Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

The Ultimate Houston Strategy by Tory Gattis

This post originally appeared in Houston Strategies on March 8, 2012.

Today is the 7th anniversary of Houston Strategies After 947 posts (cream of the crop here), almost half a million visitors, and thousands of comments in an epic dialogue about Houston, I thought this would be a good time stand back, look at the big picture, and ask “What should be next for Houston?” while linking back to some of the gems from that archive.

First, let’s look at where we are currently. Our foundation is in great shape. Houston has started the 21st-century with a set of rankings and amenities 99% of the planet’s cities would kill for: a vibrant core with several hundred thousand jobs; a profitable and growing set of major industry clusters (Energy, the Texas Medical Center, the Port); the second-most Fortune 500 headquarters in the country; top-notch museums, festivals, theater, arts and cultural organizations; major league sports and stadiums; a revitalized downtown; astonishing affordability (especially housing); a culture of openness, friendliness, opportunity, and charity (reinforced by Katrina) the most diverse major city in America; a young and growing population (fastest in the country); progressiveness; entrepreneurial energy and optimism; efficient and business-friendly local government; regional unity; a smorgasbord of tasty and inexpensive international restaurants; and tremendous mobility infrastructure (including the freeway and transit networks, railroads, the port, and a set of truly world-class hub airports).

To those I’d add:

With all that, it’s really easy to get complacent. In fact, in some ways I think we might be coasting a bit now. But coasting is definitely not how we got here. Big initiatives are a proud tradition here: dredging the original port, founding the Texas Medical Center, establishing the Johnson Space Center, and being the first in the world to build a gigantic, futuristic, multi-purpose domed stadium – just to name a few examples. But what should be next? Where should the world’s Energy Capital put its energy, so to speak?

I was recently inspired by the Urbanophile’s post on Indianapolis’ 40-year economic development and tourism strategy built around sports. Starting with nothing but the Indy 500 they’ve built a string of wins all the way up to hosting one of the most successful Super Bowls ever last month. We need that same sort of sustained, long-term strategy that goes beyond specific projects to a theme we can weave into everything we do over the decades ahead. We need to take the energy boom we’re currently enjoying and invest it to secure our long-term prosperity no matter how technology shifts in the future (most especially energy technology).

In an unpredictable world, the only safe bet is a talent base that can adapt. With the Texas Medical Center, we concentrated health care talent in a district that has grown and adapted into the largest medical concentration in the world with an array of world class facilities. We’ve done the same on an even larger scale with energy and engineering talent. The next step is to take that strategy and generalize it to focus on being the global capital of applied STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) talent. We need to mobilize the city around a common purpose of building this human infrastructure. We need to embed it into our education, tourism, cultural and economic development strategies. It’s just a perfect fit for Houston on so many levels:

In particular, I think we should focus on applied STEM – systems-based problem solving (engineering) over pure knowledge (where we are at a competitive disadvantage with many university clusters around the country). Facilitating man’s progress through innovative problem solving.

Part of this strategy includes tourism, articulated in more detail here. We need the big tourism experience of other world class cities, and STEM is a unique niche we can build around, with a primary focus on families, schools, and STEM-related conferences. We already have some of the assets in place – JSC and Space Center Houston, the Natural Science Museum, the Health Museum, the Children’s Museum, Moody Gardens – and others with more potential, like the Texas Medical Center. But we need that signature attraction: the world’s largest institute/museum of technology. Not just a history-focused museum, but an institute actively involved in the community with a strong focus on the future. Local kids should spend frequent school days and summer camps there on fun and inspiring STEM activities. It could provide educational STEM experiences both online and on-site, helping to attract talented global youth to Houston for amazing experiences that draw them back later for college or after graduation. It should have the world’s largest hackerspace. It should be an inspiring space that attracts global academic and professional STEM-related conferences (building on the OTC) – groups trying to solve big problems and contribute to humanity’s progress (imagine a Davos or G8 of STEM…). Each conference could leave behind a new exhibit on its subject area, building the collections over time. And since it has the event space, we might as well open it up to festivals to expose more of our community to that same inspiration.

