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

Solar Sunflowers, an art installation, greets visitors to Mueller's commercial and retail hub off of Interstate 35. The panels power a nightly light display and return power to the grid. When the development is complete, five miles of granite trails will connect the residents to its commercial and retail hubs.

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 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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