A walk around downtown Austin in 2016 – surrounded by skyscrapers, bustling music venues, cafes, bars, restaurants and tattoo parlors, all buzzing with life – makes it hard to imagine that just a few decades ago, this vibrant city was a quiet university town that only came alive at night, thanks to its iconic music industry. Austin is now at the forefront of technology, arts and culture trendsetting with mottos like “Silicon Hills” and “Keep Austin Weird” casually thrown around to describe Austin’s tech boom that stands apart from the rest.
Ranked as the second highest American city in terms of job growth, enjoying an average of 5.7% economic growth annually paired with a population growth rate of 2.9%, Austin has been the fastest growing American city for three years in a row. What is Austin doing right? And what is the catalyst behind Austin’s impressive transformation? A collaborative city at its core, Austin’s public and private sectors have been able to encourage growth in an ever-competitive national environment, attracting capital and talent while staying true to its roots. “When I got here in 1978, this city was a small town. It’s now the 11th largest city in the country,” says Mayor Steve Adler when we meet him in City Hall. “Relative to the rest of the state, we’ve had an engaged public for a long time. We have a sense of democracy and involvement in this city.”
A Convergence of Tech and Art
Some of Austin’s unique DNA can be traced back to the founding of the University of Texas in Austin in 1883. Providing a quality of education comparable to Ivy League universities, UT Austin had strong engineering, natural sciences and liberal arts schools that provided the human resources necessary for the cultural and economic development that followed. Today, more than 10 higher education institutions continue that legacy. “Austin is a creative town where 50,000 undergraduates make up most of the population. Students fall in love with the city and stay,” affirms Mayor Adler who did the same himself after graduating from UT Austin’s Law School. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s when the Chamber of Commerce thought of ways to expand and diversify the city’s narrow economic base as they did not want to be heavily dependent on the fluctuating prices of the oil and gas industry that Texas is famous for, especially with strong competitors like Dallas and Houston. Fuelled by research programs at UT Austin, the idea of Austin being the tech hub for the South started to emerge. The first step of its materialization was in 1967 when IBM set up shop Austin, quickly followed by Motorola, Texas Instruments, Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, and Sematech in the 1970s and 1980s.
While Austin was growing its silicon wings, an energetic local music scene was on the rise too. In his book Homegrown, Joe Nick Patoski, who has been documenting the Austin music scene for 40 years, explains that “before Austin became the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ and attracted tens of thousands of music fans, it had a vibrant local music scene that spanned late sixties psychedelic and avant-garde rock to early eighties punk.” It was in the 1970s that Austin rose to prominence in the American music scene with local artists such as Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, and Stevie Ray Vaughan making waves across the country, and indeed the world. Also, the emergence of festivals like Austin City Limits and South by South West, founded in in 1976 and 1987 respectively, continue to attract thousands of music pilgrims each year. Thus, it comes as no surprise that currently, Austin has the highest music venues per capita in the entire US.
The impact that musicians and artists have on the culture of the city remains undeniable, despite the influx of tech professionals; a walk down Sixth Street or Red River will overload your senses with all sorts of genres playing from both historic and modern venues. Pop-up and stalwart venues both have their dedicated patrons, many of whom have travelled far and wide to get a taste of what keeps Austin at the top of liveability lists each year. And it’s not just a downtown phenomenon; just northwest of downtown, you will find Spiderhouse Café and Ballroom, a fantastic venue with no less than three stages playing different genres of music at the same time. Meanwhile, right on Lady Bird Lake, the historic Rainey Street Historic District gives you a sense of Austin’s heyday, with a slew of bars, cafes and independent music venues, one right after the other.
On Entrepreneurship and Affordability
Austin’s alternative culture is not only tied to music and the arts but extends to how people do business, explaining why so many big brands are relocating there and why “the city has more startups per capita than any other American city,” as Mayor Adler notes. During a session during 2016’s edition of SXSW on how to keep Austin’s startup scene weird, David Altounian, Professor of Entrepreneurship at St Edward’s University, explained that “Austin’s successful entrepreneurs actually give back; it is very uniquely Austin.” The panel, as well as the audience, agreed that coopetition rather than competition is an intrinsic quality of the local entrepreneurship community. Meanwhile, it becomes abundantly clear that city’s aim is not to recreate the Silicon Valley model, but to create their own model that leverages its unique assets. “The new generation of entrepreneurs are finding ways to monetize solving social challenges and that’s a model the government is adopting more and more. The conversations I have with city staff are not too different from the ones I have with startups,” explains Mayor Adler.
