Don't Mess With Texas


One of the most ironic aspects of our putative "Age of Obama" is how little impact it has had on the nation's urban geography. Although the administration remains dominated by boosters from traditional blue state cities--particularly the president's political base of Chicago--the nation's metropolitan growth continues to shift mostly toward a handful of Sunbelt red state metropolitan areas.

Our Urbanist in Chief may sit in the Oval Office, but Americans continue to vote with their feet for the adopted hometown of widely disdained former President George W. Bush. According to the most recent Census estimates, the Dallas and Ft. Worth, Texas, region added 146,000 people between 2008 and 2009--the most of any region in the country--a healthy 2.3% increase.

Other Texas cities also did well. Longtime rival Houston sat in second, with an additional 140,000 residents. Smaller Austin added 50,000--representing a remarkable 3% growth--while San Antonio grew by some 41,000 people.

In contrast, most blue state mega cities--with the exception of Washington, D.C.--grew much more slowly. The New York City region's rate of growth was just one-fifth that of Dallas or Houston, while Los Angeles barely reached one-third the level of the Texas cities.

These trends should continue: According to Moody's, Texas' big cities are entering economic recovery mode well ahead of almost all the major centers along the East or West Coasts. This represents a continuation of longer-term trends, both before and after the economic crisis. Between 2000 and 2009 New York gained 95,000 jobs while Chicago lost 257,000, Los Angeles over 167,000 and San Francisco some 216,000. Meanwhile, Dallas added nearly 150,000 positions and Houston a hefty 250,000.

This leads me to believe that the most dynamic future for America urbanism--and I believe there is one--lies in Texas' growing urban centers. To reshape a city in a sustainable way, you need to have a growing population, a solid and expanding job base and a relatively efficient city administration.

None of these characteristics apply to places like President Obama's hometown of Chicago, which continues to suffer from the downturn--but you would never know it based on media coverage of the Windy City.

The New Yorker, for example, recently published a lavish tribute to the city and its mayor, Richard Daley. But as long-time Chicago observer Steve Bartin points out, the story missed--or simply ignored--many critical facts. Mistaking Daley's multi-term tenure as proof of effectiveness, it failed to recognize the region's continued loss of jobs, decaying infrastructure, rampant corruption and continued out-migration of the area's beleaguered middle class.

Generally speaking, as Urbanophile blogger Aaron Renn points out, the repeated reports of an urban renaissance in older northern cities should be viewed with skepticism. In the Midwest region over the past year the share of population growth enjoyed in core counties--an area usually much larger than the city boundary--actually declined in most major Midwestern metros, including Chicago.

Yet urbanists generally have not embraced the remarkable growth in the major Texas metropolitan areas. Only Austin gets some recognition, since, with its hip music scene and more liberal leanings, it's the kind of place high-end journalists might actually find tolerable. The three other big Texas cities have become the Rodney Dangerfields of urban America--largely disdained despite their prodigious growth and increasingly vibrant urban cores.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that all Texas cities are sprawling, multi-polar regions, with many thriving employment centers. This seems to offend the tender sensibilities of urbanists who crave for the downtown-centric cities of yesteryear and reject the more dispersed model that has emerged in the past few decades.

Yet despite planners' prejudices, places like Houston and Dallas are more than collections of pesky suburban infestations. They are expanding their footprints to the periphery and densifying at the same time.

Of course, like virtually all other regions, Houston and Dallas suffer excess capacity in both office buildings and urban lofts. But the real estate slowdown has not depressed Texans' passion for inner city development. Indeed, over the past decade the central core of Houston--inside the boundaries of the 610 freeway loop--has experienced arguably the widest and most sustained densification in the country.

An analysis of building permit trends by Houston blogger Tory Gattis, for example, found that before the real estate crash, the Texas city was producing more high-density projects on a per-capita basis than the urbanist mecca of Portland. Significantly, as Gattis points out, the impetus for this growth has largely resulted not from planning but from infrastructure investment, job growth and entrepreneurial venturing.

This process is also evident in the Dallas area, which has experienced a surge in condo construction near its urban core and some very intriguing "town center" developments, such as the Legacy project in suburban Plano. In Big D, developers generally view densification not as an alternative to suburbia but another critical option needed in a growing region.

