Round Rock is America’s second fastest-growing city with a population over 100,000, according to the latest Census estimates. Only New Orleans, a city that lost about 50 percent of its population following Hurricane Katrina and has since begun to rebound, surpasses in growth the central Texas city that Dell calls home.
Between April 2010 and July 2011, New Orleans experienced a 4.9 percent population increase, compared to a 4.8 percent increase in Round Rock. Coming in third is Austin, Texas — just 19 miles away from Round Rock — at a 3.8 percent increase.
A recent analysis by the Associated Press confirmed what many have been suspecting over the past decade: Most of America’s largest cities are growing at a faster rater than their surrounding suburbs. In a rough job market and with high rates of unemployment, many young adults — members of the so-called “generation rent” — are choosing to delay marriage and having children, and are foregoing buying homes to remain in their rented apartments in the city, mortgage-free.
How should the rapid growth of Round Rock — long considered to be a bedroom community of Austin — be explained?
Recently ranked eighth on a list of America’s Perfect Suburbs, it seems that despite the city’s growth, Round Rock has held fast to its decidedly suburban identity. Shopping centers and strip malls line Round Rock’s wide streets, and 98 percent of residents commute to work by car.
A recent survey of residents by the City of Round Rock indicated a high level of overall satisfaction with the quality of life in the city. Round Rock boasts low crime rates, a strong public school system and rates of unemployment that fall well below the national average, thanks in part to computer maker Dell, which is headquartered in the city.
Will the present Round Rock remain sustainable as the city continues to grow?
The entire Austin metropolitan region, a five-county area that includes Austin and Round Rock, is expected to experience an economic growth rate of 6 percent per year through 2016.
Over a year ago, Austin officials unveiled Imagine Austin, a comprehensive plan to help the city accommodate its rapid growth and manage its booming population — a population expected to increase by 700,000 over the next 30 years.
The plan proposes projects to contain costs and curb the need for tax increases by taking advantage of infrastructure already in place. These initiatives include the large-scale expansions of Austin’s bus service and urban rail system.
Notably, the document bluntly condemns the traditional suburban development practices of decades’ past and acknowledges Austin’s difficulties in combating suburban sprawl.
On a smaller scale, Round Rock’s Capital Improvement Program reflects similar priorities: Saving energy, keeping housing affordable and improving public transit systems.
City or suburb, Austin and Round Rock share the same basic concerns. As Round Rock continues to evolve, and the dividing line between city and suburb blurs, the “suburban” label may become more indicative of lifestyle, rather than substantive difference of place.
There is little doubt that Round Rock will remain a 20-minute car ride from Austin. What’s less clear is whether we’ll always call it a suburb.