Austin currently hosts scores of the biggest names in tech including Apple, Facebook, Cisco Systems, Dropbox, PayPal, Google, and Dell, among others. However, Mayor Adler is adamant that the city isn’t incentivizing them per se: “There’s only been around 10 incentive packages over the same number of years,” he explains, insinuating that it is in fact Austin’s resilient economy and human capital that lures the tech giants in. Meanwhile, a relatively affordable cost of living (when compared to tech-driven cities on America’s coasts), and a relaxed way of life makes both tech and arts talent flock to Austin, which recorded a population increase of over 57,000 people in 2015 – and the city is happy to accommodate them. “We’re tasked with creating a smart quality of life,” says Jim Butler, the City’s Creative Industries Manager within the Economic Development Department. “We constantly have dialogue with both the formal and informal sectors, conducting surveys, focus groups and needs’ assessments to find out what needs to be done. Quality of life is, of course, fluid but it’s important to keep dialogue going. Right now, our biggest concerns are the transport infrastructure and maintaining affordable housing stock for local Austinites.”
A City Divided?
Undoubtedly, Austin’s rapid growth has brought about a lot of challenges for the city, as well as opportunity. Alongside the infrastructural challenges, mobility, environmental protection and gentrification are all hot topics, especially for city’s natives who yearn for an Old Austin. “There was a time in Austin’s history when preserving the city’s heritage meant simply not building the infrastructure to accommodate more people; to make Austin unattractive to outsiders – and I definitely don’t want to be the Mayor who made Austin unattractive!” jokes Mayor Adler. Addressing a disparity in wealth, where the I-35 highway geographically splits the city into a rich, tech-driven West side and an impoverished, service job-heavy East side, the Mayor points out that a balance must be struck to ensure equitable growth. “There is great power, resources and opportunities that come from having the large tech companies here. They add a lot of money to the economy, they bring in a young, engaged population and we need to figure out how to do an ever better job in taking that benefit and channelling it to the people that already live here,” he admits.
East Austin, or the ‘Eastern Crescent’ as it’s referred to by the City, is an area of great concern to the Mayor’s Office and the Economic Development Department and is where the average median family income is just $45,728, compared with the $71,511 average for the whole city. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is this district of the Austin Metro area that is made up largely of African American and Hispanic residents, pointing to a much-told tale of inequality in American sociopolitics; this concentration results directly from the 1928 City Plan where services like schools, sewers, and parks were made available to people of color only in this designated area. “Today, Austin is losing African Americans in absolute numbers. People that have lived here for a long time cannot afford it anymore. Their children can’t stay here for school. And that’s a concern. If we lose the diversity, Austin becomes something else,” concedes Mayor Adler. In late 2015, the Mayor, alongside Austin City Manager Marc Ott, initiated the Spirit of East Austin project to address these exact concerns, following an open-source community summit that saw 450 participants out of 2,000 selected to represent their East Austin communities. “The project has been set forth to identify and follow through with 3-5 large ideas and concepts that would affect change regarding the equity and access situation which currently exists in that part of town,” explains Mayor Adler.
Destined for Smartness
To solve pressing issues, the city is clearly doing what it does best: being smart, collaborative and innovative. The city has pushed for smart growth, defined as “a better way to build and maintain our towns and cities by building urban, suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools. This approach supports local economies and protects the environment.” Austin is adopting the new model of the City 3.0, which is based on “harnessing the collective imagination and intelligence of citizens in making, shaping and co-creating their city. In making the city, it considers the emotional impact of how people experience the city and thus is strongly concerned with the public realm, human scale and aesthetics.” With initiatives like the Downtown Austin Plan and Imagine Austin, the city is among the most proactive in involving the community and rallying support for its smart growth plans to make Austin more liveable, healthy, affordable, green, vibrant and connected.
Has the city been living up to its promises? For the most part, yes. A prominent example is the Dell Medical School at UT Austin where the “aim is turning Austin into a model healthy city,” explains Mini Kahlon, Vice Dean for Partnerships and Strategy. Meanwhile, Texas Senator Kirk Watson stresses that “Dell Medical School is the only school in the US that is completely tied to the community in how it is funded and operated.” The school was created in unprecedented partnership with local taxpayers, who in 2012 voted to support a vision for better health in Austin and positions itself as the future of medical education. The local support that the Dell Medical School has garnered for its vision – to build a vital, inclusive health ecosystem which transforms the way people get and stay healthy – was abundantly clear at this year’s SXSW.
Meanwhile, Austin is competing for a fund of $40 million from the US Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge to create the first-of-its-kind modern transportation system. The city’s pitch included bold innovations to replace carbon-based fuel consumption with climate-friendly vehicles and technologies that link people to transport information in ways that will improve quality of life and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Winning this challenge would be another important accolade for Austin that shows the city’s undying commitment to innovation to solve communal urban problems. Austin, despite its well-designed downtown, holds a mid-low ranking in terms of walkability (35th in the US) and can use this challenge to enhance its infrastructure and help diminish the East/West divide. It will also serve as a model smart city for other cities in the US and, given Austin’s great strides in engaging both the public and the private sector in decision-making, it’s easy to see how it will live up to this role. If anything, Austin was built to inspire.
The #CreativeCitiesUSA Austin editorial project was made possible with the support of:
Photography by Breezy Ritter for progrss.com