Shared from the 5/12/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

SUSTAINABILITY

Are Texas’ big cities headed for a dystopian future?

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Courtesy Uptown Association Inc

In only five years, Dallas, much like Houston, has rebuilt its urban center out of glass, steel and money.

DALLAS — The year is 2036.

The urban core is long since complete. Omniplan has replaced I.M. Pei with the New Urbanism. Glass and steel beckons in the night. At street-level, a facsimile of Rodeo Drive sprouts glittering shops and restaurants. A 20-foot steel wall surrounds downtown and Uptown. With facial recognition and ubiquitous cameras scanning license plates, police enforce a 100 percent I.D. check. The story is the same in Houston. If you don’t belong here, your life is tenuous, not glamorous. Schools have practically collapsed. Only police helicopters light the skies over South Dallas.

Of course, this is a fictionalized account. But in the space of just five short years, Dallas, like Houston, Austin and now San Antonio, has rebuilt its urban center out of glass, steel and money. The Texas economic boom is etched in the skyscrapers. Yet Texas is also well on its way to a dystopian future. Latinas earn 44 cents on the dollar compared with other Texans, according to one study. Texas has greater income inequality than all but 13 states, according to another.

Luckily, emanating from Dallas is the semblance of what Texas desperately needs: vision. It doesn’t come from a politician but a wealthy, patrician Republican lawyer, Tom Luce, who served in the Education Department of George W. Bush’s presidency. Luce founded a data-driven nonprofit to measure exactly how Texas measures up on everything from education to the environment, named Texas 2036 for the upcoming bicentennial of independence. Last month, a new president was installed —another Bushie — Margaret Spellings, a former education secretary.

Yes, a pair of Republicans are worried about the future of Texas. Some people might see GOP stalwarts as not caring about social justice, but they definitely care about the economy. And a future in which the majority of Texans can’t support the consumer economy or the tax base is almost dystopian. Of course, you will never hear these warnings from Gov. Greg Abbott — and that’s part of the point.

The Abbott era in Texas has been hardball politics and small-ball vision: lots of symbolic social issues and a proposed penny increase in the sales tax, which is just pint-size pettiness over local taxing power. To listen to Abbott talk about the present, it’s all sunshine and roses. Low taxes and even lower regulation bring business, he claims. And that Texas workforce couldn’t be any readier. “A booming economy and a superior workforce are built-in advantages,” he said last year as he predicted Amazon would build its HQ2 in Texas. Oops.

But seriously, how far can Abbott ride his predecessors’ coattails? The cost of living in Texas has nearly caught up with the rest of the nation. The state ranks about in the middle in unemployment, according to federal statistics. And Texas is not remotely ready for the coming few years, let alone for the long haul.

The state will need to create up to 7.8 million jobs just to keep unemployment where it is in 2036, around 4 percent. (It was 3.8 percent in March.) But in just a little more than five years, the number of jobs requiring a degree will triple to 77 percent, according to Texas 2036. Yet eighth-grade reading levels have dropped from 23rd in the nation to 24th. Texas ranks 46th in fourth-grade reading. Don’t even ask about math.

“The coin of the realm for states and nations that will lead the world is human capital,” said Spellings. “And Texas is going the wrong way.”

No wonder Amazon wound up in Virginia. Virginia ranks sixth in overall education, according to a study last year. Texas? 39th.

The politicians in Austin have kept the state’s finances in the black — but largely by ignoring the bills piling up for education and health care, which alone will eat up more than 70 percent of the budget in 2036. Even so, access to health care is among the worst in the nation and the state ranks near the bottom in results such as obesity and maternal death.

Congested commutes cut into productivity. And literally nobody knows where all the water is going to come from to satisfy the needs of industry and the 40 million people who will be living here in 2036, according to the Texas Demographic Center.

But on the environment, Texas 2036’s vision needs to be sharpened. The environment is more than mere natural resources. It is our legacy and intrinsic to good living conditions. Climate change may be apair of dirty words in Texas politics, but it shouldn’t be in public policy. It’s real. All of Texas is at the forefront of it, particularly the aridification of much of the state.

Except for Houston, of course, which is going in the opposite direction. No place is more at risk, year-in and year-out, than Houston. Fresh from Harvey, it has become abundantly clear that getting disaster aid from the federal government is like pulling teeth. And getting long-term strategy from the state to protect Houston from a direct hurricane hit is a pipe dream. Ike’s Dike remains an engineer’s drawing even as a new study by the University of Maryland forecasts that Houston is only getting hotter and wetter.

Texas 2036 should also grapple more directly with other terms that have been forbidden in the Lone Star State. Income inequality is one. In Houston, the number of poor and affluent households has grown at the expense of the middle class, according to Stanford’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. So are class, and upward mobility. Race and ethnicity are others. The Abbott era has pandered to older, Anglo voters almost exclusively — and to the exclusion of the rising majority of Texans, Latinos.

There is good news on the horizon, though: Texans are largely young. The average Texan is in his or her early 30s now, a number held down by the Latino population, which is the largest ethnic group in the state already and will be a majority, once more, in just a couple of years. And Texas itself is adaptable.

Luce is fond of a saying by the writer T.R. Fehrenbach: “Out of the frontier experience, certainly, came much of the characteristic empirical, hard, non-ideological and belligerent mentality.”

I am partial to another writer, J. Frank Dobie, because he captured the movement and change people effected upon Texas. Even now, as migrants from across the country and the world continue to flock, his words ring true: “The Texians are the old rock itself; the Texans are out of the old rock; the others are wearing the rock away.”

These are good times in Texas, yet those dystopian days I’ve described are not far away. They are taking shape right now. On a wet Thursday night, I left my downtown Dallas hotel room in search of a cheap, healthy meal but the only grocery store to be found was aWhole Foods in Uptown. I looked old, shabbily dressed and out of place where the women all wore yoga pants and the men sported groomed five o’clock shadows. Horrified at the $9 price tag, I clutched my tuna salad like gold, realizing just how out of place I was in the New Urbanism of Dallas.

What Spelling s and Luce have undertaken is an effort that will take years, if not decades. They need to evangelize — and ask questions —in such cities as Houston. Next year, they will publish their strategy, based upon the huge data sets they are collecting, on where they think Texas needs to go to avoid the alternate, stark future I suggest. Iasked Spellings if she was willing to go the distance of years in convincing ordinary Texans and a new generation of leaders.

She responded: “Hell yes.” Indeed. Hell yes, at last, to a vision for Texas.

Parker is the author of “Lonestar Nation: How Texas Will Transform America ” and is a regular contributor to the Atlantic, the New York Times and other publications. He wrote this for the Houston Chronicle.

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