Thursday, April 09, 2009

Texas and America's four great growth waves

Update: A somewhat expanded and refined version of this post can be found on the New Geography website here.

Update 2: A Dallas Morning News editorial by columnist William McKenzie discussing this post can be found here. Hat tip to David Winans.

Let's talk about the really big picture - like 200+ years of American history. It seems to me there have been four great growth waves in our history. In each case, there was an attractive new frontier, which not only drew migrating waves of people seeking new opportunity, but also developed large new bases of industry, wealth, and power.
  1. The Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, DC corridor: America's original land of opportunity, wealth, and power. NYC was the big winner, and DC and Boston still do quite well.
  2. The rise of the agricultural and industrial Midwest, including Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis. The fall here has been a hard one as manufacturing moved abroad, but Chicago still stands as a world class city produced during the region's heyday.
  3. The great westward migration, mostly focused on California, but with ancillary growth in adjacent and west coast states. This migration started well before WW2, but really took off after the war, and produced two top-tier mega-metros, LA and the San Francisco Bay Area, and several successful second-tiers like Seattle, San Diego, Las Vegas, and Phoenix.
These waves are not clearly distinct, but overlap each other. As one region starts to level off, the next region is beginning its growth wave. And that's the situation now as California shows clear signs of leveling off: gigantic tech and housing crashes plus economic and domestic outmigration as tax, cost-of-living, housing, and regulation burdens rise.

The fourth wave is increasingly clear: Texas and the new South.

Just as CA had its pre-war growth surge, Texas had its first real growth waves with the 20th century post-Spindletop oil boom. They had the dust bowl migration of the 30s, and we had the oil boom of the 70s. But the real mega-surge has become more clear in the new century as CA hands off the baton to Texas. This growth wave really covers much of the South, but Texas is the 800lb gorilla vs. states like Georgia and North Carolina, just as California dominates over Washington, Nevada, and Arizona. I would argue we even loom over Florida, which certainly has experienced incredible population growth (now the #4 state), but has had disproportionately less success with building industry, wealth, and power (I'm not counting people who built wealth elsewhere but bought a FL second home), including few Fortune 500 headquarters, making it similar in some ways to Arizona.

The great cities emerging from this new wave are Atlanta, DFW, and, of course, Houston. They dominate the census growth stats (Houston story), and all indications are that Houston will pass Philly in the 2010 census to join DFW in the top 5 metros along with NYC, LA, and Chicago (interesting side note: we're the largest metro the census doesn't subdivide into multiple metro divisions). We're even approaching the combined SF Bay Area population of 6.1 million. And Texas passed California for #1 in the Fortune 500 HQ rankings last year.

Want more evidence? Check out this impressive video on the Texas Triangle with an overwhelming list of stats that make the case (hat tip to Mark at the Texas Triangle Business blog). In the video, they refer to the region as the 18m-strong "Texaplex", which is just a little too DFW-Metroplex centric for my tastes. You can also see their Texaplex informational brochure here.

When you look at it this way, it's clear Texas will be the focal point of America's growth for at least the next few decades. History also says at least one, and possibly more, truly top-tier world cities will emerge from this wave (and there's a good case to be made that we're already there). It's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day hubub and crisis-of-the-moment, but take a minute to stand back and see the big picture. You're part of a great historical wave that's just starting to really take off, the same as being in Chicago at the turn of the century or in California after WW2. Pretty cool, eh?

Update 3: A supportive excerpt from Bloomberg:

One thing hasn’t changed in this recession: Those who are mobile will continue to move where jobs are relatively plentiful and housing is cheaper.

The winners continue to be southeastern states and Texas. Some 67,000 single- and multifamily building permits were issued in the southern region in the first three months of this year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Texas alone accounted for more than 20,000 authorizations. Hot spots are still Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin.

Considering that almost 120,000 permits in the entire country were issued during that period, it shows that more than half of all new construction is in the South, where the cost of housing and living is significantly lower than in the Northeast, Midwest and on the West Coast. In contrast, just 5,571 units were approved in New York and New Jersey combined.

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At 12:56 AM, April 10, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 8:40 AM, April 10, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

still usin' that title 'Architect', huh?

At 1:03 PM, April 10, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, because it describes what I do. FYI, it's a common title in IT organizations: systems architect, data architect, etc. Also check out definition #3 here:

"the deviser, maker, or creator of anything: the architects of the Constitution of the United States."

At 1:55 PM, April 10, 2009, Anonymous Mike said...

I wonder how our four city megalopolis compares to the southeastern megalopolis, if you combine Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. It seems like if you superimposed Texas over the southeast, it's only fair to compare a multi-state region like Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina than to compare Texas to individual states.

If we're talking about a "world class" city emerging from the Texas region, it seems likely that there will only be one city that takes the lead in the long run. Just as New York emerged permanently ahead of Philadelphia and Chicago emerged permanently ahead of Detroit and St. Louis, ultimately I would think that either Dallas or Houston will end up with the highest concentration of talent, decision-making, and culture.

