Tackling Austin’s Wicked Problems
Freshmen investigate the complex challenges of a growing city
Austin is consistently recognized as one of the country’s best places to live — in fact, it topped a recent U.S. News & World Report list. But along with Austin’s food trucks, festivals and growing economy come challenges.
As in other fast-growing cities, Austin’s popularity has led to rising housing costs and gridlock on city streets. And the benefits of Austin’s boom have not been shared by all. The Community Advancement Network, which tracks quality-of-life indicators and of which St. Edward’s is a partner organization, has found that significant numbers of Austin families struggle to make ends meet.
Such problems are complex, with long histories and no easy answers. In fact, in the 1960s, design theorist Horst Rittel called such social issues “wicked problems” because of how difficult they are to solve. But freshmen in the Wicked Problems Living Learning Community took a first step toward understanding and action. In the fall semester, the students, who all live in Basil Moreau Hall, took one of five courses designed to expand their thinking about complex issues. On Mondays, the group also convened for a one-hour “Wicked Problems” seminar, where they examined Austin’s challenges through focused study.
In small groups, they investigated problems like food security, healthcare, housing, transportation, education and crime. They learned the history of their wicked problem, talked to people connected to the issue, and suggested new ideas for addressing it.
“The whole concept of a wicked problem is that it doesn’t necessarily have a solution,” says Associate Professor of Secondary Education Steven Fletcher, who directs the Wicked Problems LLC and taught the Monday seminar. But by looking at the problem from all angles, the students learned how to approach a complicated issue with pragmatism, creativity, and a focus on social justice – all part of the university’s mission.
We talked with a few students to find out what they learned.
Why I chose the topic: I’m from Austin, and I’ve noted that traffic has gotten much worse recently. Our group wanted to find out why it was so bad and think about solutions that involved alternative forms of transportation.
What I learned: While people in Austin talk about the traffic issue a lot, they often don’t take action. Elected officials seem to attribute this to apathy, but I’m not sure this is the case; people might not know how to get involved or what action to take.
My group’s solutions: Proposition 1, the transportation bond that passed last fall, is going to add lanes specifically for buses and bicycles, so one of our group’s ideas was to create a way for pedicabs to use those lanes as well. That would enable people to get around smaller areas of Austin without a car.
Why I chose this topic: I’m from Tyler, Texas, where homelessness is not as widespread and visible as it is in Austin, so I wanted to know more.
What I learned: The volunteer coordinator at Community First! Village, a permanent supportive housing community run by nonprofit Mobile Loaves and Fishes, helped me understand that a lack of family is a big part of homelessness. I take for granted that if something bad happens to me, I can call my mom or grandmother, but these people are at a point where they don’t have anyone to call. Community First! takes steps to create that sense of family so many people are missing. One way they do that is by designing the kitchens and other communal areas in ways that encourage people to interact and build relationships.
Why I chose the topic: My interest was piqued by the higher rates of food insecurity among Latino and African-American communities in Austin.
What I learned: I interviewed two area farmers at the farmers market downtown. One woman talked about how she’s seen Austin thrive, but at the same time a lot of people are being pushed out of the inner city because of rising costs. She tries to help low income families by connecting them with produce that looks imperfect but is completely fine – like slightly bruised fruit — and charging them a lower price.
Possible solutions: Our group learned that transportation and food security are linked. Lower-income families have moved to the outskirts of town, where housing costs are lower but there are fewer grocery stores and farmers markets. We proposed a shuttle that would pick people up from these areas on the weekend, take them to farmers markets and grocery stores, and bring them back home.
What I learned about Austin: Austin is a thriving community, but at the same time a lot of families are really struggling.
Why we chose this topic: Poverty is connected to most of the wicked problems in Austin: homelessness, crime, education and food security, among others.
What I learned about poverty: Because I focused on housing security, I interviewed a customer service representative from the Housing Authority of the City of Austin. I learned about the Section 8 housing assistance program, which provides vouchers to help people rent from participating landlords. There aren’t enough vouchers for everyone who needs one, so increasing the number of vouchers would help.
By Robyn Ross