The natural place for such an institute is clearly the Astrodome, our historic icon looking for a second life. We should embrace the Astrodome as Houston’s architectural icon like Paris does the Eiffel Tower, New York does the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building, Rome does the Vatican or Coliseum, and San Francisco does the Golden Gate bridge. It can find a second life as our inspiring cathedral to man’s technological progress (along with some fun mixed in – Robot Rodeo anyone?). Most importantly, it has around a million square feet of space. Here’s how it compares to other top museums:

But unlike every other museum in the world where exhibits are carved up into a series of halls, almost all of them could be visible in a giant 360-degree panorama while standing on the floor of the Astrodome.  How amazing would that space be

The cost, you ask? Easily in the hundreds of millions. But if LA can come up with $1.2 billion to build the Getty Museum, I have no doubt that Houston can muster the needed resources.  It’s a tiny fraction of the wealth of Houston’s 14 philanthropic billionaires, much less the broader base of wealth in this booming city. We can come together to make this happen before the Astrodome’s 50th birthday in 2015, and it can put us on a path to greatness for our bicentennial in 2036 that Houston’s and Texas’ founding fathers could never have imagined.

We, the citizens of Houston, aren’t the types to get complacent and rest on our laurels. That’s not the legacy previous generations left us. It’s time to step forward and tackle our next great challenge. Are you in?

Topics: Strategic Planning
Cities: Houston

43 Responses to “The Ultimate Houston Strategy by Tory Gattis”

  1. Rod Stevens says:

    Intellectually, I find myself impressed with the list of superlatives in the first half of this post, but by the second half my emotional side is saying, “no, no, no, I can’t conceive living there.” Perhaps, in contrast to many people that like to bash Houston without every having spent time there, I have, weeks, on business, and have enjoyed great Indian restaurants, the deMenil Museum, a really interesting exhibit at the contemporary museum, and wondering hospitality while enjoying the sound of crickets on the bayous.

    All that said, I cannot imagine living there. I have lived in Vancouver, BC, and moved away because of the housing cost, but that doesn’t make me love Vancouver any less, or Houston any more. There is something missing in all these Texas words of “biggest” and “most”, and perhaps the quantifying of specifics (“Astrodome!”) is what misses out on the synergy of the not-so-measurables that add up to place. How do you quantify sitting on a public beach in July, watching the sun go down, as most of the still-forested North Shore is still bathed in light? How do you quantify the blend of off-beat jewelry and great dried pasta offerings left over from the old Italian settlement along Commercial Drive? Those are things that do not easily go onto lists, but the experience makes it all worthwhile. I am glad, in some ways, that Houston has something to brag about, but in a world that is facing all of the problems of global warming, there is something fragile there for an economy based on oil, and it makes me wonder if, in resource-constrained future, we aren’t going to value Vancouver things as a way of enjoying more of life and fewer “things”.

  2. Rod Stevens says:

    Sorry for the sloppy writing: that last sentence should have read, “It makes me wonder if, in a resource-constrained future, we are going to value Vancouver more, and the “things” of Houston less.

  3. Eric says:

    What do you mean by STEM? If you are talking about science education – that seems like a pretty small niche. If you mean high-tech industry, I’m not sure museums will do much to promote it.

  4. Racaille says:

    “First, let’s look at where we are currently. Our foundation is in great shape. Houston has started the 21st-century with a set of rankings and amenities 99% of the planet’s cities would kill for: a vibrant core… ”

    No it does not.

    Please refer back to Mr. Renn’s discussion on branding. Houston is the epitome of dreadful urban planning. It’s simply a redneck version of Los Angeles without the pleasant climate.