It's widely understood there that many people move to places like Dallas, whether in closer areas or exurbs, largely to purchase affordable single-family homes. But as the population grows, there remains a strong and growing niche for an intensifying urban core as well.

Dallas and other Texas cities substitute the narrow notion of "or"--that is cities can grow only if the suburbs are sufficiently strangled--with a more inclusive notion of "and." A bigger, wealthier, more important region will have room for all sorts of grand projects that will provide more density and urban amenities.

This approach can be seen in remarkable plans for developing "an urban forest" along the Trinity River, which runs through much of Dallas. The extent of the project--which includes reforestation, white water rafting and restorations of large natural areas--would provide the Dallas region with 10,000 acres of parkland right in the heart of the region. In comparison, New York City's Central Park, arguably the country's most iconic urban reserve, covers some 800 acres.

If it is completed within 10 years, as now planned, the Trinity River project will not only spawn a great recreational asset, but could revitalize many parts of the city that have languished over the past few decades. It could become a signature landmark in the urban development of 21st-century America.

As we look at the coming decades, this Texan vision may help define a new urban future for a nation that will grow by roughly 100 million people by 2050. To get a glimpse of that future, urbanists and planners need to get beyond their nostalgic quest to recreate the highly centralized 19th-century city. Instead they should hop a plane down to Dallas or Houston, where the outlines of the 21st-century American city are already being created and exuberantly imagined.

This article originally appeared at

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.

Photo by Stuck in Customs

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Texas is great region to

Texas is great region to visit. Of course everyone speaks a bit different language there but once you get used to it then there are no problems to understand them. And yeah don't mess with them! :)
I suggest to check vocab workshop answers if you are not 100% about your language skills.

I am a fourth-generation Dallasite

I am a fourth-generation Dallasite. What has made Dallas great is that is a totally created city, created by the visionary men who made it. It has no natural resources, other than the relatively mild weather (compared to all those wonderful cities the author seems to find "world-class."). I have lived all over the country and came back here. I lived in places like San Francisco and Chicago in an apartment the size of my current bathroom, for almost as much as what I'm paying to live in a nice home here. Don't even ask about the city and state income taxes, which IRS is going to return. The excellent quality of living here is based on the factors that make it DIFFERENT from northern urban areas: I much prefer the absence of forced unionism, relatively low cost of living, homes within the city with front and back yards, great shopping, plenty of free parking, excellent arts and culture, and a "Texas friendly" mentality. I'm sad that the city is not nearly as politically conservative as when I grew up here, but at least I'm still in a red state. And as far as mass transit: there's nothing so wonderful as having to stand on a street corner in Chicago with a wind chill of 40 below, waiting for a bus or the El. I have NEVER taken a DART bus or train, and I'm grateful that I don't have to. The routes I WOULD take that I would prefer not to have to drive to and park-- to go to either area airport, or to go the Meyerson or the new Performing Arts Center, or to Bass Hall in Fort Worth-- DON'T EXIST! How interesting that Patrick Kennedy downplays the fact that "The Dallas and Ft. Worth, Texas, region added 146,000 people between 2008 and 2009--the most of any region in the country--a healthy 2.3% increase."

Texan vision...

This Texan vision is quite incredible!
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Entrepreneurship Typically Takes Place in Cheap, Ugly Places

Most innovation in this country has occurred in suburbs because they're cheap.

Big, cultured cities are not the best places for entrepreneurs. Service entrepreneurs selling graphic design, printing, or web development to the many law firms and financial traders downtown can do OK, but there's a lot more entrepreneurial activity in nondescript, low slung Silicon Valley office buildings than there is in 40 story San Francisco office towers.

Just as Edison invented the light bulb out in New Jersey, not Manhattan, Texas is filling up with generic, inexpensive off ramp office developments that are great for new businesses. Cheap housing's nearby, parking's free, and the rent is low. Moreover, it's a magnet for relocation because of its right-to-work labor laws.

One reason I've stayed in the DC area so long is that we have the traditional, cultured anti-business city 5 minutes away from the vibrant, pro-business culturally boring nondescript suburbs in Virginia. Best of both worlds. Quite frankly, you have to choose if you want a union-run slow growth cultural city, or the dynamic suburbs. Downtown Dallas, with its cheap parking, low office rents, and city population density of less than 5,000 per sq mile, is essentially the latter.

