SXSW (South by Southwest) Organizers Get a Lesson in Urbanism

  • Written by Uriah Bueller on March 21, 2019
  • Filed Under Industry

This was the 5th year I’ve attended the epic South By Southwest music festival with my brother, Josh. He drags me around for 5 days to over 50 different acts and conference panel discussions, leaving little time for eating or sleeping. It’s a test of stamina but inspiring as an artist and as a CEO.

With now 2,000 bands playing in different venues across downtown Austin, it’s been increasingly difficult to get into popular shows without a $1,000 music badge, and sometimes even a reservation. This encourages some people to search out unknown new or international acts. But the congestion and urgency of getting into venues also seems to cause a lot of frustration for fans and artists.

This year added another layer of complexity: Scooters! I’m sure many people, if they’re not trying to make up for lost sleep, are complaining, on their way home, how scooter renters don’t seem to have much consideration for others. And there are many cases to support it. But without enough traffic paths, known rules, and habits to accommodate the increase in a new category of transportation, there are going to be problems with such a ubiquitous and disruptive technology.

The real culprit is something that urban planners have discussed for decades: Segregation! Of the 2,000 different bands with different target audiences and ways to engage with their fans, it seems Austin or the show’s organizers have decided to centralize many of the bands that speak to fans with a need to share their feelings of anger - an anger that is often intensified by the opportunity to speak up at such a big event. This might seem like a reason to contain those populations to a central area with fences and a show of force through an army of horse-mounted police. Or it can become an uncontrollable pressure-cooker.

This year, there were five violent shootings at SXSW. Three were in one main area near 6th Street. Perhaps it’s time to consider diversifying the different venue neighborhoods. But does this spread the problem to safe neighborhoods? The best developers, architects, and planners I’ve met through Parasoleil seem to know that the welfare, stability, and health of a community depends on four things:

• One, access to the natural health of green space (parks)

• Two, making the transition between public and private spaces more welcoming for all people (courtyards and public plazas)

• Three, connective paths and transportation between neighborhoods (paths and subways)

• Four, codes and incentives that create diversity of economic groups and lifestyles

Austin is known for its green spaces. It’s wonderful, and maybe one day, Josh will let me explore them. There are many welcoming places to sit or gather, always happy to sit when I can. And even without complete public transportation coverage, there are many paths and bike lanes to connect the city together. And perhaps Austin promotes diversification, but at SXSW, an event that discusses big ideas, promotes innovation for community, and celebrates artist expression, there seems to be a disconnect between what we talk about and what we do.

Diversification is not the easy choice for the organizers nor the attendees. There will be frustration from fans in getting from venue to venue. And it’ll be much harder for the police to do their job effectively. But as we learned in middle school, dilution is the solution to pollution, or in this case, overflowing excitement mixed with mounting resentment. And if scooters need to be the scapegoat, then I’m okay with a little misplaced blame. I mean, have you ever had to navigate around a scooter that was left in the middle of the sidewalk? It’s a crisis worthy of a national emergency. And how they can slow down traffic! Don’t get me started, I need to sleep. I only have a few months to rest before Josh sends me our 2020 itinerary.

Uriah Bueller is the founder and CEO of Parasoleil, helping cities make spaces where people want to be, since 2006. Their line of engineered panels to filter light and frame space with art and pattern can be found at

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