Academic Capitalism and Regional Planning: A Review of Shadows of a Sunbelt City

Coastal Carolina University
Published February 6, 2018

Andrew M. Busch reviews Eliot M. Tretter's Shadows of a Sunbelt City: The Environment, Racism, and the Knowledge Economy in Austin (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016).

Andrew M. Busch
Miami University (Ohio)
Coastal Carolina University


Cover, Shadows of a Sunbelt City: The Environment, Racism, and the Knowledge Economy in Austin

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, cities and metropolitan regions were often portrayed as (and often were) spaces of economic turmoil and social upheaval. From December 2007 to June 2009, “more than eight million Americans lost their jobs, nearly four million were foreclosed each year, and 2.5 million businesses were shuttered.”1 Foreclosures and underwater mortgages decimated real estate markets from Los Angeles to Orlando. Housing starts evaporated. Underfunded and overburdened state governments cracked under the pressure generated by millions of newly unemployed workers, many in cities and suburbs. Businesses contracted or closed and municipal governments faced layoffs and cut programs because of declining tax revenues.

In Austin, Texas, though, growth had rarely been stronger or more dynamic. Its population grew by 30 percent from 2000 to 2013—when it became the fastest growing city in the United States. Popular publications lauded its economic resiliency; Forbes and Time named it the top city for small business and economic growth in 2011. In 2012, Austin experienced a 6.3 percent growth in its economy, easily the best among the 102 largest US markets. The city’s success became a model others sought to emulate. Eliot Tretter, quoting Andrew Park, observes in the opening pages of Shadows of a Sunbelt City that “everywhere you look, cities big and small are trying to get in touch with their inner Austin" (2).

Yet as Tretter forcefully argues, the sunny portrayals of Austin’s economy, cultural vibrancy, creativity, environmental progressivism, and overall quality of life obscure the race and class discrimination below the surface that is closely tied to the city’s history and contemporary landscape. Understanding structural dimensions of this discrimination is paramount to creating cities where resources are shared more equitably. Austin, imagined as a liberal anomaly in a state long defined by conservativism, is quite similar to other more conservative cities throughout the US South in terms of its urban planning, elites’ desire for economic growth and political power, and race relations.2

Construction of a high-rise condominium behind the central core of the old City of Austin Seaholm Power Plant, Austin, Texas, April 19, 2014. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,
Construction of a high-rise condominium behind the central core of the old City of Austin Seaholm Power Plant, Austin, Texas, April 19, 2014. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

But Austin stands out in its approach to growth. The uniqueness of Tretter’s argument lies in the local circumstances that elites used to transform Austin from a midsized university and state government town to an emergent global hotspot of technology, sustainability, and cultural production. While the city benefited from a migration of people and capital, its leading sectors of development differentiated it from cities of neighboring states. The University of Texas was key because it generated and fostered a knowledge economy that, combined with the state government, allowed elites to pursue a path for growth that eschewed heavy industry. As national and global priorities began to trumpet high technology in the 1970s and 1980s, Austin was in a prime position to prosper. Tretter explains this process using David Harvey’s “tertiary circuit of capital,” in which “the growing significance of technological and knowledge-rent seeking” increasingly drives economic growth in the developed world (18).3 To Tretter, “cities of knowledge such as Austin, and their growth coalitions, strongly supported by federal policy, succeed because they are able to switch capital into the tertiary circuit and expand infrastructure that supports knowledge-rent taking” (19). Research universities, with their wealth of knowledge labor, scientific infrastructure, and public-supported capital, are central to this process, generating private wealth through patenting, technology transfer, and spinoff companies.4 In his first chapter, “The Making of a Globalized Austin,” Tretter unpacks this technical argument and relates it to broad changes in global capitalism since the 1970s.