At 3:04 PM, April 10, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

All those cities except Atlanta are quite small, as well as being a bit farther apart (with a mountain range in the middle) and not under a single state governance (which does increase ties). All the cities in the triangle are relatively close to all the others, while the cluster you describe has some that are much farther apart from each other (like Nashville to Raleigh: 540 miles).

As far as the single-winner theory, what about SF vs. LA in CA? Yes, LA is substantially larger, but it's hard to argue SF is a "loser".

At 11:56 AM, April 11, 2009, Blogger The Weaker Party said...

You hit the obvious points, but omit an important qualifier. Many of Houston's developments were spurred by governmental decisions engineered by some very crafty and well connected people from Jesse Jones (at least) through Johnson/Bush/Archer/DeLay etc... Think of the digging of the ship channel, the focus on oil and gas in foreign affairs policy, and the placement of NASA, at the very least. That was back when we had pull in DC. We don't anymore, and depending on Obama's level of success we may not regain the influence we once had anytime soon, especially if the national Republican Party retrenches in the state. Quick: name the most powerful Texan in DC at the moment? Wasn't so difficult in year's past.

At 12:45 PM, April 11, 2009, Anonymous Mike said...

LA vs. SF... I would say that this is kind of like NY vs. Boston and DC... the East and West coasts are significant enough that they can support more than one "world class" city (I hate to use that term, but there it is). I'm less optimistic that Texas can, in the long run.

Boston and DC both found a specialty that kept them significant (education for Boston, govt. for DC), whereas Philadelphia and Baltimore, lacking any such specialty, were both eclipsed by the other cities around them. Same thing happened in the Midwest with Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, etc.

Looking at a map, the southeastern cities I mentioned seem to form a megalopolis, perhaps with the Tennessee cities as outliers and Atlanta-Raleigh being the main axis. It's a little bigger than the Texas megalopolis but smaller than the Midwestern one, and from having lived in the Midwest I would say that most people from Ohio to Minnesota see Chicago as their "capital" (as I'm sure most southeasterners do with Atlanta).

At 2:04 PM, April 11, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Kevin: I agree our pull in DC has substantially weakened, but I think that only has a marginal impact on the big growth trends. The seeds are already here, govt (ship channel, NASA) or not (oil, tech). The diffuse nature of power in DC means that everybody gets a piece, and only a few get a bit more than others. Neither Pelosi nor Reid will be able to substantially redirect govt or the economy to SF or Vegas.

Mike: I tend to agree that Atlanta is on track because of simple geography and a lack of substantial regional competition. On the other hand, that can lead to laziness/contentedness vs. having a competitor breathing down your neck (like DFW vs. Hou). If Detroit and the auto industry had stayed healthy and competitive, I think it would have been good for Chicago to have the regional competition for talent and business.

As far as DFW vs. Houston, there are a lot of factors that keep us balanced and more complimentary than competing. If the energy industry cluster had ended up in DFW instead of here, then DFW would probably have the game wrapped up. That industry cluster is really our ticket to "world class", and it will ultimately make or break Houston (although there are many other factors at the margin). DFW has more geographic centrality and a somewhat less hostile climate (humidity, tropical bugs, hurricanes, and flooding are worse than rare tornadoes or snow/ice).

Our balancing factors against DFW's natural advantages: energy industry, med center, port, NASA, international business and people diversity (related to geography and the oil industry), and a top-tier private research university (Rice - note that Atlanta has Emory and Georgia Tech, and we need UH to become like GT).

I've said before that I think Houston attracts very specific businesses to our industry clusters and specializations, but DFW is the default city for everybody/everything else that just wants to get to Texas' business friendly climate. As long as those two growth streams are reasonably equal/balanced, I don't see one city substantially dominating over the other.

At 2:19 PM, April 11, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Houston needs to become like Georgia Tech, then don't you think UH really needs to alter their strategy? I say increase enrollment standards weeding out the weaker people. Then other colleges will take on the responsibility of educating those who would have attended UH.

At 4:06 PM, April 11, 2009, Blogger The Weaker Party said...

I'll admit to being a total homer regarding our competition with Dallas, but is there anything Dallas does that is not done better elsewhere? Finance? Hi-Tech? Aren't they at best a regional hub for these industries? What do they do that requires that people go there, rather than Silicon Valley, Austin or New York, in order to stay competitive in their field? I don't know the answer to this so I'd like feedback.

That seems to be an advantage that we have in energy and to a lesser extent medicine. If I understand Richard Florida correctly, we stand to take advantage of the economic slide because we will build a greater density of people with skills and knowledge in energy. I have had two concerns however, and I wonder if you think they are legitimate.