    “We should embrace the Astrodome as Houston’s architectural icon like Paris does the Eiffel Tower, New York does the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building, Rome does the Vatican or Coliseum, and San Francisco does the Golden Gate bridge”

    Quantity does equal quality and this is a perfect example.

  5. Vince says:

    I have never been to Houston except to change planes at the airport, so my impression is based only on what I’ve seen from the air and what I have read about it, including what I have read in this post.

    I’m glad to hear that Houston is doing so well in so many ways, and, while I find it interesting, I don’t feel drawn to it. I know that the city is architecturally more compelling than many people think it would be and am glad that it is seriously working on developing its public transportation system. I also know that it has many cultural amenities and an interesting restaurant scene.

    Still, I can’t shake my image of Houston as a place that is primarily vast and hot and flat. I would like to visit sometime with someone who knew their way around and, though it would seem natural to want to avoid it during the summertime, for some reason I think that would be the most interesting time to visit.

  6. Eric M. says:

    Houston’s long-term strategy should begin and end with creating a sense of place and developing an urban fabric. It has a surplus of development and growth; channel some of that into creating an environment that’s worth spending time in.

    I’ve spent weeks each year in Houston for a decade and there are dozens of institutions there that would contribute positively to any city. But even if you’re at the Galleria, near Rice or the Medical Center, to borrow a phrase from Aaron: “Poorly constructed single family homes with occasional dreary commercial strips that have been retrofitted to maximize auto throughput and parking.”

    The fact is, if you stop your car almost anywhere in Houston you wouldn’t be anyplace. You would be near a driveway or a highway or the blank wall of a parking garage or next to a office tower with no retail or no entrance.

    Strike while the iron is hot. Growth economics doesn’t last forever. Create *places* in Houston now so all that investment isn’t wasted.

  7. Racaille says:

    “Strike while the iron is hot. ”

    The entire entity that is Houston is built on oil patch, misguided hubris. Houston wanted to be free of regulation, design review, and completely unlike any of those “yankee” cities.

    Lo and behold what did you get? A big pile of hot mess.

    I think it’s quite fitting that they changed the name of Intercontinental to Bush. It could not be more appropriate.

  8. Derek Rutherford says:

    I find it interesting that many of the people who want Houston to have a sense of “place” generally want Houston to have the same sort of sense of place as other cities: “quaint” shops in a small scale neighborhood with some history populated by a bunch of young hipsters doing self-consciously “cool” things. This sounds to me like people wanting Houston to be just like someplace else (Boston/Portland/NY/Chicago/Vancouver/etc.) instead of really being distinct.

    I would suggest that Houston does have a very distinct sense of place – what other major, wealthy metro area has such an uninhibited expression of diverse, eclectic businesses? And not just in one or two “cool” neighborhoods, but almost everywhere? Furthermore, Houston’s amenities are not just available, but also affordable to most of the population, not just the rich or childless.

    I can speak from experience that Houston is a very interesting city to visit (I live in Dallas). I compare Houston to Portland – cities where I do not expect ever to live, but I do enjoy visiting and am glad they are the way they are. People who truly appreciate diversity in cities should especially appreciate Houston (in both senses of the word “diversity”).

  9. Eric M. says:

    Derek, I think human biology is a pretty conservative force and somewhat limits the possibilities for objectively good urban form. A fake place like Disney World’s Main street mimics a small, walkable downtown, for example, and not strip malls near The Woodlands. Cities like Portland, Chicago, Amsterdam and London are good places for humans to spend time because we’re humans.

    That being said, L.A. or Austin or Miami are not the kinds of urban environments that I personally like, but they have the kind of form that are very different from cities in the Northern U.S., Canada or Europe, but they have a form that makes a person feel like they belong there, even when they are not inside of a building or car. This is a reachable goal for Houston and planners there should aspire to it.

  10. Ed says:

    As of August 1st, the median price for a detached home in Vancouver BC is $1,041,325 Canadian ($1,068,900 in US dollars) where as in Houston the median price of a detached single family home is $224,464. A single family home costs more than 4 times as much in Vancouver vs Houston.