University Campus and Vicinity, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, 1919. Map by unknown creator. Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries,
University Campus and Vicinity, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, 1919. Map by unknown creator. Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries,

Central to Austin’s growth, the University of Texas has acted as the primary force in transforming the city’s urban space, with consequences that reveal a consistent pattern of historical racial discrimination. Tretter examines the role of the university in developing land and shaping geography to facilitate the type of growth desired by political, economic, and university elites—who were often the same people. He gives a broad account of the university’s expansion efforts during the early and mid-twentieth century, emphasizing the conscious effort to improve its research capacity and capture federal research and development dollars in the 1950s. The university used federal urban renewal funds as well as eminent domain laws to enlarge the campus by roughly a hundred acres. The choice to expand into predominantly African American neighborhoods to the east, rather than the white neighborhoods to the north and west, reveals discrimination most clearly. Tretter argues university administrators employed a “racist theory of value,” which assumes “that African American neighborhoods, households, and bodies were simply less valuable and desirable than those of whites” when deciding which neighborhoods to eviscerate (49). Predictably, the outcome was terrible for the already marginalized African American community. Around a thousand people were displaced, dozens of businesses shuttered, and overall racial segregation was intensified as most African Americans resettled in areas further east heavily populated by African Americans. Tretter’s use of University of Texas archival documents is effective here; he demonstrates the racist and often contradictory logic used by University of Texas administrators to justify dispossession of vulnerable residents.

Tretter pursues a similar theme in the 1970s and 1980s, but expands the scope to include the state of Texas as part of the growth machine. Following Harvey and other critics of neoliberalism, Tretter argues that a new era of competitiveness emerged in the 1980s in which universities, as well as cities and states, became more entrepreneurial in attracting investment and generating revenues.5 Texas, looking to diversify its economy, viewed the university as an entity capable of supporting high levels of industrialization because of its research and development capacity. Federal and state liberalization of patent and technology laws incentivized this “academic capitalism” by making it possible for both researchers and universities to profit from high tech patents and licensing. Universities became more profit-oriented. In an original and important argument, Tretter emphasizes how universities, with their quasi-public status, were also lucrative assets because of their ability to develop land that could provide incentives for outside investment. This strategy paid off when the state, city, and university partnered to attract two major research consortia, Microelectronic and Computer Corporation in 1983 and SEMATECH in 1987, largely by offering university assets: space, labor, capital, and land. Along with other branch facilities and a growing sector related to the defense industry, high tech formed the core of Austin’s growth in the 1980s and established the city as an important technological hub and emergent global city.

The changing profile of Austin’s riverside, Austin, Texas, January 26, 2015.  Photograph by Flickr user Lars Plougmann. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0.
The changing profile of Austin’s riverside, Austin, Texas, January 26, 2015. Photograph by Flickr user Lars Plougmann. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0.

“Urban Transformations,” the second half of Shadows of a Sunbelt City, emphasizes the role of urban planning (particularly Smart Growth and urban sustainability) and its relationship to municipal governance in contemporary Austin. Why did sustainable planning emerge so forcefully here? How did it affect vulnerable residents, homeless people and minorities? Tretter chronicles how sustainability and environmental quality became central to Austin’s growth in the 1990s. After decades of bitter confrontation, the city’s pro-development and anti-development coalitions struck a deal where the city’s pristine western hinterland, long the concern of environmentalists, would be protected from intensive development. In return, environmentalists supported bonds and zoning changes that incentivized development in Austin’s urban core, effectively transferring the city’s geography of development from suburban to urban. The city council adopted Smart Growth policies, which encouraged higher density, environmental protections, and other New Urbanist ideals. These changes, Tretter argues, increased Austin’s competitiveness but necessitated increased policing of the homeless who were seen as impediments to the livability of downtown. Austin’s growth advocates came to understand environmental amenities and quality of life as marketable features that could further their interests.6

Tretter assesses the outcomes of sustainability on Austin’s populations of color, concentrating on the chasm between mainstream environmentalists and the Latino environmental justice group People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER). He concludes that minorities bore the burden of sustainability because the growth coalition saw their neighborhoods as potentially lucrative to redevelop but also because PODER couldn’t convince mainstream environmentalists that minority displacement was an environmental concern. Improvement in the lives of vulnerable minorities, writes Tretter, will only be possible through an inclusive redefinition of the “environment.”

Examining the historical relationship between urban governance and urban planning in Austin, Tretter charts the major changes in the structure of the city’s government (from a ward system to a commission to a city manager system from 1900 to 1924, and the adoption of at-large voting) and correlates them with large-scale urban planning initiatives (e.g., the 1928 Austin City Plan). He follows this line of inquiry through to the present, with business elites still the leading actors in urban planning.

