The metropolitan areas that form the “Texas Triangle”—Austin, Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio—are emerging as distinctive models of 21st-century urbanism. The four Texas metros are all more growth oriented, horizontally expansive, polycentric, and diverse in their populations and industries than most peers. This Texas model has sparked inbound migration and economic vitality largely unmatched in today’s America.
Successful cities enable productivity and quality of life for their residents. Butin these inflationary times they alsoneed to succeed in containing high costs of living and doing business. The Triangle metros stand out for above-average productivity and incomes but below-average living costs. By contrast, America’s richest Northeastern and West Coast cities face intractable housing affordability problems, while most metros with more affordable housing have below-average incomes.
This chapter argues that a virtuous circle of pro-growth policy, outward expansion, and demographic and industrial diversity accounts for the Triangle’s success. Competition among localities on each metro’s outer edge has ensured robust housing growth, supporting affordability throughout the region. Competition also reinforces Texas’s tradition of business-friendly tax and regulatory policies. And the Triangle model counters the tendency of modern cities to become what Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser calls “urban rent extraction machines” protecting incumbent firms, homeowners, and other insiders at the expense of newcomers and dynamic change.1
The Triangle has tremendous momentum that will likely propel it forward through the 2020s, despite physical, financial, and ecological sustainability challenges. Numerous metros elsewhere—such as Atlanta,Nashville, and Raleigh—are growing in similar ways, suggesting the Texas Triangle is a harbinger of how other parts of metropolitan America will develop in coming decades.
The combined population of the Triangle metros reached 19.7 million in 2020, rising 21.7 percent since 2010. The Triangle, comprising 35 of Texas’s 254 counties, accounts for 68 percent of the state’s population and 88 percent of its 2010–20 growth (Figure 1).2
Dallas–Fort Worth and Houston ranked first and second among US metros for absolute growth from 2010 to 2020, while Austin and San Antonio were eighth and 12th (Table 1). Measured by percentage growth rates, the Austin metro ranked first by far among the nation’s 50 largest, growing 32.9 percent. Some demographers argue for combining the Austin and San Antonio metros for census purposes, since they’re growing into each other. Together, they would rank third for absolute growth and first among the 50 largest metros for percentage growth.3
Texas will soon have four cities among America’s 10 largest (Houston at number four, San Antonio at number seven, Dallas at number nine, and Austin at number 10), the first time one state will have four of the top 10 cities. By 2040, the four-metro population will grow to 40.7 million, based on Texas Demographic Center projections. The Dallas–Fort Worth and Houston metros will then be America’s third and fourth largest, passing Chicago, while a combined Austin–San Antonio area would rank between sixth and eighth.4
The principal driver of the Triangle’s growth is net migration from elsewhere in the United States. Each metro ranks among the top 10 for net domestic in-migration from 2010 to 2020, with Dallas–Fort Worth first. This reflects diverse populations voting with their feet. Dallas–Fort Worth and Houston ranked first and second for Hispanic population growth between 2010 and 2020, while San Antonio and Austin ranked eighth and 11th. Dallas–Fort Worth and Houston ranked second and third for black growth over the same period, after Atlanta.5 Houston and Dallas–Fort Worth have also been magnets for immigration, ranking fifth and seventh for net immigrant inflows.6
Figure 1. Metro Areas of the Texas Triangle
The Texas Triangle has seen a tremendous influx of corporate relocations and people. Businesses moving to Dallas–Fort Worth between 2010 and 2020 include McKesson, Toyota Motor North America, Jacobs Engineering Group, and CBRE Group. Hewlett Packard Enterprise relocated to Houston in 2020, while Tesla and Oracle moved to the Austin area in 2021. More than 50 Fortune 500 firms now have headquarters in the Triangle.7
The Triangle’s evolution into an integrated mega-region will likely further enhance its corporate appeal. Together, the Triangle metros enjoy powerful positions in the US economy: the leading technology center between the coasts (Austin), dominant centers for energy and space plus the world’s largest medical complex (Houston), and leading heartland centers for engineering, transportation, and business services (Dallas–Fort Worth).8
Table 1. Growth of the Texas Triangle Metros
The Texas Triangle Way of Urbanism
The Triangle metros share many key commonalities, despite their differences. First, each stands out for growth-oriented policies. This heritage reflects small-government traditions deeply embedded in Texas politics and pragmatic political styles in each city. All five core cities emerged from the 1960s as New South metropolises where dominant business establishments moved past Confederate nostalgia and promoted investment in infrastructure and education.9
Today, each metro ranks in the top 25 percent of America’s 50 largest on a Southern Methodist University economic freedom index measuring tax, spending, and labor policies.10 Each ranks among the top third for permissive housing policies, based on a University of Pennsylvania land-use index.11 Houston, famous for its lack of zoning, loosened land-use rules further in 1999, even as cities elsewhere were tightening restrictions.12
Growth-friendly policies have allowed development to keep up with demand better than in most metros. All four metros rank high for housing permits per resident between 2010 and 2019 and lower-than-average home-price-to-income ratios, though price pressures grew from 2012 to 2021.13
Second, the Triangle metros are more horizontally expansive than most comparable areas. Development and population growth have leaned toward each metro’s expanding edge rather than infill development near downtown. Nine of the 20 US counties over 50,000 people experiencing the fastest 2010–20 growth rates were suburban counties in the Triangle, including top-ranked Hays County (in the Austin metro) and runner-up Comal County (in the San Antonio metro). (See Table 2.) Collin and Denton counties, north of Dallas, are together now home to over two million people, more than all but four US cities. By contrast, the principal core counties of the Dallas–Fort Worth and Houston metros, Dallas and Harris counties, experienced modest net domestic outflows between 2010 and
Table 2. America’s 20 Fastest-Growing Counties with a Population over 50,000
2020.14 (They still grew moderately, thanks to immigration and natural increase.) In the Dallas–Fort Worth and San Antonio metros, virtually all office space under construction today is in exurban job centers.15
Austin is a special case: The capitol building and the University of Texas flagship campus have ensured vitality in the urban core. But even there, the fastest growth is occurring along the metro’s edge. Tesla is building its new headquarters and eight-million-square-foot “Gigafactory” in Austin’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, outside city limits.