    Most people aren’t Paris Hilton. Normal people have budget constraints. The relevant question for most people isn’t whether Vancouver has a nicer climate than Houston, but what kind of lifestyle one could afford if they lived in Vancouver vs what kind of lifestyle one could afford if they lived in Houston.

    Ed Glaeser pointed out the many advantages that Houston has for the middle class vs New York that I suspect those arguments would be equally persuasive vs Vancouver.


    What is impressive about Houston is how much it has overcame its lack of natural amenities. The climate stinks, it wasn’t the natural location for being the premiere port city on the Gulf of Mexico, yet it took that industry away from New Orleans. When the oil industry busted in the 1980’s, Houston continued to grow and didn’t wither away like Detroit or other cities in the rust belt.

    I really do think Houston’s competitive advantage is flexible land markets. It has kept housing costs cheap and has allowed the area to adapt quickly to changing economic conditions. The other advantage is its willingness to welcome new comers. Again during the oil batch bust is one of the times when it was seeing significant in-migration of not just Hispanics, but Asian immigrants too. Again compare that too how former immigrant destinations in the Midwest like Cleveland and Pittsburgh lost their immigrants as there local economies De-industrialized.

  11. John Morris says:

    I know, this kind of average isn’t often very useful but $224,464 sounds like a pretty high price for Houston.

  12. John Morris says:

    Vancouver, is a pretty extreme opposite. Off hand it’s the classic Monopoly board type city where so many sites have locational advantages- amazing views, density, transit. Many of the million dollar homes are speculations on what else could be built on that site.

    One Houston house off a freeway isn’t that different from a lot of other Houston houses off a freeway. I know I’m exagerating.

  13. Chris Barnett says:

    Lots of people (inexplicably to some) WANT and CHOOSE to live and work in Houston. Voting with their feet, cars, and pocketbooks, they have made it the fifth-largest metro in the US. Likewise LA (second) and Dallas (fourth), all sprawly places. This is a fundamental reality that can’t just be wished away.

    The total population of the top 5 US metros is just about evenly split between sprawly places and ones with dense-compact cores and extensive transit (if one counts Riverside-San Bernardino with LA-Orange County, and I do). These 5 metros represent 19% of the US population.

    I’m not asking for a lecture on energy and sustainability, because it’s clear that lots of our fellow Americans just don’t care what we might think about “unsustainable” sprawl and car-based mobility.

  14. John Morris says:

    As much as I agree with some of what Chris said, popularity is not the only or main criteria of urban sustainability or national sustainability.

    Obviously, this model is more impacted by fuel prices than average–which for Houston are a double edged sword. Add to this the huge infrastructure costs, vast duplicate services and so on. Aaron has layed out on here, the sprawl cycle itself is fueled by people moving as fixed costs come due and taxes rise. Houston with a very large footprint has not faced the full effect of that yet.

    That being said–the possibility emerges of Houston evolving to become part old Houston and part Queens- dynamic, multi ethnic city with both sprawl and density in places.

  15. John Morris says:

    As long as Houston defines itself as a freedom based city first and foremost and doesn’t tie itself to any fixed model through law, most likely it will evolve.

    IMHO, there are very powerful market forces emerging pushing away from the full sprawl model. Houston should not resist them but allow the market to roll with it if that’s what happens.

  16. John Morris says:

    I think a good post on here about sprawl dynamics is:
    The Power of Greenfield Economics. Just google that.

  17. John Morris says:

    Not an expert on Texas, but I have heard the budget constraints are moving the state towards tollroads for many new highways. Just saying, no matter how popular the total car model may be-it will have to deal with these costs.

  18. Eric M. says:

    I am always surprised when I hear people defend bad development by referring to “voting with their feet” or bu citing the high cost of living in a place with a good form, like Vancouver.

    Supply and demand isn’t *only* about demand. It’s also about supply.

