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Apr 02 2013

The big city

Wow, I’m amazed. I read some bit of promotional/informational bumf about Austin that was part of the hotel room furniture, and goggled at the bit that said Austin is #14 among US cities in population. What?! thought I. That can’t be right. There are too many other bigger cities in the way – Seattle being one.

But you know what? I’m wrong. I have a vague memory of Seattle being at about 17 or 19, but now I think about it that was probably decades ago. Anyway sure enough, as of 2010 (the last census) Austin is at 14; Seattle is at 23.

That still feels surprising. Austin’s downtown is weirdly diffuse, vertical only in spots. It has these shiny new condo towers but they’re all isolated. I went past all the super-tall ones west of Congress Avenue yesterday and they are bizarre – they sprout up in a nowhere-land, as if built after a bombing raid. No shops and fellow condos next door, but empty lots and the back of the power station.

And the airport is tiny. Ok, so I managed to figure that out…Seattle is in a very urbanized county, and maybe Austin isn’t, or maybe SeaTac is a hub and Austin isn’t, or maybe both. Anyway – thus we learn that my talent for seat of the pants demographics-estimation is nil.

I was surprised by a lot of the cities in the top 20. San Antonio! Jacksonville! Indianapolis!! (Indianapolis?! Seriously? How did that happen? Not St Louis or Minneapolis or Cleveland, but Indianapolis. Dang. I had no idea.)

16 comments

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  1. 1
    sisu

    That’s a kind of odd way to do it – that site only counts the single city, instead of the whole metro area. This table gives the 50 largest metro areas in the US. Seattle’s #15, Twin Cities are #16, and Austin’s all the way down at #35. So, you’re really not as wrong as you thought. :)

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    Aha! That does make a more recognizable (to me at least) list.

    Another funny thing about Austin that I noticed belatedly on Sunday evening as I was loitering on the bridge debating whether to stay there or go down to the shore – I never once heard a plane overhead or even in the distance. Yesterday I did hear and see a fighter jet, but that was all. There are flights, obviously, but not coming in every few minutes as they do here.

  3. 3
    Worldtraveller

    I was going to say what sisu said. Seattle is only so far down on the list because of the way cities in this area are all small, area wise, but all run into each other. Seattle, Bellvue, Redmond, etc…I don’t even know which of the areas here are incorporated cities, and which are just names for local neighborhoods (I’ve only been here two years).

    The Phoenix metro area is similar. It’s huge…larger in area (but not yet in population) than Los Angeles, but that really consists of Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, etc…I think almost a dozen separately incorporated areas.

  4. 4
    besomyka

    With regard to airplanes, the airport is fairly busy, but the runways run due north/south while the city itself is oriented along the SW/NE line. The airport itself is a bit off to the east as well, so the landing approaches avoid the central portion of the city.

    Unless you live on the east side (minority dominated … yeah), you only get aircraft overhead if it’s a smaller local plane, or if a larger one was passed off to some other approach and needs to circle around.

    Regarding the fighter, it’s rare. I see more military helicopters, due to Camp Mabry in west Austin. It’s the Texas National Guard base.

  5. 5
    Jafafa Hots

    There was a fad back in the 80s where a bunch of southern US cities like Nashville “metropolitanized.”
    They annexed the surrounding cities and sometimes the county.
    as if “San Francisco” was made to comprise all of the peninsula or even Oakland and the east bay, or if Buffalo annexed Niagara Falls and the area in between.

    I dunno specifically if Austin did that, but I think I heard Indianapolis did. I know there was talk of it in other places, “regionalism” it was called in WNY. Some felt it would save the inner city by expanding the tax base, others felt it would kill off the inner city by giving what had been the suburbs too much political power in the new city government.

    But Texas is kinda sprawly anyway.

  6. 6
    SallyStrange

    I’m just curious how they managed to end up with a waterfront that was nearly 100% park. Planning a post on this, actually.

  7. 7
    besomyka

    It might be worth mentioning that talking about Austin is a welcome pastime of most Austinites, myself included.

    Austin does encompass some previously small towns, like Sunset Valley, but not too much. I don’t recall any drastic expansion. It’s always been the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. Or local vs newcomers; I saw a sign that said “Don’t Dallas my Austin”, for example.

    Austin proper is a bit over 800k people, but the metro consists of, I think, about 1.7 million. Austin doesn’t have any control over the taxes in those other towns, though.

  8. 8
    Ophelia Benson

    It’s great about the trails along both sides of the river (or “lake” as they call it, oddly, to me – it’s just a wide part of a river) – I walked both sides for considerable distances. On the other hand I think they’re a bit drought-battered, or maybe just dry climate-normal. It seems ungracious but I was a little disppointed by them.

