October 16, 2014 Brian Kelsey

Austin, Texas: A Theory of Everything

There’s a term from physics I’ve always liked: theory of everything. It refers to the holy grail in physics of a unifying theoretical framework that can satisfactorily explain how everything in the universe works. The physicists you can name off the top of your head have all contributed pieces to the puzzle, but nobody has yet discovered the underlying structure that ties everything together convincingly. Many experts would say that no such unifying theory exists, but that doesn’t stop their pursuit of it. Historical consequence, after all, is a mighty large and tasty carrot.

Urban planners and economic geographers are on a similar quest. While the geographic scope–and thankfully the math–may be less ambitious, the search for that single unifying theory that can explain how cities and regions work is no less tempting. Nor is it less consequential, I would argue, at least for people concerned with the future of their communities. Whether it’s concentrated, inter-generational poverty on one end of the spectrum or rising inequality and gentrification on the other, urban and rural planners are analyzing data, building and testing models, and exploring “best practices” that can help make sense of what they see happening on the ground. Jane Jacobs. Richard Florida. Ed Glaeser. Enrico Moretti. Michael Porter. All rock-star thinkers and writers with massive popular appeal because they’ve offered important pieces of the puzzle: clusters, creative class, urban externalities, etc. A theory of everything, for politicians, planners, and pundits.

We’ve reached somewhat of a fever pitch here in Austin lately, even by our own navel-gazing standards. The confluence of housing costs, traffic, property taxes, gentrification, and 78 candidates running for mayor or city council in Austin’s new single-member districts–not to mention a $1.4 billion rail proposal seeking voter approval–has generated a level of awareness about city planning issues that I haven’t seen since moving here in 2002.

It’s exhausting, but important. And, for planners and civic-minded people in general, encouraging.

So, naturally, it’s my turn to take a shot at a theory of everything:

2014-10-16 Austin Theory of Everything Title Slide

Click on the image to download a PDF copy of the presentation. Thanks to the Austin Board of REALTORS for giving me an opportunity to pilot test this presentation at their 2014 Realty Round Up event.

The narrative goes something like this:

While Austin is indeed a special place–ask anybody–we’re not unique in the growth management challenges we’re facing. Fast-growing cities across the developed world have all experienced a version of what we’re experiencing. However, the reason it may “feel” different here is that Austin is experiencing these changes on an accelerated timetable. Rapidly appreciating property values and rents, especially in the urban core. Growing inequality in an environment of significant wealth creation (in the aggregate). Traffic gridlock. Most other cities on this development path experience this process over several decades. Marking the exact start line in Austin is open to debate, but we’re out for a speed record.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll do a series of posts expanding on several of the points made in the presentation. Topics will include:

  • Why being The Human Capital is, in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems
  • Austin’s perceived lack of “middle-wage” jobs–i.e. economic development is ruining the city because it’s all software developers
  • Why we should be organizing civic leadership trips to Raleigh, Charlotte, and Nashville. Not San Francisco.
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