How Great Streets Revitalized Downtown Austin, Texas

A recent e-book published by Project Great Streets documents a phenomenally successful real life example of how redefining the urban public spaces – specifically, re-purposing and restructuring the streets – brings life and vitality to downtown Austin, Texas.

Principles and Priorities

Great Streets are predicated upon the belief that great streets are the most important ingredients in creating a great city. Great Streets are streets that serve all users; that prioritize the pedestrian zone; that are comfortable, safe and dynamic; and that create a valuable public realm.

A city’s downtown comprises the heart of that city, and its streets form the primary public arena for interchange and commerce.  Downtowns belong to everyone, and it should represent the community culturally, economically, and politically. Great Street believes its principles should apply to the urban core.

Great Streets prioritizes pedestrians, transit, bicycles and cars in that order, and follow 6 guiding principles.

1. Manage congestion. Congestion is a fact of life in successful urban places. By definition, a place that supports  a great concentration of economic and social activities within a pedestrian-scaled environment is going to be congested.

2. Balance the uses. Downtown streets must balance the needs of pedestrians, transit, bicycles and cars in creating an attractive and viable urban core. Seen this way, the street system can become an integral framework for downtown.

3. Streets are places. A city’s downtown streets should be a vital focus of city life, and serve as a primary destination.

4. Interactive places. Urban Streets are the stages on which the public life of the community is acted out. No design can be complete without people.

5. Take pride in places. Visible caring and upkeep can transform even the most ordinary of streets into wonderful places.

6. Create public art. Art in the public environment can help to establish a stronger sense of place and a continuity between the past, present and future

Master Plan Objectives

The initial goal of Austin’s Great Streets Master Plan was to achieve quality urban design and the creation of place, which required a dedication to rethinking the way the people view and interact with their streets.

These guiding principles are translated into the following objectives in the master plan:

  • Recognize the primacy of the grid in the downtown and optimize its use.
  • Accommodate automobile traffic to downtown and discourage traffic through downtown.
  • Allow private sector initiatives to occupy and animate the street scene with sidewalk cafes, kiosks, and newsstands.
  • Change the space and scale of the street to create a sense of place for the individual.
  • Occupy the wider sidewalk zone with an array of well-designed, functional objects such as street trees, broad eighteenfoot canopies, lights, benches, waste receptacles, and other amenities.
  • Find a multitude of ways to calm traffic movement in downtown through symbols of pedestrian dominance, traffic management in a two-way street system, and rigorous enforcement of traffic lanes to promote and protect pedestrian safety.
  • Create an equitable balance of space usage between sidewalks and streets in the public right-of-way. The ideal objective would be a 50/50 allocation between pedestrians and vehicles

The Transformation: Coming Full Circle

Before looking at the results, a quick trip down memory lane serves to remind us of what downtown Austin was like – a thriving street with a mix of transportation modes, retail, office, hotel, and residential uses, as the vintage 1940s photo below shows.

The removal of the streetcar and the dedication of the public realm to the automobile removed the vitality of its downtown. In 2000 a city official summarized the issue:

“Downtown environments create economic value because of the density of activity.  If the street environments inhibit pedestrian activity, you get lower traffic, sales, attendance, etc.  This translates into less value for land and commercial, residential space”.


Downtown Austin, Texas, circa 1940

The first segment of the incremental roll-out of the Great Streets Master Plan was four blocks of 2nd Street in downtown Austin. 2nd Street was a hodge podge of parking lots, low-rise, little activity buildings and predominantly an auto-dominated environment. It was a wasteland, a one-way street used to move cars out of downtown and onto the highway as quickly as possible. The street was rebuilt as a two-way street, and 45% of the right-of-way was given back to the people.

Since the rebuild, the street is now the primary pedestrian thoroughfare connecting the convention center to the anchors at the west end and the mixed-use redevelopment of a power plant.

2nd Street, Austin, Texas, circa 1980

2nd Street, Austin, Texas, after makeover under Great Streets Master Plan

Colorado Street, another segment which runs into the 2nd Street district, gets similarly transformed from a desolate and uninviting street to something vibrant and alive, thanks to the wider sidewalks, trees and outdoor cafes.

Transformation of Colorado Street

In the years leading up to the street face-lifts, retailers had largely abandoned downtown, and pedestrian activity in the urban core was virtually non-existent. With the change of the landscape into a walkable environment, retail is coming back and thriving.

With the transformation, this part of downtown Austin, has come full circle and back to the black-and-white era.

And the ROI for the city?

An initial investment of 8 million in the original 4 block district has resulted in over $1 billion in real estate tax value for the city. Bonus: Great Streets, and the compact development drawn to the vibrant environments it fosters, is spreading throughout downtown Austin.

Photo credit: Project Great Streets

Urban planning

This article is part of the Urban planning in-depth topic. Get a crash course and read the latest developments on this topic.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>