    Am I a philistine for just loving the Frost Bank tower? I’ve always loved the Chrysler building, so I guess it’s ok to add a bank tower. It is so cool.

  9. 9
    besomyka

    @SallyStrange There’s an environmentalist history involving the Colorado River and Barton Springs, most of it starting in the early 1900′s. Control and preservation of our water source has been a primary concern. I want to say that general progressive city planning has been a focus of our development ever since the 1920′s.

    It’s not that people don’t want to develop along the river, there are constant proposals for that, but the city council and bond requests have almost always gone towards preserving and expanding shared green spaces.

    For example, in the 2012 elections, we had several bond proposals on the ballot. The following passed:

    Proposition 12: Transportation and Mobility
    Proposition 13: Open Space and Watershed Protection
    Proposition 14: Parks and Recreation
    Proposition 16: Public Safety
    Proposition 17: Health and Human Services
    Proposition 18: Library, Museum and Cultural Arts Facilities

    One of the proposals that didn’t pass was Prop 15: money for low-income housing, but it turned out that the city had a financial surplus, so the city council is moving funds to support that anyway.

    It means we pay a good amount of sales tax, and as home owner I pay a good amount of property tax, but at least in Austin I feel like I get my money’s worth. I LIKE having accessible parks and pools, art and music.

    Now if we could only get sensible light rail.

  10. 10
    Ophelia Benson

    Yay Austin. Keep those parks. I hope it rains a bunch so that they can green up a little.

    I wish we could get sensible light rail, too. We have the non-sensible kind. With much pulling and tugging the Powers That Be finally built a light rail to the airport, but it SUCKS. I hate it. It’s the shittiest city planning…Not least because it’s a very long walk from the terminal, much much longer than the walk to the plain old bus used to be, and then it takes much longer than it should because it doesn’t go straight, it detours way east and then back again, combining a commuter light rail with an airport light rail. Ugh. We used to have an express bus that went straight downtown but now that we have light rail we can’t have the express bus any more. AND the light rail is a separate fare.

  11. 11
    Ophelia Benson

    The 100 airport bus in Austin rocks.

  12. 12
    besomyka

    @Ophelia Austin is currently suffering from extreme drought conditions, yup. The lakes are only at 40% capacity, and we’ve been on various watering restrictions for the last 5 years. http://www.lcra.org/water/drought/index.html

    We call sections of the Colorado River (The Lower Colorado, specifically), lakes only because those sections of the river have dams that control the flow rate, and those labels refer to specific sections of the river that are controlled. Lake Travis up north is the big one. The lake section in downtown is called Lady Bird Lake (after the first lady), but it’s kept at a consistent level for quality of living reasons.

    I always call it ‘the river’, though.

    Also, Alex Jones (of Infowars fame) thinks the Frost Bank building is a symbol of the Illuminati’s domination of the city, and Texas. He thinks this because the top of the building, when viewed from the correct angle, looks like an owl. Which it does (google : ‘frost bank owl’).

  13. 13
    Ophelia Benson

    Oh, I see. Dams. That makes sense.

    Shoal Creek is really sad as a drought-symbol. (No doubt all the creeks are, but that’s the one I saw.) Stagnant and dirty. A lovely thing to have in a city…if it has water! Come on, Baby Jesus, send rain to east Texas.

  14. 14
    besomyka

    What have you done?! Our lovely Governor declared days of prayer to ease the drought in 2011 to no avail, but you invoke Sweet Baby Jesus(the best one, BTW), and now the jet stream has come all the way here! You are a Prophetess! A female Moses!

    Seriously: It’s midnight local, and I’m seeing freezing temps in Oklahoma, and it’s pouring here. Weather vs climate, unfortunately, so it won’t fix our drought problem just yet — but I wouldn’t want to be playing around in Shoal Creek right now! Dry ground == flash floods.

    Anyway, I’m glad you got to see Austin on your own terms. I would have loved to give an edited tour(or just talk about those places/aspects), but fresh eyes provide perspective. For example, I’ve known streams are dry, but I couldn’t see how much that has affected the center of town.

    That’s it. I’m getting an electric car. Or motorcycle. Been hearing one advertized on the local NPR station..

  15. 15
    sisu

    Sweet Baby Jesus(the best one, BTW)

    Dear eight pound, six ounce, newborn baby Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers, lying there with your curled-up, fat, balled-up little fists pawin’ at the air…

  16. 16
    ahcuah

    As another example, here in Ohio Columbus is the largest city, even though you might otherwise think it would be Cincinnati or Cleveland. However, those two cities are mashed up against a river and lake, respectively, and with suburbs on the other side, have no place to grow. Columbus, on the other hand, is in the middle of the state (more or less) and isn’t completely surrounded by its suburbs.

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