The Emergence of Texas Urbanism; The Triangle Takes Off


This essay is part of a new report from the Center for Opportunity Urbanism titled "The Texas Way of Urbanism". Download the entire report here.

Throughout the history of the United States, much of the nation’s economic vitality can be traced to specific regions and their mastery of the productive sectors which propelled the country forward. Today we see this most evident in the remarkable emergence of the “Texas Triangle” encompassing Houston, Dallas-Ft. Worth, and Austin-San Antonio.

The role of metropolitan regions reflects a steady theme of shifting economic power throughout American urban history. The early stages of commercial growth and then the first wave of industrial innovation established the economic strength of the New York-Connecticut-Massachusetts region; the global roles of New York City and Boston owe much to this early start, in part due to the talent networks and capital that clustered in these cities.

Heavy industry, the next phase of industrial growth --- autos, steel, and appliances --- blossomed in the early Twentieth Century, transforming metros from Cleveland to Chicago into global economic powers. These areas provided the country much of the wherewithal to win the Second World War. Over the last 75 years, technology breakthroughs and Asia-Pacific trade relationships have steadily accelerated the importance of the extended West Coast region from Seattle to San Diego.

More recent has been the rise of other regions, many which were once backwaters. This includes Miami, with its strong ties to the Caribbean and South America; the Southern belt of cities reaching in an arc from Charlotte and Raleigh to Atlanta and Nashville. Then there’s the rising Intermountain West, centered largely in the metros of Denver, Salt Lake City and Phoenix.

But no place has seen more dramatic and steady economic and demographic growth than the Texas Triangle, formed by the Dallas-Fort Worth metro at its northern point in North Texas; the Houston metro at its southeastern edge on the Gulf Coast; and Austin-San Antonio at its western tip in Central Texas.

The growth of these areas has transformed Texas from a largely agricultural and commodities-producing state into a highly urbanized and economically sophisticated place. Together the metropolitan areas of the Texas Triangle have a population of more than 18 million residents. The Texas Triangle metros together account for more than 66% of the population of Texas and 77% of the GDP of the nation’s second largest state.

This emergence is now globally acknowledged. In terms of economic strength, each of the Texas Triangle metros ranked among the top six strongest urban areas in the nation in a post-recession analysis by the Praxis group and their economic output together would position the Texas Triangle as the fifth strongest regional economy in the U.S. in a framework created by metropolitan scholar Richard Florida. The fact that these measurements use a variety of factors suggests the powerful and pervasive nature of the Texas urban ascendency.

One way to look at the importance of the Texas Triangle is to examine the vital and often quite unique economic contributions which each metropolitan area contributes to the nation’s well-being.

• Houston is the acknowledged energy capital of the world with its complex of energy headquarters, financing institutions, research centers, and petroleum processing and transportation facilities. Its medical center houses more clinical institutions and life sciences research facilities than any other medical complex in the world.

• Dallas-Fort Worth is an established financial center, telecommunications pioneer, and its two airports are the hubs of flights connecting the Southwestern U.S. to the nation and to the world. It has become a favored location for corporate expansions and relocations for both domestic and foreign companies.

• Austin and San Antonio are connected by 75 miles of continuous urbanization, including the vital region around San Marcos and a string of the fastest growing small cities in the nation. Austin is home to world-class companies, particularly in technology, the University of Texas, and also is home to the government of the nation’s second largest state. San Antonio is home to the nation’s second largest concentration of cybersecurity companies, to three major Armed Forces commands, to an international automotive manufacturing hub centered on Toyota, and to the most visited destinations in the state, the Alamo and the Riverwalk.

Although not as established as a global center as the metropolitan networks on the East and West coasts, the Texas Triangle now occupies an increasingly important place among the world’s commercial centers. There are now 53 Fortune 500 firms headquartered in the Triangle metros, including American Airlines, AT&T, and Exxon Mobil in Dallas-Fort Worth; USAA and Valero, and Whole Foods in San Antonio and Austin; and Conoco-Phillips and Halliburton in Houston. Global headquarters, such as Occidental Petroleum, and national operational headquarters, such as those of Toyota USA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, underscore that the global role of the Texas Triangle is ascendant.

The Texas Triangle is also home to a concentration of high-quality higher education. Nationally-ranked research institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin and Rice University in Houston are joined by such major public institutions as the University of Houston; the University of Texas campuses at San Antonio, Dallas, and Arlington; and the Texas A&M campus in San Antonio. Excellent private institutions include Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, and Trinity University and Incarnate Word University in San Antonio. Within the geographic expense of the Texas Triangle are such powerhouses as Texas A&M University in College Station and Baylor University in Waco.

The Texas Triangle is connected to the commercial centers of the globe through its impressive transportation assets. The Port of Houston is the second largest port by volume of tonnage in the U.S. The state boosts major airline hubs for American Airlines at DFW Airport, for United Airlines at George Bush Houston International, and for Southwest Airlines at Love Field in Dallas, as well as extensive international airline connections from Austin and San Antonio. Major cargo volumes flow on the state’s highway grid, most notably on the NAFTA Highway, IH-35, which delineates the western spine of the Texas Triangle and expedites the greatest volume of international freight from any inland port to markets across the nation.

