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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Good point on cities and adversity.

Mr. Renn,

You bring up a valid a point with regards to how cities bounce back from adversity. Although Dallas and Houston seem "young" compared to comparable cities to the North, it's not as if they hadn't dealt with some major challenges that threatened their economic mainstay along the way. The oil bust of the early 1980's dealt a huge blow to Texas and the Gulf Coast the ensuing commercial real-estate bust in the mid-eighties didn't help things either Remnants of those times are still visible today. Fortunately, Dallas and Houston were able to retool and and diversify their economies so as to minimize their vulnerabilities to economic swings in the future. They also made clever investments in more stable industries (Healthcare & Energy for Houston, High-Tech/Telecom for Dallas). New Orleans, by comparison, never recovered from the Oil Bust, clinging instead to tourism and the occasional film crew. Hurricane Katrina diminished it further when thousands of its own residents fled to Houston and Dallas overnight,and many are still there. It speaks to the resilience of these cities that they have been able to accomodate such an influx of people with relatively few problems.


This blog is about developer politics not urban geography.
Good luck with that Joel, I'm not interested.

Thanks for the boost, but it's always a bit more complicated.

As long-time resident of Dallas, I can confirm much of Kotkin's overall argument. This city is indeed one of opportunity, and has been a national jobs magnet for a number of years due to its pro-business environment and relatively inexpensive land. The region's decentralized organization features numerous suburbs and towns that compete fiercely with each other to offer residents the best package of housing, schools, retail and leisure amenities. Compared to other cities I've lived in, the DFW region also seems to have ample amounts of infrastructure to accomodate growth. Congestion on roads and highways isn't that much of a problem compared to other cities its size,thanks to a lot of built-in redundancy. The light-rail has become more extensive in recent years, even as people still easily find a seat. And the airport is world-class, its central location critical to maintaining Dallas's position as a leader in freight and logistics, as well as the home to many Fortune 500 companies.

That said, I quibble a little bit with the statements regarding Dallas' emergent urbanity. Even though it might be one of the healthiest large cities throughout the recession, the small boom in real-estate speculation in the urban core during the past 8 years took a big hit. Office buildings that were converted into residences continue to struggle to find tenants, as was the case even in the good years. Victory Park, one of the largest, most ambitious, mixed-use urban projects in the country, still feels like a ghost-town ( Other dense districts are doing a bit better, but I get the feeling they are just getting by rather than thriving. It's hard to believe with so few condo projects compared to other cities, but it looks to me that Dallas is a little overbuilt and it will take time for it to fill up.

As for the Trinity River project, it's been extremely slow in coming since voters approved the funds for it 12 years ago. It faces challenges such as bringing the existing levies up to standard, a huge cost that had not been budgeted. At least the Calatrava bridge is going up, but it's not clear what exactly it's connecting to.

Still, many large cities would probably love to be in Dallas' position, and there is no question that it has made a few smart moves, even as it earns constant scorn from the urban planning elite.

What about the suburbs of Los Angeles?

Multipolar, with their own downtowns, competing for businesses...

The problem facing Los Angeles is that the California tax regime makes it difficult for startups to grow. Cutting edge aerospace firms, for example, can draw on lots of expertise in Southern California, and tax breaks for new businessses, but once they begin to make a profit, they're hit in the head by taxes.

And yet, the state is in dire fiscal straits so it can't cut taxes any more than it already has.

Is it time to revisit Proposition 13?