The 2020 Census counts released last week are filled with good news for Texas. For each day since 2010, 1,095 people were added to the state’s population, for a total of nearly four million new Texans and a rate of growth that is more than double the national average.
I am counted among these new Texans, though I am not exactly new. I am what you might call a born-again Texan. I grew up near Beaumont and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, but I spent twenty years in the East Coast metros of Boston, New York, and Washington. What drew me back? The yearning to be near my relatives, and the magnetism of Austin’s creative tech vibe, as well as its welcoming LGBTQ community, its relative affordability, and the opportunity to build a center at UT’s LBJ School to study Texas’s diverse cities and metros.
Luckily for transplants like myself, Texas is every bit as metropolitan as the Acela corridor, and just as diverse. An astounding 95 percent of those new Texans are Hispanic, Black, Asian, Native American, or multiracial. Since 2010, the state has gained eleven new Hispanic residents and three new Black residents for every non-Hispanic white. Very nearly 40 percent of Texans are Hispanic, up from 38 percent in 2010. Twelve percent are Black, and 5 percent are Asian. The metros of Austin, Dallas–Fort Worth, and Houston are home to some of the largest LGBTQ communities in the country.
The growth of Texas metros has powered the state forward. DFW and Houston are two of only three U.S. metros that have added more than 1.2 million residents since 2010 (New York is the third). One of the country’s fastest-growing major metros, Austin added 567,000 new residents (the equivalent of all of Milwaukee). San Antonio added an additional 416,000. Fort Worth is the fastest-growing U.S. city with at least 500,000 residents in the U.S.; Austin was second. Six of the state’s suburban counties—Comal, Hays, Fort Bend, Kaufman, Rockwell, and Williamson—rank among the ten fastest-growing in the nation. All the while, the population of rural Texas grew less than 1 percent.
The continued rise of the Texas Triangle—whose corners are DFW, Houston, and San Antonio—shouldn’t be a surprise, as seven in ten Texans already call it home. The triangle accounts for 80 percent of the state’s GDP, 95 percent of its venture capital investment, 71 percent of its new jobs, and all of its 49 Fortune 500 companies.
As an urbanist, what fascinates me about Texas’s cities and metros is the variety among and within them, and that so many are thriving. Dallas–Fort Worth and Houston are textbook examples of global gateways, Austin is a tech and creative hub, and El Paso is the economic anchor of a binational mega-region. Texarkana is a manufacturing and defense-services center. All of them, of course, are confronting significant challenges. Austin and San Antonio are experiencing runaway gentrification; Corpus Christi, Galveston, and Houston are facing the realities of climate change; and Houston and Midland-Odessa will need strategies that leverage their engineering expertise as the state continues its move into alternative energy.
Beyond its great barbecue, what brought all those new people to Texas are the same things that attracted me—economic opportunity, affordability, and diversity, not just of races, ethnicities, and cultures, but of whole ways of life. Up until quite recently, Texas’s signature small-C conservatism and its robust public-private partnerships ensured that localities could address their problems and opportunities as they see fit.
But recent trends are worrying. The emergency powers that Governor Greg Abbott has asserted are part of an attempt, aided by the state Legislature, to seize powers long held by cities and counties over how they raise revenue and what they spend it on, as well as over petty issues such as whether plastic grocery bags can be banned and ancient trees protected. Threatening to sue school districts that mandate masks, or to pull the liquor licenses of restaurants that are trying to provide their customers and staffs with safe environments, is the opposite of the Texas way. Texas got where it is by supporting local innovation, not squelching it out of deference to one or another national hot-button issue—or because a rural old guard is threatened by the rise of multicultural cities.
Austin doesn’t tell Beaumont how to operate, and Beaumont doesn’t need to preach to Austin. The challenges our metros face vary tremendously, as do the preferences of Texans in different parts of our enormous state. Local leaders require both the resources and the authority to craft policies that address their citizens’ needs and desires. Most of those leaders want to go back to the Texas way, which didn’t just talk about liberty in terms of the freedom to spread disease, but actively enabled the liberty of Texans to choose local officials and policies that reflect their views and circumstances.
Steven Pedigo is a professor of practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the director of the school’s Urban Lab.