This economic ascendency owes much to pro – business Texas policies, largely embraced by both major political parties, that stress job creation and wage growth as the best strategies for continued and broadened prosperity. Investments in roads, water, power, broadband, ports and essential public facilities, such as higher education campuses, remain priorities in state and municipal budgets.

But what really makes the Triangle grow is its people, animated by the spirit of new opportunity luring work-ready in-migrants from other states and ambitious immigrants from around the world. Texas attracts investors, entrepreneurs, researchers, inventors, and workers who recognize a state committed to reducing barriers to economic success and to creating the financial, educational, and physical conditions for growth and upward mobility.

That combination of the policy regime, the physical facilities, and the human energies has created an economic juggernaut now claiming its place among the great commercial networks of the world. The nation can look to the Texas Triangle for future breakthroughs in innovative products and creative services. But beyond that the world can look to the Texas Triangle for examples of cities that combine a passion for growth with a determination to improve the lives of people.

Henry Cisneros is Chairman of City View companies, which have invested in and built more than 90 urban residential projects since 2000 in 13 states. Mr. Cisneros is also Chairman of the Executive Committee of Siebert Cisneros Shank, one of the nation’s most successful minority-owned public finance and capital markets firms, having participated in more than $2.5 trillion in municipal and public authority issuances and corporate transactions. Mr. Cisneros was Mayor of San Antonio for four terms and was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in President Clinton’s Cabinet from 1993-97. He is a corporate board member of Univision Communications and La Quinta Holdings and is Vice Chairman of Habitat for Humanity International and a board member of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington D.C.

Photo: NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Texas has other unique aspects that promote growth

Over the past 26+ years we have been designing neighborhoods in 47 States, with Texas being one of our largest markets. Mr. Cisneros, no doubt you are familiar with Roseheart - one of our earlier designs of the many in and near San Antonio.

Unlike my local Minneapolis area where developers bid against each other which skyrockets land prices - for a farm 30 miles from the core to absurd prices, somehow Texas land values have held somewhat steady and very reasonable compared to other States. Since the lot price heavily influences the final home price (typically 25% of the total), low land prices equates to lower home prices. Furthermore, most Texas housing is slab on grade vs. basements and walkouts of the north with sewers that need not be very deep - again decreasing overall costs and home price.

Typically developments obtain quick approvals compared to the other regions we work in.

In Minnesota, each city seems to regulate wetlands differently, some allowing construction to the edge and others needing huge setbacks to even minor wetlands, thus consuming enormous amounts of acreage. In many areas of Texas that we work wetlands are not an issue, nor are absurd detention requirements that we now have in many other States that we work in. In other words, in some States (Minnesota for example), a developer can purchase that 80 acre farm only to find out that a small portion can be developed. If only 30 acres can be developed, that $50,000 an acre gross becomes a net of $134,000 an acre. When Minneapolis was built a century or so ago 100% of the land purchased was used for growth. If Minneapolis was developed using today's restrictions the original city would have surely consumed twice, if not 3 times the land it does today for the same urban density.

Texas does not (yet) have these highly damaging (to home costs) regulations.

Quality of the home. I have a really nice dual green certified home with just 3,600 square feet valued at about a million dollars - somewhat typical of a new green home constructed in Minneapolis. The same price in most Texas cities would purchase two or three homes for the same price. Not exactly the same home, but the Texas home would have incredible brickwork with high ceilings, archways, and wonderful finishes. If I told my builder to build just one arch he would have complained at the huge costs and time. I've seen new Texas 'low income' homes with archways. Most homes (and commercial buildings) in the midwest look as if the architecture came from a $50 plan from a Barnes & Noble magazine. Most Texas homes (and commercial buildings) look architecturally pleasant with better landscaping.

All of this is a very good thing, because architecture and landscaping is what is noticed as you drive through a development, because overall, the planning is awful, perhaps one of the worst in the nation. Most Texas development is designed by engineers, not planners. Walk-ability, attention to traffic flow (time and energy), abolishing the cookie-cutter, and much more simply is vacant. For me the awful planning is a very good thing. It is why so many quality developers hire this Minnesota planner to design their neighborhoods, even though most consultants throw the planning for free to get the lucrative engineering fees. Post recession we have designed many Texas developments totaling about 15,000 homes in that region, plus commercial properties.

Each Texas city I lived in (or frequent) has a different character. None of these characteristics is bad, but each region within the State is unique. I think that also adds to the attractiveness of the State. Working in Texas is also a pleasure. The developers and builders I work with are all honorable people of high integrity. Cities are easy to work with. I assume it's also easier for other industries to do business in Texas, not just development.

As long as Texas remains cumbersomeless (a new word) in the regulation process and somewhat environmentally unshackled it's future is secure.