About the LBJ Urban Lab

Bridge on 360 in Austin. Credit: Ryan Barron, Unsplash
About the LBJ Urban Lab

What starts in Texas cites changes the world

The LBJ School of Public Affairs Urban Lab at The University of Texas at Austin will be recognized as a leading research hub for cities, urbanism and policymaking.

As a center for research and best practices, the Lab will take the shape of a "do-tank," relying on real-world opportunities to understand what works for Texas cities and generate insights for communities worldwide. Working with esteemed urban thinkers, academics, practitioners, policymakers, business leaders and students, the Lab will take on complex urban challenges and offer policies and breakthroughs to build greater community prosperity, competitiveness and resiliency.


Key objectives

  • Inform urban policy and create strategies for cities

    Generate and develop intelligence about the issues impacting cities and urban development
  • Engage city builders and policymakers
    Create a platform for engaging with leading mayors, urban leaders, policymakers, business leaders and city builders
  • Train the next generation of city leaders
    Deliver a suite of professional development programs to improve the training of current and future community leaders 


The opportunity: an urbanizing Texas

Cities are humanity's greatest invention. They are the powerhouses that drive the global economy. Currently, the world's largest 100 metro areas generate $14.5 trillion in economic output — around 60 percent of the global total. Whereas the 1970s and 1980s saw the decline of urban areas, today's cities are research and innovation hubs and centers of competitiveness and creativity.

Across the world, cities now house over 3 billion residents and attract an estimated 60 million more each year. Recent UN projections estimate that 70 percent of the world's population will be urban dwellers by 2050. In the United States, approximately 85 percent of the population lives and works in cities, which produce 90 percent of the nation's economic output. By all accounts, the world will need to spend at least $100 trillion in infrastructure to support this massive urbanization shift.

While many cities are thriving by attracting talent, businesses and investments into their urban cores, this success has come with a new set of obstacles, including gentrification, housing unaffordability, growing urban inequality, congestion, environmental pressures and a disappearing middle class. To solve these issues, urban areas require innovative policies that improve workforce development and upskilling, expand educational outcomes for urban youth, and develop a strong cultural sector that meets the expectations of an emerging workforce.

Texas communities provide the perfect laboratory for identifying this potential in today's cities. As a state, Texas is at the epicenter of growth and change in the U.S. As it continues to attract new residents, its population has become more diverse, dynamic and distinctly urban. From 2016 to 2017, the combined metro regions of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin accounted for more than 90,000 new residents. And their regional economies have generated a gross domestic product of more than $1.2 trillion — on par with that of Australia and exceeding that of Mexico.

Texas cities also represent a diverse typology of communities for exploration. Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston are textbook examples of global gateway cities, ranking among the top 30 cities in the world for GDP and competitiveness. Like New York, San Francisco, Toronto and other superstar cities, these Texas powerhouses must develop new solutions to combat inequality, upgrade low-wage service jobs, address climate change and bolster workforce and educational pipelines.

At the same time, Austin has emerged as a leading center for innovation and creativity and a haven for tech startups, ranking ninth in the U.S. for venture capital (2 percent of all U.S. VC dollars). Nevertheless, the city is plagued by unaffordability, congestion and economic segregation, which will require investments in a new urban growth model. Likewise, San Antonio — the fastest-growing U.S. city and one of the most diverse cities in the country — is facing its own challenges to urban expansion and workforce upskilling.

Out west, El Paso operates as the economic center for a dynamic binational megaregion that is directly impacted by federal policies governing commerce, security and trade. Meanwhile, the coastal cities of Corpus Christi, Galveston, Houston and others are battling climate change. As both a major port and commercial center, Houston has been particularly ravaged by disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey and Rita and the BP oil spill, making it an ideal place to test and explore new development models. As some of the state’s most economically distressed areas, southeastern cities like Beaumont and Port Arthur also serve as testbeds for innovative place-based interventions such as opportunity zones and new public-private partnerships.

While Texas cities offer great opportunity, they also face grand challenges. Throughout the state and the rest of the country, our cities require fresh ideas, innovative partnerships, feasible and affordable policies, and a new generation of leaders to guide them into the future. 


Areas of exploration

Supported by data, applied research and best practices, the LBJ Urban Lab will explore five key issues impacting cities in Texas and across the country:

  • Competitiveness and economic development
    Economic development seeks to improve a city's financial prosperity and quality of life through a number of local initiatives and policy changes. Although Texas's major cities are witnessing some of the highest levels of domestic migration, this growth will not sustain its economy long term. To build stronger, more inclusive economies, Texas cities must employ the appropriate economic development policies and management practices to create competitive conditions that support future growth.
  • Urban innovation
    Cities serve as platforms of innovation on two fronts: technology and civic policy. With their innovative support programs, university partnerships, incubators, accelerators and funding mechanisms, cities help fuel the rise of startups, innovation and entrepreneurship — some of the central drivers of economic growth. By testing new civic policies and ideas, cities can devise innovative solutions for more inclusive urban landscapes.
  • Inclusive prosperity
    Today's urban challenges require a new strategy — one that is centered on inclusive prosperity. As the U.S. national government retreats from urban development and turns its priorities away from cities, the onus of inclusive development has transferred to city governments, their philanthropic partners and community anchor institutions — i.e., traditional "meds and eds" (universities and medical centers), large-scale real estate developers and major corporate employers. Cities and anchors must adopt a framework for inclusive prosperity that is built on four pillars:
    1. Reimagining solutions for more affordable housing
    2. Supporting local entrepreneurship
    3. Improving workforce development and on-ramps for new skills and
    4. Designing more equitable spaces and communities (including thoughtful plans for density, transit and design)
  • Environment and natural resources
    Three out of every five people will live in urban areas in the next 50 years, placing a strain on the world's infrastructure and natural resources. These challenges become even more severe when we consider the growing impact of weather patterns, which have produced devastating hurricanes, water shortages and agricultural peril. As the federal and state governments take a back seat on these issues, cities are leading the charge to address today's mounting environmental concerns.
  • The built environment
    Place has become increasingly integral to investment and economic development. As cities see an increased battle and demand for space, their communities and residents are pressuring city planners and real estate developers to do more. A large number of cities — especially in Texas — face a growing paradox wherein land is plentiful, but space is lacking in critical areas. To keep pace with today's knowledge economy, cities will need to embrace a new urban growth model that links communities, embraces responsible density and invests in both traditional and high-tech transportation infrastructure.