Once again, Texas’ sprawling suburbs dominate the U.S. Census Bureau’s list of the 15 fastest-growing large cities in the country.
Between 2015 and 2016, Conroe — a Montgomery County suburb just past The Woodlands on Interstate 45 north of Houston — grew 7.8 percent, more than any city with more than 50,000 residents, data released this week shows.
That’s also more than 11 times the nation’s growth rate, 0.7 percent.
The numbers add fuel to an economic hot streak that officials have been parlaying into still more residents and businesses. Experts have said for years that new Texans are lured by a booming job market and cheaper costs of living than they’ll find on the coasts.
Coming in second and third on the list of fastest-growing cities: None other than Frisco, which grew 6.2 percent, and McKinney, posting a 5.9 percent gain — though McKinney added more residents.
New Braunfels, northeast of San Antonio, and Georgetown, a northern suburb of Austin, are on the list, but dropped from their top positions the previous year.
The only other state to have more than one city on the list was Florida.
“It’s kind of more of the same with suburban growth, and growth in that Texas Triangle,” said Mike Cline, a demographer with the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University.
Of course, Texas’ biggest cities added more residents in total, even if that represented a smaller percentage growth. San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and Austin were all among the nation’s 10 cities that added the most people from 2015 to 2016.
Still, experts say that outward ripple of development into suburban cities farther and farther away from urban cores is worth tracking closely — even if suburban growth is nothing new.
“There’s a lot of jobs being created in those areas, which means a lot of infrastructure development as well. With new households showing up every day, they need places to live, a road to drive their cars on, schools,” said Lloyd Potter, Texas’ state demographer. “There’s this kind of pattern of satellite urbanization.”
Plano, for instance, was once a fast-growing suburb of Dallas. But now, he said, the city’s population growth has slowed as it gets built out. Between 2015 and 2016, Plano’s population grew less than 1 percent.
McKinney, on the other hand, “does have land that has yet to be built out.”
So when people move to McKinney, they’re likely to treat Plano as a kind of “satellite” urban core — heading there for work or a night out — rather than Dallas.
That’s a scenario echoed throughout the state, Potter said.
Conroe residents can work at jobs in The Woodlands, which itself developed as a suburb of Houston. Georgetown, the nation’s fastest-growing city in 2014-15, is just north of Round Rock, which grew less quickly. And so on.
Pam Stein, executive director of the Urban Land Institute North Texas, said that movement outward is likely driven by affordability: In the suburbs, she said, you can get more house for your buck and gas is cheap right now, so commuting is an easier sell.
“The incentive to live close in is not as strong as it was perhaps 10 years ago,” she said. “The newer housing stock, with the bells and whistles — those tend to be built in Frisco and McKinney. … If you’re going to work in Legacy, your commute from McKinney may not be any worse than Plano or Richardson.”
But while movement into suburbs has resulted in slowing growth or even population decline in some big cities (Chicago lost roughly 20,000 residents from 2015 to 2016), Potter said Texas’ economy has helped ensure that Dallas and Houston can keep pace with their suburban counterparts.
“It’s the land price and the price of doing business here,” he said. “They vote with their feet.”
Potter said the kind of residents who are headed for big cities is different: Dallas and Houston are both attracting immigrants from abroad, which is making them more diverse.
Houston’s growth, in particular, has been largely driven by international migration, rather than movement from other states.
“Urban cores are becoming more people that are foreign-born or first or second generation,” he said. “It’s changing the cultural characteristics, especially in Houston in Dallas.”
In any case, Cline said, it’s unlikely that the growth will slow any time soon: Texas is still well on pace to double its population by 2050.
Texas also has another thing that sets its metro areas apart from those in other states: open land.
Stein said that makes for a unique opportunity — and challenge — to build suburbs of the future, rather than the more traditional communities that center on strip malls with big parking lots and single-family houses on acre lots.
“The concern is that there’s a sustainability factor that doesn’t necessarily appear in one or two developments, but if you get a lot of developments going in, you’ve got to extend highways and services,” she said.
In the past, Stein said, families preferred to live on winding cul-de-sacs, far from their neighbors.
But, she said, that eats up a lot of land and resources more quickly — which makes it more expensive in the long term.
And that’s a better match for the kinds of denser, walkable neighborhoods more families are seeking out.
So what does that mean for big cities?
“As long as you maintain employment centers in urban areas, they will continue to thrive,” Stein said.