First, Dubai. I was very concerned when Halliburton first announced that they were jumping ship and thought they would be the first of many Houston companies to do so. Since Dubai is closer to the developing world, the switch made sense. It still does. Since then the story has been that their boom has burst magnificently. But could this be temporary? Will Dubai be the energy capitol of the 21st Century? Will we have a role to play?

Second, the transition to sustainable energy. Will we be the center of this type of energy (with maybe UH as the leading institution) as we have been for oil and gas? Moreover, do our existing companies see this as a priority? I worry myself that the brainiacs in silicon valley could transform energy to the degree that we are the top dog in a declining industry.

I am not convinced that we have the foresight to make the necessary shifts in time to stay viable, much less rise the ranks of global cities. Am I wrong to worry?

At 4:32 PM, April 11, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Anon: that is exactly UH's strategy and plan. UHD will take over open enrollment.

Kevin: DFW does not really have a dominant industry cluster. It just has a diversified base of businesses that like the cost of living, business friendliness, low taxes, and quality of life of Texas.

Dubai-Halliburton: A PR stunt. only a handful of people around the CEO set up offices there, and the CEO spends as much time here as there. It allows Dubai to claim a major company HQ, and gives Halliburton a leg up on the competition for local contracts there, but did not move the vast bulk of their employees out of Houston. Symbol, not substance.

2nd concern: that is the big question, and I think the powers-that-be realize it's critical that Houston stay the HQ for all energy, not just oil and gas. Some good actions are being taken, but the future outcome is a big unknown.

At 4:36 PM, April 13, 2009, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...


I've been thumbing through some of the learned literature on concentrations of urban population. I generally agree that there is a good chance that DFW and Houston both have bright futures, as does Phoenix.

Countries that have massive population agglomerations in one city, or a handful of cities, have the following general characteristics:

1) The smaller the country's population, the more likely there will be a greater the concentration of population. In other words, Buenos Aires has 12 million of Argentina's 35 million, but Beijing does not have 400 million of China's 1.35 billion.

2) Is the country a dictatorship, or was it in the recent past? If yes, then it is likely there will be a concentration of population in the capital.

3) Does the country in question have relatively low trade barriers or trade extensively as part of its economy? Low trade barriers and / or extensive trade as measured by a percentage of GDP are likely to bring down population concentrations.

4) Does the country engage extensively in agriculture as a part of its economy? If yes, then that drags down population concentration.

5) Related to question #2, is political power concentrated? Also, is there (or has there been) political instability? These factors concentrate populations in the capital.

Based on these observations, there is plenty of cause for optimism that the two big urban areas in Texas to continue to grow.

One other comment. Some of the learned literature suggests that gains to be reaped from urban agglomerations tap out when per capita incomes reach a level of circa $10,000 per person. It doesn't really matter what industry an urban area bases its primary employment on. After that level of income is reached, further agglomerations will not be reaped just because incomes continue to rise.


At 5:20 PM, April 13, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Good stuff, Neal, as always. Thanks. I have noticed that even relatively free market democracies tend to concentrate in one mega-city - UK-London, France-Paris, Japan-Tokyo - because of the power of a central govt in a welfare state, i.e. if 50% of GDP goes to govt, the city with that govt will win, and even private businesses will want to locate there. The USA is a refreshing counter-example where multiple cities can rise to prominence, as are countries like Germany, Canada, and Australia.

At 9:20 AM, April 14, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The US, Germany, Canada and Australia have something in common, they are all federations of provinces, states, Bundesländer, etc. France and the UK are not federal systems and are more centralized even though admittedly, the UK is in the process of devolution to varying extents.

It really has nothing to do with the size of the welfare state. Germany has a larger social welfare program than the UK but it is less centralized because of the Bundesländer and history.

At 10:53 PM, April 14, 2009, Anonymous David Winans said...

In the video at, it was my attempt in calling the triangular area of Texas, the Texaplex, was to create a feeling that we are this great megalopolis in Texas. That we are 4 great metro areas individually, but combined we are even greater. I hope for a day that we do not talk about the competition between us. There is no doubt the the entire Texaplex region will be the bright spot of this country for the next 20 years.

At 12:10 AM, April 15, 2009, Blogger Rail Claimore said...

The Southeast megalopolis is a bit more linear than the Texas triangle. Atlanta is not quite at the center of it, but takes advantage of its geographic location well, but the western bookend of the area is Birmingham, not Nashville. Nashville is rarely included in the megalopolis because there is a drop in population density when you go north or west of the Tennessee River. The northwestern extent tends to be along the river and includes Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Huntsville, AL.

At 7:48 AM, April 15, 2009, Anonymous Mike said...

I think the concentration of populations in London, Paris, and Tokyo are due to numbers 2 and 5 of Neal's list, going back to when those countries had monarchies and the capital city was the nexus of everything. Alexis de Tocqueville had some interesting things to say on how America did not develop a major capital city like Paris and how this was to him a good thing.


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