Saturday, March 29th, 2008
Joel Kotkin wrote a must read article about Houston at the American, the publication of the politically right American Enterprise Institute. Obviously your opinion on this piece will somewhat depend on your view of Kotkin and the AEI. Nevertheless, I thought this was a great article. It echoes a lot of themes that I talk about in my blog. Most especially, it explicitly rejects the notion that the path to greatness for cities lies in imitating the exemplars of the 19th century urban form, such as San Francisco, Chicago, or Boston. While I love all of those cities, they came of age in a different era and it is simply not feasible to attempt to replicate that model elsewhere in the 21st century. Rather, the way forward is to find your own path, based on what you are, not on what you aren’t.
That’s what Houston did. I’ve got to confess that I worked in Houston for some time and, for the most part, thought the city was awful. It’s a mix of too much humidity outside, and too much air conditioning inside. Conspicuous consumption, likely a legacy of boom-bust cycles in the energy business, is rampant. I saw more Ferrari’s in Houston than anywhere I’ve ever been. The average car in some neighborhoods is an SL 500. Large number of women appear to have indulged in artificial enhancement. Houston famously has no zoning, though it looks similar to most other Southern cities, that is to say, pretty bad. They’ve got great roads, I’ll give them that. They really know how to build interstates in Texas. And the Houston Grand Opera is pretty good. But for the most part this city was my personal definition of hell. Ok to work in on assignment, but not the kind of place that would be my first choice of places to live. The article makes this point way better than I do.
Despite an impressive growth record and positive signs for the future, Houston is hardly regarded by most journalists, academics, and urbanists as anything close to a model for a successful city. Many seem to share the impression expressed by journalist John Gunther in Inside U.S.A. in 1947 when he described Houston as a place ‘where few people think about anything but money.’ Its other negative attributes included being ‘the nosiest city’ in the country, Gunther said, ‘with a residential section mostly ugly and barren—a city without a single good restaurant.’
Opinions do not seem to have changed much even as Houston has developed a high-tech infrastructure and a spectacular skyline. The New Urbanist guru Andres Duany, whose city planning emphasizes cozy, walkable neighborhoods, seems horrified that Houstonians—driving SUVs across the sprawling distances of the city and its suburbs—appear to regard the galleria shopping center as Houston’s social center. Lauding Houston to urban planners is not much different than extolling red meat at a convention of vegans.
In other words, not the type of place that typically appeals to the urban intelligentsia. But that is and always has been a tiny minority of people. Obviously something about Houston appealed to the millions who’ve moved there in the last decades. Continuing:
Ultimately, it’s a question of defining what makes a city great. Many city planners today focus largely on aesthetics, the arts, and the perception of being ‘cool.’ Academics and many economic-development experts link urban success to cities’ appeal to the ‘creative class’ of college-educated young people. In this calculus, the traditional practice of gauging a city’s success by studying patterns of population or employment growth, or noting the opportunities available for working-class or middle-class families to flourish, rarely registers as important. One prominent academic, Rutgers University’s Paul Gottlieb, has even offered an elegant formula for what he calls ‘growth without growth’—focusing on increasing per-capita incomes without expanding either population or employment. Indeed, Gottlieb suggests that successful post-industrial cities might well do best if they actually ‘minimize’ the influx of new people and jobs.
Growth without growth is right. I’ll cite again the example of Chicago, which despite a huge skyscraper and condo building boom is flat to declining in population. According to the just released census figures, the Chicago metro area as a whole had net outmigration, including net domestic outmigration of 57,285 – comparable to Detroit. The creative class is flocking, but everyone else is leaving. The city of Big Shoulders is turning into the city of venti lattes. This is great if you’re part of the elite. But for the majority of people trying to build a solid middle class life for their families, it isn’t quite so great. Ultimately cities are about people, and the urban vision of all too many urban planning gurus extends only to a very small number.
So what did Houston do different?
