Throughout my recent stay in Texas, residents would often ask which of its major cities I liked the most--Austin, Dallas, Houston or San Antonio. They were curious about this, given that I was an outsider living for a month each in all four. They also wanted to know because this is a hot topic in Texas; the four cities have become some of America's most economically dynamic places, and have ongoing rivalries for food, sports, and cultural cache.
To this point, the question was always less about which city had the best economy, and more about quality of life and street cred--where would I actually want to live? Here's my breakdown of the pros and cons of each, although, as an urban affairs writer and zoning dork, my judgement will inevitably revolve around each city's land-use policies.
If I wanted to give the safe answer, I’d probably say San Antonio. While residents in the other Texas cities flay each other for being pretentious, vapid, over-consumptive, or some combo of the three (Dallas is even hated by neighboring Fort Worth) everyone seems to like San Antonio.
"Many Texans view San Antonio as their second home," said former San Antonio Spurs owner and Texas-bred billionaire Red McCombs.
The reasons, he said, were historical. San Antonio is the oldest of the four cities, and home to many landmark events in Texas history, including the fight for independence from Mexico. A slower pace of economic development has helped it maintain this old-world charm. The city mixes historic Spanish, German, Mexican and southwestern architectural motifs amid charming public spaces like the River Walk. It also has less traffic, fewer skyscrapers, a greater family orientation, a more stable population, and less glitz and glam than the other Texas cities.
This isn't to say the Mexican-American Capital is a backwater. On many metrics--job growth, wage growth, population growth, and overall economic performance--it is catching up with, and in some cases surpassing, the other cities. This is apparent in the built fabric, with its mix of new downtown condos and large master-planned communities; and in the demographics, which is increasingly rich and international, thanks to an inward flood of professional-class Mexicans fleeing violence in their homeland.
San Antonio could thus be described as a city that successfully combines two worlds. It maintains a small-town feel, as evident when Travel + Leisure readers named it "America's Friendliest City”; yet offers big city prospects.
Austin's greatest strength lies as a nightlife center. Make no mistake: other Texas cities are not becoming the “new Austin.” The state capital's atmosphere downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods on a Saturday night is unrivaled anywhere in Texas, and perhaps America, save maybe New Orleans.
But as I also discovered in the Big Easy, throwing a good weekend party doesn’t equate to clear-headed leadership on Monday morning. Austin's political DNA reflects less the pro-growth mentality found throughout the rest of Texas, than the slow-growth agenda of coastal cities. As local conservative activist Jim Skaggs noted during an interview, the Austin establishment reflects “a tale of two cities”--one side is all in on attracting jobs and outside companies; the progressive wing, meanwhile, likes these notions in theory, but won't accommodate it by increasing the built imprint.
This attitude has shaped the city, as a fast-growing population must compete for scarce resources. The housing stock has been limited by regulations that, thanks to NIMBYism, are stronger than in the other three cities. This inflates prices, meaning richer demographics move in while poorer ones get priced out. According to Houston-based urban analyst Tory Gattis, this is one reason why Austin is by far the whitest big Texas city, having become "a great monoculture if you’re a white college-educated 20 or 30-something hipster."
Austin has also proven less willing than the others to increase highway capacity, causing the worst traffic in Texas, according to Forbes.
Of course, this slower-growth mentality has advantages. The Austin area has more preservation reserves, meaning one can drive several miles east or west and quickly enter beautiful rural Texas. Austin isn't dominated by highways and sprawl, like Houston and Dallas, and many locals would suggest that this gives it better "character."
But I don't automatically equate sprawl with bad urbanism. While such developments may not be attractive, they are crucial--along with dense infill—at increasing the populations of metro areas. And these greater populations—full of suburbanites who often work and shop in the city—create the critical mass needed for intense urban agglomerations.
Outside of a few neighborhoods, Austin lacks this critical mass—and growth restraints are to blame. Of Texas' big four metros, it has the smallest center city and metro area population, respectively, as well as the worst Walk Score. Its population density per square mile is well below Dallas and Houston. This under-population is evident at street level, as Austin feels less like a big city than a glorified college town.
Dallas, on the other hand, is the anti-Austin. Rather than pursuing preservation, the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex expands into infinity, having become Texas’ largest, and America’s 4th largest, metro area. This growth has been utilitarian in nature—the metro has one of America’s biggest highway footprints, its most rapid housing construction rates, and even its longest light rail system. This willingness to build and build big has been economically beneficial, as Big D sits near the top in corporate relocation and job creation.
But it hasn’t made for a particularly attractive city. While there are some charming areas, such as Lower Greenville and Bishop Arts District, they are fragmented from each other by a landscape of strip malls, corporate office parks, construction cranes, overpasses, underpasses, billboards and other outstretched and grey infrastructure. This imprint adds upon itself by the day in Dallas, as the population booms and new town-center-style neighborhoods rise from nowhere.
Does this make Dallas a bad place to live? It wouldn’t be my first choice, but this rapid-growth, warts-and-all strategy does produce a certain quality not found in Austin or San Antonio: Dallas feels like a global megacity, and could become one in coming decades. It’s more diverse, with a more equitable share of whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians, and a much larger percentage share of immigrants. It’s more widespread, as the metro contains 14 cities with over 100,000 people, all of them with central business districts. And it’s richer in net terms, with a larger GDP, more corporations, more millionaires, and more luxury consumption. Dallas frankly feels less like Texas in this respect, than like Los Angeles or Miami—but, crucially, without the palm trees and beaches.
Houston is easily my favorite Texas city, because it combines the best aspects of the other three. The metro area is similar in size to Dallas, and has the same rapid growth, ethnic diversity, and global feel. In fact, Dallas and Houston sit alone together as America’s foremost boomtowns, each growing by more than 144,000 last year throughout the metro area (the third place MSA, Atlanta, grew by a mere 95,000). But, like San Antonio and Austin, Houston has remained more tasteful than Dallas, with numerous interior neighborhoods that are urban, walkable, and separated from the innards of the city.
Not only is Houston Texas’ best city; it is among a handful of emerging ones in the U.S.—including Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, Denver, Atlanta and Seattle—that will become the dense infill cities of tomorrow, joining the coastal legacy cities. The thing that differentiates Houston from the others, though, is that it doesn’t have the regulatory hurdles to stop this fundamentally market-oriented process. The city has no zoning code, which means a range of densities, uses and architectural styles can go anywhere in the city.
The folk wisdom is that this turned Houston into a sprawling mess like Dallas. But densification is already happening in Clutch City. This year it will lead the nation in multi-family housing construction, with 25,935 units entering the market (Dallas is #2 at 23,159). Much of this is going up rapidly via mid-rises in interior neighborhoods like Midtown, Montrose and Rice Military. Houston has the highest Walk Score of Texas’ big cities. Dallas, meanwhile, may feel more fragmented because of the low-density zoning in its central areas.
Of course, my choice, like anyone’s, is clouded by bias; I prefer density over sprawl, big over small, new over old, and diversity over monoculture. I wouldn’t, meanwhile, want to denigrate any of the four Texas cities, since they're all economically successful in their own way. Enter any one of them, with their swarms of Millennials, college kids, immigrants, refugees, and entrepreneurs, and you feel like you're witnessing America's future. But it’s obvious when comparing them that, like in other cities, the decisions they made about zoning, transportation, land use and growth have produced different destinies.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.]