    If 50% of shoppers prefer apples and 50% prefer oranges that’s fine. If the farmers market only has 10 oranges but it had 500 apples, oranges are going to be expensive and most shoppers are going to go home with apples, their preferences notwithstanding.

    San Francisco and Boston are expensive because the supply of place like that is low. If it was cheap to live there, I assume that a lot of people living in Houston or Phoenix would “vote with their feet” and settle in a place that has high-quality public space and a good urban form.

    There aren’t many rules against buying a farm and turning it into low-quality, cheap homes near an off-ramp. And government subsidizes the development of those places via the mortgage interest deduction, but does not subsidize the construction of apartment buildings. Most municipalities also have misguided rules against quality development. As popular as the Georgetown neighborhood is, it would be illegal to build something like that in D.C. today.

    So sure, Houston is cheap and it is growing. That doesn’t mean it’s good or that people wouldn’t prefer something better.

  19. John Morris says:

    @Eric M

    I agree with what you are saying completely. Sadly, I am starting to lose hope that many of the older urban centers are interested or capable of providing a huge affordable supply of decently urban housing.

    Houston is in a state that has provided a better than average growth environment (taxes, regulations etc) by American Standards. If it can now shift that growth ethos to something that is offering lots of urbanist supply it could be a dominant city.

    Pro market + pro growth + plus pro urban (not anti urban) could be a killer app. I do think Richard Florida, has a point about metro scale still being pretty important.

  20. John Morris says:

    Another huge question is, can Texas move to connect Houston/Dallas/Austin into a more seemless metroplex?

    I think plans are moving to create a solid Dallas/Houston HSR link- one of the few people think will have very high demand.

    Austin, has a lot of creative class energy and it’s integration would help feed tech/design/startup energy into Houston.

    Of course, San Antonio is also not too far away.

    Linking the broad region with great rail and commuter links is still a possibility. Texas does have a great flat landscape for rail links.

  21. John Morris says:

    Not and expert on Richard Florida, but he seems to place crtical mass, density and creativity in a bubble and act like relative costs are not an issue.

    IMHO, affordability is still the major achilles heel for metros like NYC, Boston and San Francisco. A fully dynamic, creative city has to offer a great place for all people and incomes. There is still a killer app for a really big, metro that can offer that.

  22. Chris Barnett says:

    Eric, interest is a deductible expense (tax-based subsidy) for landlords too so you can’t argue that only single-family homes get that advantage.

    The deduction just doesn’t necessarily get passed along 100% to residents. That deductibility (cost-lowering feature) is present in the cost side of the supply curve, so it is passed along in greater or lesser amounts to residents in their rent depending on other supply-demand factors.

  23. Chris Barnett says:

    Eric, mortgage interest is a deductible expense (tax-based subsidy) for apartment landlords and urban condo owners too. It’s not a sprawl subsidy. It subsidizes every class and type of housing in every part of the US.

  24. Chris Barnett says:

    Sorry…operator cut and paste error. :)

  25. Derek Rutherford says:

    SF and Boston are not expensive only because of land supply limits. Both cities also have restrictive zoning and planning processes that make it *very* difficult to add new housing supply anywhere near the city centers. This is good for existing property owners, who see their property values go up; not so good for people wanting to move in, or for renters. And while SF and Boston are popular with urbanists, both cities are still surrounded by sprawling suburbs – I know both areas well.

    If development is heavily restricted around desirable older cities, it should come as no surprise to see cities with more open attitudes to development grow rapidly. Or, to paraphrase I quote I once read, “if development is banned everywhere but Houston, all of the development will be in Houston.” (an exaggeration, I know, but one with a grain of truth).

    Why isn’t there a move by urbanists to encourage greater densities in those cities where there is proven demand for it (SF/Boston are two excellent examples)?

  26. costanza says:

    Chris, the mortgage interest deductions are one part of the government subsidy. Ever hear of Fannie and Freddie?

