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The Census and Central Texas

While much of the focus post-Census will be on redistricting, the data it contains is fascinating and illuminating in its own right, absent any political context. This story about explosive growth in former small towns around Austin that now serve as its suburbs is a good read. A couple of points:

The total population in Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties grew to 1,716,289, an increase of 37 percent since 2000. But it was the suburbs that provided some of the more eye-popping gains.

While Austin grew by 20.4 percent during the past decade to 790,390, remaining the state’s fourth-largest city , the suburbs grew at even faster rates:

• Hutto grew by 1,076 percent. Only the city of Fate, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, grew faster in the past decade .

• South of Austin, Kyle added 22,702 residents, a 427 percent increase, as it became the retail hub of northern Hays County, and nearby Buda grew by more than 200 percent.

• Pflugerville shed its pastoral history to add 30,000 residents, a 187 percent increase, and Manor exploded by 318 percent.

• Even Uhland, a gem east of Kyle on the Hays-Caldwell county line, nearly tripled its 2000 population – from 386 to 1,014 – and was the state’s 36th fastest-growing city.

The population booms offer some measures of prosperity but present challenges as well. Cities like Buda, once known as much for its antique shops as the cafes on Main Street, already are dealing with the impact of both. During the past decade, Buda incorporated 1,790 acres and added nearly 5,000 residents. New subdivisions and retail developments abound.

I’ve made this point before, but the smaller your starting population, the easier it is to have a huge growth rate. Houston grew by only 7.5 percent since 2000, but that represents nearly 150,000 people, which is more than twice as much as the total increase for Hutto, Kyle, Pflugerville, Uhland, and Buda combined. Rate isn’t everything.

Metro area residents have long offered a wide range of theories for the growth of the suburbs, from the availability and attractiveness of bigger homes for the buck in cities like Pflugerville and Kyle to the forces of gentrification that are pricing some longtime Central Austin residents out of their homes.

Lloyd Potter, the state’s official demographer and the director of the Texas State Data Center, said dramatic growth in the Austin metro area was consistent with statewide patterns .

“If you look at the urban areas from Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston and Harris County and all the way from Williamson to Bexar County, you see this little cluster of counties that are growing quite rapidly,” Potter said.

The state demographer attributed slightly more than half the growth to net births and the rest to newcomers.

“Certainly, it implies there’s growing economic opportunity, and with that you see this dispersion of the populace outward from these urban centers,” he said.

But the dramatic rise in suburban counties can also be traced to something more pragmatic – the availability of those wide open spaces on which to build, Potter said.

So while Travis County had healthy growth, “most of Travis is built out,” he said. “With Hays and Williamson, there’s land that is developable.”

That’s true, but here’s the thing: It’s also true about a number of Texas’ big cities, especially Houston. I spend 90% or more of my life inside the Loop, but I still see plenty of open spaces, and spaces with vacant buildings. There’s less than there used to be – twenty years ago, Midtown was a big nothing – but there’s still a lot, especially east of 288/59. And in the coming months, we’ll see the political consequences of seeing all this population shift to the suburbs. Without going off on a long rant about urbanism, it’s vital for cities like Houston to think long and hard about investing in their infrastructure to ensure that they can keep up with population growth and shifts. This also means ensuring that our development regulations make sense, including parking requirements, and that they allow and encourage dense development where they should. It’s not just about growing the tax base, it’s about maintaining our voice in the Legislature and in Congress. If we’re not keeping up, we’re falling behind. For more on this and other Census-related stories, go see Greg.

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