Sprawl Hits the Wall: Is Texas The Next California?

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The Yellow Rose of Texas is in full bloom. That’s the message of Time Magazine’s cover story from a few weeks back, by libertarian economist Tyler Cowen. In true libertarian style, the full article is only available to paying subscribers. But the gist of the argument, as Time summarizes here, is this: Texas is the future because its cities are the fastest growing in the country. Its cities grow so fast because everything is cheap. Everything is cheap because there’s no income tax. Did we mention everything is cheap?

Texans, who are happy to puff out their chests even when their state isn’t on the cover of a major news source, are naturally thrilled. But before our line dancing, steak house loving Texan friends get too carried away, let’s not forget that booms seldom last forever. And that’s exactly what happened in another major US state that, while Texans may balk at being compared to it, has a lot to say about their future: California.

Texas and California, though they’re about a thousand miles apart and have radically different geographies, have surprisingly similar histories. Both used to be part of Mexico, spending periods of time as independent republics before being annexed into the US. But what really brings the two states together is that they were both built on resource-based economic booms. It was gold that first brought settlers to California in droves in the 1850s. A half-century later, Texas began to take off with the discovery of black gold: the state’s massive oil reserves.

But these were only the first wave of booms. At the end of WWII, the country entered into a period of rapid expansion based on sprawl. California took the lead. The San Francisco Bay was lined with housing tracts. The San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles became “America’s Suburb”. As the inner suburbs became completely built out, developers looked ever farther out, to cities like Concord in Northern California and Palmdale in Southern California.

Texas took longer for its sprawl boom to get started, but eventually began to pick up steam. Today sprawl in Texas is stronger than it’s ever been. Most of its explosive growth has taken place in the outer suburbs of its major cities. Old timers are fond of remembering when there was farmland between major cities, like Houston and Dallas, and their surrounding cities. Today it’s all cookie cutter housing developments. Houston has been christened “the blob that ate East Texas.” In Dallas, the Dallas Morning News ran a series of articles last year, chronicling sprawl in the area, speculating that one day, the sprawling suburbs might reach all the way to Oklahoma.

When it comes down to it, sprawl is the real reason why Texas has gained so many accolades from Cowen and others as the “state of opportunity.” The Texas boom can’t just be chalked up to low taxes. Other states like, say, North Dakota have low taxes too and aren’t exactly booming. A better explanation would have to include the state’s solid base of infrastructure and public amenities such as its respected public universities. And yes, the state’s well-established industries play a part; Yahoo Finance observes that Houston has created a “cluster effect” for attracting oil related jobs. But none can deny that construction of new suburbs is a key factor in giving Texas’s economy a shot in the arm. A report in August found that construction jobs employed 611,000 people, roughly 5% of the state’s entire labor force.

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Will this sprawl bonanza be able to continue in the long term? It’s true that suburban housing construction, like the oil boom in Texas and the gold rush in California, is capable of producing a temporary glut of wealth. But we’re now finding evidence that sprawl, just as with resource booms, can get tapped out. Even though libertarian minded Texas planners may refuse to put limits on sprawl, there’s a strong likelihood that purely economic factors will put an end to Texas’s sprawl-based gravy train. Planetizen highlights a study that finds that once commutes get significantly longer that 30 minutes to the city center, the viability of sprawl as an economic generator drops sharply.

For proof of this, all Texans need to do is just look at their forbearer, California. There, sprawl has hit the wall. And the cities faring the worst are exurbs like San Bernardino and Stockton, which recently declared bankruptcy. Despite its current bluster, there’s a very good chance that Texas sprawl too will someday have its last stand. And unlike the revolutionary Sam Houston, the forces of sprawl are unlikely to emerge triumphant. They certainly haven’t in exurban California.

But while Texas’s suburban boom must someday come to an end, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for new beginnings. Looking at California, we get a feel for what may come to pass in a post-sprawl Texas. Though far-flung suburbs in the Golden State have been ravaged, there’s a newfound interest in city centers; while problems remain, there are signs that places like downtown Los Angeles and even perennially troubled Oakland are making progress. Even Texas city centers are showing signs of changes. Austin seems poised to become the next Portland, and city centers in Houston and Dallas are also seeing an uptick.

Really, what’s going on in Texas is pretty much the same as what happens anywhere right before a boom economy begins to stabilize. The same thing happened not only in California, but also on the East Coast at the end of the 1800s, and a few centuries before that in the capitals of Europe. Exuberant, boom-based economies make the shift to more boring, but stable, established economies. In Texas, this means a shift away from sprawl and a serious look at how to make things better in established city centers – something that is probably never going to make the cover of Time Magazine, but is good news all the same.

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Drew Reed is an online media producer and community activist specialising in sustainable transportation. He lives in Buenos Aires.

Images via EuthmanStu Seeger and Channone

  • Jake Wegmann

    One very important difference between big coastal metros in CA and the big Texas cities: in CA, sprawl really did hit an actual, as in topographical, wall. The LA Basin, for instance, is surrounded by ocean on one side and by mountains on the others. The Bay Area is interrupted by, well, the Bay, and a series of ridges that have been locked up in perpetuity as open space. So that creates a lot of pressure for new construction to be dense. Once the wave of suburb-building in the 50s and 60s in California used up the easily-developed, well-located, open land, everything changed. Not coincidentally, the 70s is when California housing prices, which had formerly been no higher than in the rest of the country, attained lift off.

    In Texas, on the other hand, it’s a whole different story. Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio have practically no physical barriers to expansion other than water availability. Austin has hills to the west, but nothing in the other directions. Only El Paso, pinned between the border and some high mountains, seems to be in a California-like, topographically constrained setting. (And, it should be added, a lot of California’s Central Valley looks like most of the Texas big cities in terms of development patterns.)

    So I’m not sure that the author’s predictions will come to pass in Texas if the economy stays strong, which it could, especially if we continue to remain profoundly unserious about curbing fossil fuel production. But we shall see …

  • Wanderer

    One should wary of attributing too much to physical geography. Sacramento, California, right in the middle of the Central Valley, is essentially unconstrained by major natural barriers. At 3,659 people per square mile in the Urbanized Area it’s certainly less dense than San Francisco or even San Jose. But it is the 12th densest (of 497) Urbanized Area in the country, 23% denser than the Houston Urbanized Area at 2,978 people per square mile (Dallas is very similar–2,880 people per square mile, as is San Antonio at 2,944 per square mile).
    There are matters of history and policy that help shape these differences, as well as geography.