Preview: State of the City

With our city growing and changing  around us, we take a closer look at the issues shaping Austin today.

By Shelley Seale

Austin is the country’s current “it” city. All of the things we love about this place, find quirky and unusual and even a little rebellious, seem to have been discovered by the rest of the world. The 11th largest city in the U.S. has seen a lot of changes recently, yet remains home to many beloved long-time institutions. Here we take a look at Austin today, in a snapshot of many different facets of the State Capital of Texas.

The speed with which Austin is growing seems to be the hottest topic of conversation around the city these days. An explosion of “Don’t move here” t-shirts and “We hear Houston is nice” bumper stickers proliferate amid the buzz about how many thousands of people move to the city and its surrounding areas each month. In January 2014, Forbes magazine named Austin the number-one fastest growing city in the country—for the fourth year in a row.

“With a 2.5 percent population growth rate (estimated annual) for 2013—the highest of all the geographic regions—and an economy that expanded 5.88 percent last year, it’s hard for other cities to compete these days,” the Forbes report stated.

U.S. Census Bureau numbers show that during 2013, an average 131 people per day moved to the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area (which includes Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis and Williamson Counties), bringing the total metropolitan area population to 1.8 million. And that number was down from the previous two years; in 2012, 146 people moved here each day, while 2011 welcomed 148 newcomers daily.

While the growth is bemoaned by many and has certainly created its share of problems—have you tried driving practically anywhere around town lately?—there are some definite pluses as well. For a city getting larger each day, our statistical crime rate remains relatively low. According to CQ Press, Austin’s crime rate is the fourth lowest in the nation among cities with more than 500,000 people. Our health-conscious lifestyle has also been noted by many, and Sharecare named Austin one of the Top 10 Fittest Cities in America in January 2014.

Terri Givens, Associate Professor in the Government Department at the University of Texas at Austin and author of a new book, Legislating Equality, says that growth is a double-edged sword. “On the one hand, it’s great to see the dynamism in the city, lots of young people moving here and a strong job market. On the other hand, there are issues of high housing costs, traffic and environmental issues, particularly since we are in the middle of a severe drought. This is an area where Austin can’t do it alone; we need to work closely with surrounding communities and around the state to work on more sustainable solutions to transportation and housing that can be managed in the context of the current infrastructure and environmental concerns.”

Ethnic Diversity & Gentrification
Givens says that while Austin likes to see itself as a progressive city, there are important issues around diversity that the city has struggled with. Incredible growth in the Hispanic population and a burgeoning Asian community have drastically changed Austin’s demographics. At the same time, however, we’ve seen a decrease in the African-American demographic. A recent University of Texas study found that Austin is the only city with double-digit population growth that experienced a concurrent decline in the African-American population, although some find the data disputable.

“Things have definitely improved, but we need to make sure that this is a city where ethnic minorities feel welcome, and a part of the public policy processes,” says Givens. “This should improve with the new 10-1 system for city government, but we need to do more to make sure our education system is meeting the needs of growing diversity, and that there are economic opportunities for all.”

One of the major challenges to this, and a hot topic around Austin in general, is gentrification—particularly of the east side. Givens says that she’s surprised it took as long as it did for East Austin to start the process, and that she sometimes feels gentrification is an unstoppable process.

“There are many ongoing discussions on how to manage growth in traditionally low-income neighborhoods, but it is going to be a major challenge for the city to find ways to manage this growth,” she says. “Small businesses are struggling while new businesses come in. In many ways it’s just market forces, but I’m hopeful that programs like the African-American Heritage District can be helpful.”

You can read the whole story soon in our upcoming preview issue. Use the form below to find out how to get a copy.

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