There we go again..."word class"

Though I understand the point you make about Dallas & Houston being "Toyota's" compared the luxury brands cities like New York and Chicago seem to embody, I don't think it addresses the points made by Kotkin. Rather you begin your argument with the strawman that because Dallas & Houston are currently prospering that we should demolish older more established cities and copy what' going in the Sunbelt. Nothing in this article implies this in the least. Rather, your analogy about car brands reveals a particular bias about urban planning that Kotkin describes throughout the article--that the bigger priority in planning is how to emulate cherished urban artifacts elsewhere that favors density and walkability while completely disregarding the overall economic welfare of its residents and businesses. Planners and the politicians who champion them seem to have an aesthetically-driven mindset about what their cities are and what they should become, enforceable only by strict design and zoning regulations, hight taxes and heavy subsidies to projects that respond to their vision. These policies often have the unforeseen consequence of chasing out businesses and residents for greener pastures, even for places as visually unappetizing as Houston & Dallas.

Kotkin, as his latest book suggests, is less urban planning expert than a geographer/futurist. He compiles lists of trends, and attempts to paint a broad outline of what the future urban landscape might look like. Having read his previous book about the history of cities, he understands well that cities go though various phases, some dying in the end and others continuing to thrive in spite of age. I doubt he would like to see America's greatest cities disappear, but rather adopt policies that ensure that they continue to prosper and maintain their status as transformative centers of economic and cultural innovation. To declare that your city is already an "Audi" or a "BMW" sounds an awful lot like it's okay to rest on one's laurels. I think the point that Kotkin is trying to make is that the BMW needs maintenance from time to time, otherwise it will end up as worthless scrap.

Interestingly, just as Kotkin's raves about my home city, much of the discussion in the local media revolves around your point about what it takes to be 'world class'. Dallas city leaders and benefactors have been dwelling on this issue for a very long time, and have pursued major building projects as a way of becoming part of the same club as New York and San Francisco. The country's largest Arts District opened here just last fall, rivaling Lincoln Center, featuring the designs of a number of Pritzker Prize-winning architects ( The Trinity River corridor project is also driven by this sense of insecurity about measuring up, even as other less glamorous indicators show that we are already quite 'world class', such as the number of global headquarters, the size and volume of our airport, and the quantity of shopping.

Sure Dallas & Houston will have to take on the challenges when they become older, and in a way, they are already afflicted by things that newer outlying suburbs have yet to confront. But the author hopes that they confront these problems with the energy and entrepreneurialism that they currently seem to embody rather than a static conservative idea of that the city should return to some golden era of the late 19th century.

Fair enough. And I don't

Fair enough.

And I don't disagree with much of what you're saying.

But Mr. Kotkin's argument is just miserable in that it explains very little of what we observe. He is comparing apples and oranges.

Cities like San Francisco, New York, and Chicago ARE growing; they're not exploding like Dallas or Houston, but by all means more than 100,000 people became metro New Yorkers in 2009. Around 67,000 people became metro Chicagoans in 2009. These are not exactly dying cities.

Mr. Kotkin starts his post talking about the failure of the dense, 19th century city but the reality is, it is the DENSEST part of these cities that are actually the healthiest! The parts of Chicago, for example, that are dying the most right now are its poorest, most depopulated parts. Chicago's downtown has experienced explosive growth in the past few decades, and many of its most walkable neighborhoods have experienced similar changes.

The failure is not in density versus lack of density, the failure is in retaining middle class jobs, and that is a much deeper issue that points to the economic cores of these cities. As cities like SF, NY, Chicago, DC develop higher level industries, the cost of living rises and pushes people out to other regions of the country.

Finally, last I checked Chicago and New York aren't exactly beacons of 19th century urbanism--this, in fact, is the weakest part of Kotkin's argument. Most of these metros, indeed, are dominated by automobile-dependent suburbs, exactly the kind of environment that Kotkin lauds as the future home of the American middle class. In fact, Chicago and New York are largely responsible for inventing the modern suburb that has proliferated throughout this country. Miles upon miles of winding roads, gated subdivisions, and large vinyl houses with enormous yards abound in both of these places.

Doesn't look like a neo-urbanist 19th century city to me. So what, exactly, is failing Mr. Kotkin? The more I look at it, I can't really make heads or tails of what Joel Kotkin is saying, because his paradigm is full of holes.