  27. Chris Barnett says:

    costanza, Fannie and Freddie own plenty of foreclosed, abandoned urban homes.

    At the risk of sounding like Joel Kotkin:

    TIFs, CDBG, New Markets Tax Credits, Historic Tax Credits LIHTCs, and HUD-backed rental-property loans also subsidize urban development/redevelopment. So does urban mass transit and funding for charter schools that is pulled from failing urban school districts.

    The US Tax Code and Federal, state, and local fisc really have something for everyone to claim is indispensible to their policy aims, and something for everyone to claim is an unsupportable, unsustainable subsidy for people who choose to live differently.

    Note that I am not saying which set of subsidies I prefer, only that I’m willing to admit they all exist.

  28. Ed says:

    But the reason that the supply of housing in places like San Francisco is low is that San Francisco has extensive land use restrictions that dramatically and artificially restrict the ability of the region to add capacity. To prevent the area from expanding its foot print into greenfield areas you have the Marin Agricultural Land Trust buying up the development rights in open space areas. At the same time, to prevent San Francisco from Manhattanizing you have Prop M passed in 1986, which not only limits where high density development can occur (only in the financial district) but it creates hard cap of 950,000 sq ft per year of new additional space that can be built in San Francisco.



    When you can neither build up nor out, then housing prices are going to spike because the only people who can afford to live in the area are either the very wealthy or the people who live in government supplied housing.

    In Houston land use policies are much looser. Developers don’t need to pay 50 million in impact fees ($25 a sqft) just for the right to build a high rise housing project near downtown. Housing prices are cheap in Houston because its easy to get approval of projects that build out and that build up. This is a big part of the reason that housing prices are so much cheaper in Houston.


  29. Alon Levy says:

    As of August 1st, the median price for a detached home in Vancouver BC is $1,041,325 Canadian ($1,068,900 in US dollars) where as in Houston the median price of a detached single family home is $224,464.

    You don’t need to live in a detached house to have a full life. The in-city neighborhoods with the detached houses are expensive precisely because they’re regulated so that you can’t add more housing – if you could, it wouldn’t be all detached anymore. Go east from the university and you’ll first get to the very low-density, very expensive residential parts of the Endowment Lands; then Point Grey; then the lower-density parts of Kits; then the Arbutus area of Kits; and then Fairview. Allowable density goes up, rents go down. And all of those neighborhoods are good, too. Usually it’s not possible to see this effect because higher densities come from smaller distance to the CBD and then there’s also much higher demand, but on Vancouver’s west side it’s reversed because the big draw is UBC, which is tucked at the end right on the water.

    Downtown is actually surprisingly affordable, which I didn’t expect because of my Israeli-Singaporean-Northeastern association of last-30-years towers with luxury condos. But because there are fewer limits on residential density, rents are tolerable. (They’re higher than in Houston, but that’s what you get when you don’t have to spend 20% of your disposable income on driving.)

    Oh, and anyone who uses the phrase “opportunity city” to elevate anywhere in the US over anywhere in Canada needs to look up the two countries’ levels of intergenerational income mobility. It’s gotten to the point that conservative/libertarian pundits no longer defend the US as a country of opportunity, but instead defend low income mobility as a good thing for society.

  30. Tory says:

    On the “opportunity city” comment by Alon, I’ll refer to the Opportunity Urbanism report and policy framework Joel Kotkin and I did several years ago:

    I’ll agree it’s declined in the U.S. as a whole, but it is definitely alive and well in Texas and especially Houston.

  31. Alon Levy says:

    Pew thinks the exact opposite about which parts of the US have the most upward mobility. (No link, to avoid tempting the Gods of Comment Moderation; Google “Economic Mobility of the States: Interactive” and go to what is now, on my computer, the second result.)

    In contrast, the Kotkin report says exactly nothing about upward mobility. It talks about population growth a lot, median house prices, and domestic migration flows. None of these is what Americans have traditionally referred to as equal opportunity.