Al Colbert’s emphasis on the importance of seizing opportunity would have warmed the hearts of the city’s founders. In an era when many other cities try to position themselves with trendier distinctions (as ‘smart growth’ exemplars or as magnets for high-income households, for instance), Mayor Bill White, a Democrat, is happy for Houston to be known simply as an ‘opportunity city,’ which is a pretty good description of what the place has been since its inception: a venue where people who work hard can get ahead.
Other cities enjoy better locations for shipping, richer agricultural resources, or similar proximity to oil fields. The answer, I have come to understand as I have worked in Houston as a reporter and consultant, echoes something that the late Soichiro Honda once told me: ‘More important than gold and diamonds are people.’ This critical resource, more than anything, accounts for Houston’s headlong drive toward becoming not only the leading city of Texas and the South, but also a player on the global scene: it is emerging as one of the world’s great cities.
It took a certain type of settler, back in the 1830s, to look at a sun-blasted, humidity-drenched, mosquito-infested flatland far from any major river or port and think: ‘Here is where I’ll make my success.’ That tradition of hopefulness and determination can readily be found in the city to this day. As Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg notes, roughly 80 percent of Houstonians, according to his annual local surveys, consistently agree with the proposition that ‘if they work hard, they can succeed here.’
The city focused on infrastructure as well.
Houston’s patriarchs worked assiduously to create competitive advantages. In the aftermath of the hurricane that devastated Galveston in 1900, for example, Houston’s business elite secured local and federal funds to develop a 50-mile-long ship channel to the Gulf of Mexico. The channel would allow Houston eventually to become the nation’s second-largest port.
In his Rental Car Tours report on Houston, anti-transit, pro-sprawl gadfly consultant Wendell Cox calls Houston the “can do” city, noting:
Few, if any, urban areas have been as successful in controlling their traffic congestion as Houston. Houston is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in North America. By the early 1980s, the area had managed to develop the worst traffic congestion in the United States, even worse than Los Angeles. Businesses were beginning to tell local officials that they were no longer interested in locating in Houston, just as is occurring now in Portland due to the smart-growth generated traffic congestion in that urban area. But, in this ‘can do’ urban area, local officials did not huddle together with their sweaters in Carteresque pessimism and whine about an era of limits’ or ‘our best days are behind us’ or even, as Anthony Downs would have us believe, that we had better start liking traffic congestion. Instead, they set about to solve the problem and in fact built enough new roadway capacity to make things better now than they were in the middle 1980s, and to fall to 14th in traffic congestion in the United States, behind Los Angeles, Portland and other urban areas.
Houston also worked hard to turn its setbacks into opportunities for the future. In addition to the hurricane noted above, note the contrast between how Houston addressed the energy bust of the 1980’s, when the city became famous for its “see through” skyscrapers, and how Rust Belt cities have reacted to the decline of manufacturing. Back to Kotkin:
Houstonians worked desperately to ensure that their city emerged from the early-1980s oil bust as the undisputed center of the energy industry. Many observers saw the oil bust as a harbinger of Houston’s inevitable decline. And indeed office construction nosedived along with rents, housing prices, and the job market. Yet, looking back, it is clear that Houston turned the oil bust to its advantage.
Using the lure of its relatively inexpensive office space and housing stock, as well as its ties to energy executives and leading engineers, the city attracted firms to locate there. In 1960, Houston was the home of hardly any major energy companies, ranking behind New York, Los Angeles, and even Tulsa; today, 16 large companies make their headquarters there, more than all those cities combined.
I’m not going to say that other cities should imitate Houston, though I think ideas like focusing on opportunities for the broad population base, infrastructure investment, and trying to aggressively play the hand you’re dealt have broad applicability. Houston isn’t the future model for America any more than San Francisco is. Houston has built something that works for them, based on their unique circumstances. The challenge for Midwestern and other American metros is how to do the same, to find a unique and personal path to a successful and prosperous future for all their residents. Don’t just follow the crowd but build a truly local and organic version of urban success that is true to the native soil.