Third, the Triangle metros are extraordinarily polycentric, in both political organization and built environment. Politically, they are organized in a kaleidoscopic variety of governance forms. Collin County has more than 30 cities and towns. Harris County contains 2.1 million people living in unincorporated areas, more than 43 percent of the county’s population, with services provided by diverse municipal utility districts and other entities.16 Each metro contains multiple urbanizing suburbs—places fulfilling all of a core city’s functions from schools to job centers and recreation. Some of these cities—such as Frisco, Georgetown, Katy, McKinney, New Braunfels, and Sugar Land—are among America’s fastest growing.17
As for the built environment, each metro consists of widely dispersed town centers and other walkable developments—and relatively small traditional downtowns. In each metro, the downtown core accounts for a smaller share of total office space than in most peer metros. A few suburban centers, such as the Katy Highway Energy Corridor and West Plano, rival their downtown counterparts for daytime working populations.18
Fourth, the Triangle metros are exceptionally diverse in their demographic and industrial composition. Houston and Dallas rank as the first and third most socio-ethnically diverse cities in the United States, based on a 2019 WalletHub study.19 Each metro but Houston has an unusually diverse employer base, according to Moody’s. Even Houston, long the world’s energy capital, has a more diverse economy than the Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, or Seattle metros do.20 The popular image of a Texas economy dominated by oil and cattle ranching is outdated.
These features of the Triangle model have proved mutually reinforcing. Pro-growth policies allow rapid expansion, which acts as a pressure valve containing housing prices throughout each metro.
Better-than-average affordability promotes diversity. High housing and business costs can crowd out all but the highest value-added industries and wealthiest residents, as the exodus of non-technology businesses and middle-income people from Silicon Valley demonstrates. Affordability is an underappreciated force for countering tendencies toward monoculture.21 Commerce-friendly policies also foster diversity, since excessive regulations affect lower value-added industries and minority-owned firms more than large companies that can absorb the costs.22
Expansion has created an array of midsize cities from what were once country towns. These cities often have been more successful than larger peers in sustaining support for continued growth and countering NIMBYism. Citizens have more reason to believe they will enjoy quality- of-life amenities made possible by rising tax revenues and not just suffer the congestion.23 Polycentric political geography creates intense competition for people and businesses, promoting investment in schools, roads, and green space and reinforcing commerce-friendly policies.24
Finally, midsize Triangle suburbs have successfully nurtured civic engagement and trust among citizens, perhaps because people have more opportunities to engage in decision-making than they do in large cities, contributing to social capital. Strong social capital bolsters support for investment in schools and other public goods and contributes to low crime rates.25 Ideologically driven narratives attributing the Triangle’s success to anti-government sensibilities generally pay inadequate attention to these civic benefits from polycentric geography.
The polycentric built environment also helps contain commuting times and congestion, since most residents commute to relatively nearby suburban job centers on well-maintained roads. Mean commuting times remain in line with national averages, despite the Triangle metros’ large population and expanse—sustaining support for growth-oriented policies.26
Advantages of Texas Urbanism
Historically, successful cities have always been places that achieve strong agglomeration economies—productivity and innovation benefits arising from people and ideas coming together in concentrated locations. It helps, as the Texas cities demonstrate, to have large, well-educated populations and top-tier knowledge-generating institutions.27 Urbanist Jane Jacobs argued that it also helps to have diverse industries, since innovation often arises from serendipitous collisions of ideas from disparate fields—a prediction verified by abundant research.28 Prosperous cities have always benefited from enterprising newcomers, including immigrants.29 And they ensure that people, goods, and ideas can move efficiently around the city.30
As economies grow more knowledge-centric, greater specialization means cities must have increasingly large, diverse workforces to generate strong agglomeration benefits. This means growing upward or outward. In practice, virtually all have primarily grown horizontally in recent decades. Improving transportation and preferences for greater space have resulted in cities becoming physically larger and less dense in their cores.31 Meanwhile, information technology has reduced the need for dense centers like lower Manhattan.32
COVID-19 has amplified the advantages of polycentric geography, strengthening preferences for moderate density and reducing benefits from living near traditional downtowns. Migration into the Triangle has accelerated, while employment in most coastal cities remains below pre- pandemic levels.33
The Triangle metros have succeeded better than most in accommodating big, diverse workforces by growing large but remaining relatively manageable for moving people and goods. They’ve also become more diverse economies over time, even as large coastal metros have tended toward monoculture.