Cover of Koch & Fowler’s “A City Plan for Austin, Texas,” 1928.Plan showing zoning use districts, Austin, Texas, 1927. Map by Koch & Fowler Engineers. Originally published in Koch & Fowler’s “A City Plan for Austin, Texas,” 1928.
Top, Cover of Koch & Fowler’s “A City Plan for Austin, Texas,” 1928. Bottom, Plan showing zoning use districts, Austin, Texas, 1927. Map by Koch & Fowler Engineers. Originally published in Koch & Fowler’s “A City Plan for Austin, Texas,” 1928.

Supported by much research—interviews, archival materials, and interdisciplinary secondary source material—Shadows of a Sunbelt City is effective in its theoretical intervention (though as a geographer, Tretter’s major conversations also engage that field). Emphasizing the university as land developer is the book’s most important contribution to urban studies; this aspect has long been overlooked in favor of research universities’ knowledge production and patenting, production of skilled labor, and ability to generate private firms. Tretter complicates our understanding of the relationship among sustainability, growth, and uneven social and spatial relations. Numerous maps and graphs enhance his arguments. Tretter’s engagement with David Harvey and the tradition of materialist geography demonstrates a commitment to principles of justice, as does his concern with uneven power relations and the myriad ways that growth paradigms undermine the rights and autonomy of vulnerable populations. Shadows of a Sunbelt City is a theoretically sophisticated and critically thoughtful book that improves our understanding of the knowledge economy, sustainable urban practice, racial discrimination, and urban governance and power.

A more developed introduction could have identified a stronger central theme tying the book together. But to his credit, Tretter points out that Shadows of a Sunbelt City is “not written to reflect a straightforward historical narrative,” and offers multiple reasons why Austin is important to study (5). Each chapter intervenes in different discussions and contains several claims. Tretter’s chapter that follows changes in urban governance throughout the entire twentieth century, while richly detailed and convincing, could have been more strongly connected to the rest of the book.

Although the “Sunbelt” of the book’s title is offered as a unifying concept, it is neither defined nor explained, nor does Tretter does contextualize Austin in relation to other “Sunbelt” writing. Tellingly, the term does not appear in the index. This is a glaring omission given the long-standing arguments over what constitutes the Sunbelt. Neither is “Environment,” also in the title, analyzed in the manner readers might expect. Tretter offers an insightful analysis of how the environmental movement and environmental politics unfolded in Austin, but very little about how the natural world was augmented as Austin grew. As urban environmental studies are documenting, environmental improvements, policies, and ideology are often active components in the oppression of minorities during urbanization.

Shadows of a Sunbelt City offers a compelling analysis of the power that universities wield in regional development and their complicity in reshaping the urban form to benefit powerful actors, often at the expense of vulnerable residents. As he examines how policy and social relations transform cities, Tretter challenges the narrative that sustainable urban policy, and the knowledge economy that undergirds it, is universally beneficial.

About the Author

Andrew M. Busch is an assistant professor in the Honors Program at Coastal Carolina University where he teaches interdisciplinary courses on urbanism, environmental studies, globalization, and US History. His first book, City in a Garden: Environmental Transformations and Racial Justice in Twentieth-Century Austin, Texas was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2017.

  • 1. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, “The Great Recession: Over but not Gone?” Northwestern Institute for Policy Research, accessed October 23, 2017.
  • 2. See for example, Joe Feagin, Free Enterprise City: Houston in Political Economic Perspective (Camden, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988); Christopher Silver, Twentieth Century Richmond: Planning, Politics, and Race (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984); Christopher MacGregor Scribner, Renewing Birmingham: Federal Funding and the Promise of Change, 1929–1979 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002); Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); David R. Goldfield, Race, Region, and Cities: Interpreting the Urban South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1997).
  • 3. The primary circuit consists of the primary production process (transforming natural resources into finished products, for example) and the secondary circuit consists of investments in infrastructure that facilitates the production process. The tertiary circuit consists of “social infrastructure,” the increased application of science to production to maximize the productive power of labor. Also see David Harvey, The Limits to Capital (London, UK: Verso, 1999).
  • 4. For academic capitalism and the role of the university in generating economic growth, see Margaret Pugh O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Roger L. Geiger, Research and Relevant Knowledge: American Research Universities since World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Sheila Slaughter and Larry L. Leslie, Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policy, and the Entrepreneurial University (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).
  • 5. David Harvey, “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism,” Geografiska Annaler B 71.1 (1989): 3–17.
  • 6. John R. Logan and Harvey L. Molotch, Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

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