Just to add to my last

Just to add to my last point, it's curious that none of Mr. Kotkin's favorite cities ever show up on lists of important global centers of commerce.

Who should I listen to, the many lists published by private and public trade groups, or an outspoken libertarian? Hmmm..

Here is the latest of a long string of studies that consistently places Chicago among the list of top global centers where business activity occurs, called "Cities of Opportunity". Below is a quote from from that study which I've posted here. At the link below that you can review the full study and its findings. Not a mention anywhere of Dallas or Houston:

"It is in this light that Cities of Opportunity takes both a quantitative and qualitative look at the emerging picture of city life in 21 capitals of business, finance and culture worldwide. To a great extent, the successes and shortcomings that surface in the study substantiate the central thesis of our research: the more well-balanced a city is for both businesses and residents, the better it will fare.

Chicago, Stockholm, Toronto, Sydney, Singapore, London and New York are a few of the cities that demonstrate this healthy balance for businesses and residents. In different ways, each city shows that quality of life is a tangible economic asset."

Grain of Salt

I wouldn't put too much stock into Kotkin's lists of great cities. Up until the recession and housing crisis, he was championing Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Houston as the next growth centers and major players for global cities. I guess getting one out of three ain't bad? At least for the time being, he has been wrong, but that does not mean things won't change if things stabilize more.

DFW seems to be doing well, and I do not disagree with him on that matter, nor will I slam DFW at this point in time. My issue is, cities can change their public policies, tax structures, etc. easier than they can change their built environment.

If a city wants economic gain at any costs through environmental degradation and "sprawl"; be forewarned, that growth will be with you for years to come. Growth at any cost comes at a price, and if that growth and development is not worth caring for by the average citizen in years to come, your city might be the next Detroit.

I can’t really argue with

I can’t really argue with Kotkin because he’s picked an argument that’s very convenient for him to defend:

Dallas and Houston are growing faster than Chicago or New York, thus they are doing something right, and the other cities are doing something wrong.

Mr. Kotkin has long hung his hat on this paradigm, but I think his conclusion lacks the nuance that a careful analysis of urban growth patterns requires. I have a several problems with his conclusions. First of all, I believe these Texas cities are in an earlier, steeper part of their growth curves than their northern, more established, counterparts are. Second, we don’t have a crystal ball and thus we have no idea how long they will continue to grow at this clip. Let’s not forget that in the late 19th and early 20th century, Chicago and New York were growing at a ferocious pace.

In all honesty, I’m not sure what Kotkin is trying to achieve here. Is he telling denser cities to tear themselves down and try to replicate Dallas and Houston? I mean, is that what anyone in his right mind would want to see New York do? Manhattan’s slow growth in the past few decades is clearly a sign of its failure, therefore lets tear it all down and replace it with Houston-style suburban development? Shall we tear down Lincoln Park in Chicago while we’re at it? What is Kotkin asking these cities to do?

Finally, I think another explanation of Kotkin’s phenomenon can best be described with an analogy: On the road you see a lot of Hondas and Toyotas, but fewer Audis, BMW’s, and Mercedes.

Chicago is an Audi. Houston and Dallas are Honda and Toyota. Chicago was once a Toyota, but has “graduated”. Lets hope Dallas and Houston sustain their growth long enough to lose their “cheaper alternative” status and actually become true global cities. Once they do, I suspect their growth rates won’t be anywhere near what they are today, especially as the burden of their increased and aging infrastructure comes to bear on future generations.

In other words, an Audi costs more to build, costs more to maintain, but has a certain prestige that a Honda may not. A Honda is cheaper to build and cheaper to maintain. More people are thus likely to buy a Honda than an Audi, while a discriminating buyer who has the means will purchase an Audi. Does that mean that Audi is a failed brand while Honda is a success? I guess it all depends on your perspective.

With that analogy, I'll end this post.

No doubt there's a lifecycle

No doubt there's a lifecycle aspect to these things. I respect what places like Houston have done. The real proof of the model of all these boom cities is how they bounce back from real adversity when it comes. What happens when the growth spigot finally shuts off? We may be starting to see this in Atlanta. Successful reinvention over time will determine if the likes of Houston ultimately join the pantheon of great American cities.