The Triangle metros perform above average for living standards, as measured by 2018 median incomes adjusted for housing and other costs, based on George W. Bush Institute–Southern Methodist University Economic Growth Initiative studies (Table 3).34 Living standards are 20 percent above the US metro average in the Austin metro, 14 percent ahead in Dallas–Fort Worth, 9 percent ahead in Houston, and 5 percent ahead in San Antonio.
But the Triangle’s edge becomes more pronounced when one disaggregates data by ethnicity, a crucial factor in the future of American cities. Living standards in the Triangle metros range from 18 percent to 32 percent above all-metro averages for black residents, 6 percent to 15 percent ahead for Hispanics, 5 percent to 33 percent ahead for Asian Americans, and 20 percent to 32 percent ahead for whites.35
The Triangle metros have managed trade-offs between investing in public goods and maintaining moderate tax burdens better than most peers. The common narrative that they’ve succeeded by winning a “race to the
Table 3. High Living Standards in the Texas Triangle
bottom” on taxes doesn’t hold up.36 The Triangle metros have invested more successfully than most in public goods, from road infrastructure to premier medical institutions like Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center and Dallas’s University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The Triangle’s adult population share with a bachelor’s degree or higher is middle of the pack among America’s top 50 metros—hardly evidence of a race to the bottom—though the Triangle is unusually dependent on importing skilled workers from elsewhere.37
Also, high-tax metros don’t necessarily deliver better-than-average outcomes. Of the 26 top 50 metros in states with above-average tax burdens, 12 have below-average population shares with a bachelor’s or higher, and 14 have below-average living standards.38 High tax and regulatory burdens can just as easily translate to large transfers to rent-seeking special interests, as Glaeser argues.39 While high-tax, high-amenity models have proved appealing to top- level professionals in the largest coastal cities and retirees in certain localities, the Triangle metros are thriving because they offer an attractive mix of opportunity, living costs, and amenities to a wide variety of working people.
One distinctive challenge facing the Triangle is separation between booming job centers and vast left-behind areas in core cities. In places like Southern Dallas, home to approximately 600,000 mostly black and Hispanic people, accessible jobs are scarce. Weak transit systems constrain opportunities for people without automobiles.40 The Triangle’s core cities— especially Austin and Dallas—suffer from dysfunctional housing markets and explosive price appreciation. Educational outcomes remain below US averages for the Triangle’s Hispanic population, reflecting insufficient English-as-a-second-language instruction and side effects of poverty.41
The Triangle also depends on continuing expansion, since housing growth in outer-edge suburbs plays a pivotal role in preserving cost-ofliving advantages. The Triangle experiment may falter if growing suburbs turn against development or if Texas fails to address these areas’ complex infrastructure needs. Another challenge is building infrastructure that suburban tax bases will sustainably support so suburbs can maintain competitive tax rates and amenities.42
Finally, the horizontally expansive Triangle model poses ecological sustainability issues. The mega-region’s suburbs are paving over vast acres of grasslands and, in Houston’s case, sensitive wetlands. Inadequate attention to green space may undermine the appeal of these cities as they age. Water supplies might fail to keep up with growth.43 Carbon taxes could undermine the case for living in outer-edge suburbs.
A Harbinger of Metropolitan America’s Future?
Texas urbanism is more applicable to conditions facing most US cities than the models represented by leading Northeast and West Coast metros. It’s easier to pursue growth-oriented policies and outward expansion than to re-create world-leading technology or finance centers. Smaller versions of the model are emerging across the Sunbelt and in midwestern metros such as Columbus and Indianapolis. Some urbanizing suburbs elsewhere—such as Apex, North Carolina; Carmel, Indiana; Leesburg, Virginia; and New Albany, Ohio—are growing rapidly too.
At the same time, it’s unlikely that Triangle-style urbanism will take root beyond several dozen metros. One limiting factor is that the model generates superior living standards only in metros large enough to achieve strong agglomeration economies. Very few metros below one million people with low tax rates and home prices but only moderate educational attainment—including in Texas—deliver above-average living standards. In the meantime, numerous large metros outside the Sunbelt are moving toward even more restrictive regulatory policies.44
Still, more than 20 percent of Americans live in metros that broadly fit the Triangle model—and they’re all booming.45 Whether they sustain high living standards and rapid growth will profoundly influence 21st-century urbanism. The eyes of America are on the Texas Triangle, the new model of urban growth for coming decades.
I’m grateful to Henry Cisneros, David Hendricks, and William Fulton, with whom I wrote The Texas Triangle: An Emerging Power in the Global Economy (Texas A&M University Press, 2021), and to Joel Kotkin, with whom I wrote “Big D Is a Big Deal,” on which this chapter draws.46