Beverly Kerr

As more people and businesses move to Austin, the city will encounter challenges and opportunities that come with an increasingly dense urban environment, say business leaders and academics.

Forbes magazine recently ranked the Austin metro area as the fastest growing city in the United States for the second year in a row. The publication rated cities using economic and population growth projections from Moody’s, an economic analysis agency.

Beverly Kerr, vice president of research at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, said the perception of Austin as a progressive enclave within a low-tax, low-regulation state attracts people and firms from all around the state and
the country.

“Austin benefits from being perceived as a blue island in a red state,” Kerr said. “A lot of growth comes from other parts of Texas. The city’s reputation is very high within the state. Anyone that has had an experience of Austin finds that it’s one of the more attractive places to be. After Texas, the biggest state they come from is California.”

Kerr said UT contributes to the city’s development by fostering an innovative and well-educated workforce.

“Austin has the sixth highest educational attainment in the country because of the high percentage of people with bachelor’s degrees,” Kerr said. “Austin has a creative class and a strong entrepreneurial community.”

As Austin continues to grow, the population of the city’s center will become more dense, said Michael Oden, director of the School of Architecture’s graduate program in community and regional planning.

“Increasingly people like to live in more central city areas,” Oden said. “Baby boomers, most of whose kids have left their house, wonder why they’re still living in a cul-de-sac in the suburbs. And our offspring, the kids that just left the house, have always wanted to live in the central city, especially people that have not gotten to the family planning stage.”

Oden said Austin has a choice: either plan for density intelligently or let density happen in an unappealing way. To plan intelligently, the city needs to boldly commit to a non-automotive transportation system, he said.

“If you let things go on business-as-usual, roads will get more crowded, more congested and it won’t be as much an attractive place to live,” Oden said. “That could kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Whether the City encourages alternate modes of transportation or not, Austin’s rising population density presents an opportunity for small businesses and greater ecological sustainability, said Raquel Dadomo, brand manager at Wheatsville Food Co-op.

“Cities are our best bet for sustainability, and there are lots of opportunities for well-run small businesses,” Dadomo said.

Dadomo said the future is bright for Austin’s well-established and yet-to-be-established local businesses.

“BookPeople, Toy Joy, Spider House [Cafe], EcoClean, I Heart Video, Waterloo Records — Austin wouldn’t be the same place without them,” Dadomo said. “Starting a business is still hard and still risky, but for some reason in Austin people are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, to give you a shot and find a local way of doing something rather than going out.”

Austin placed highly in a recently released ranking of America’s top 50 cities, beating out Houston, Dallas and San Antonio by a wide margin.

Bloomberg Rankings and Businessweek.com worked together to evaluate the country’s largest cities on a scale that excluded affordability. Based on 16 components, Austin proved to be one of the best cities in the nation. The components included the number of restaurants, bars and museums as well as the city’s income, poverty, unemployment, crime and foreclosure rates.

“I imagine on a per capita basis, the number of entertainment outlets like bars and restaurants and that sort of thing is probably on the higher end,” said Beverly Kerr, vice president of research at the Austin Chamber of Commerce. “I think the thing with Austin is that it’s relatively concentrated, it’s easy to access a lot of those amenities that we have. Particularly downtown we have a lot more going on than you’ll see in a lot of other cities. I’m not surprised that we ranked well on that.”

Austin’s centrally located 209 bars and 1,818 restaurants, many of which offer live music, helped contribute to Austin’s high ranking according to the report.

According to Businessweek.com, Austin would have made the top ten were it not for a high property crime rate.

Although Austin ranked well with a violent crime rate of 523.3 per year, the property crime rate ranked on the other end of the spectrum according to Businessweek.com statistics. Austin’s yearly property crime rate was listed 6,245.5, which Kerr said can make it less attractive to migrants.

Austin’s low unemployment rate is one major factor that enhances the attractiveness of Austin, Kerr said.

“I think that’s something that people always look at — how likely it is that they’re going to be able to land a job,” Kerr said. “Austin’s jobs have been growing for quite a while now. We went into the recession later and came out earlier, so that’s always something that seems to be included and liked in this attractiveness rating.”

Printed on September 27, 2011 as: Austin ranks No. 12 in list of most livable American cities