  32. Alon Levy says:

    Okay, let’s try linking:


    Ignore the headline numbers and the national average – it just talks about which regions had more growth in the 2000s. You want to look at regional numbers. Texas turns out to be average by US standards (which means terrible by Canadian ones).

  33. Rod Stevens says:


    We went house shopping in those areas, and there is a reason for the high prices: higher quality of life. We had most of those things (street trees, parks and proximity to downtown) in the Irvington neighborhood of Portland, but since we were in Vancouver, and the base prices were high, we had to pay an even higher premium there for the good things.

    Most people who talk about Vancouver from afar don’t realize that up close many neighborhoods there are not as nice. Point Grey is desirable for all of the above reasons plus the fact that it has huge tracts of open space at Jericho and in the Endowment lands. On the other hand, large tracts of East Vancouver do not have nice parks. Metrotown is essentially anchored by the mall, and little else. The Concord Pacific redevelopment of the Expo 86 site is a sterile wasteland, as is the redevelopment of the old rail yards along Coal Harbor. As you point out, downtown is affordable, and may be the best deal in town, because of Stanley Park and the street life along Denman and Davie streets, but the trade-off there is that most people live in old 1950’s and 1960’s era mid-rise apartments, which are on the smallish side. Per square foot, Kits cost more. Why? Partly because of the pool and shopping, and partly because the neighborhoods have lots of single family houses, and people value being in a real neighborhood, even childless yuppies!

    So when you get beyond the macro level stereotypes to micro level pricing, there are a whole lot more “premiums for place” here than most people realize. You can readily see those premiums in Vancouver, the fact that emerging but still semi-barren areas like those to the east of the library still rent or sell for less, while those in proven and established and interestingly lively locations like Kits rent and sell for more. People will pay for more. For every day experience the best places in Vancouver offer incomparably more, and with a limited supply of them, and a world of people wanting to enjoy them, prices and rents are understandably sky high.

    An economics note here: if China hadn’t grown like it has the last ten years, and if mainland Chinese had not been able to get their capital out of China, prices in Vancouver might have tailed off, for Vancouver had essentially tapped out the Hong Kong market of buyers who wanted to get their families into a city with good schools. But that didn’t happen, and now that mainland Chinese are coming, all of their wealth is now focused on that land-locked place.

  34. Tory says:

    If there’s no mobility, then why do so many people want to move here? (domestic and intl) People pretty much move because it improves their lives. As far as the link: “Our research focuses on individuals born between 1943 and 1958”. That’s a really narrow range and ignores inter-generational mobility. And, of course, it makes Texas look bad because of the oil crash of the 80s, which devastated that generation of workers.

    I’ll also point to the Houston Area Survey: “…with regard to the statement, “If you work hard in this city, eventually you will succeed,” the proportion in agreement also grew — from 79% in 2005 to 88% in 2009 and 86% in 2011.” When speaking in the past, Dr. Klinberg has said this is higher than other parts of the country, although he has not quoted data sources to my knowledge.

  35. Alon Levy says:

    The Pew methodology has flaws, but it actually measures income mobility, which the Kotkin report does not. At most, Kotkin measures proxies – but those aren’t actually proxies. Is there strong correlation between how many people in a developed country will agree with that statement about hard work paying off and how much intergenerational mobility it has? Is there any between immigration and mobility? There’s enough international data to try and plot those things, and the result isn’t favorable to any part of the US.

    The gap between the US and the most intergenerationally mobile countries is such that you need extraordinary evidence to argue that intranational differences overcome it. And why would they? A related issue, inequality, exhibits fairly small intranational differences, much smaller than international ones. America is still America, and usually the areas of it that think they’re free of the latest social problem are the ones that are going to be the most affected in the next decade or three.

  36. Alon, the one argument that is difficult to refute is that people are voting with their feet in favor of places like Houston. Period. The only way to argue against Houston as a quality choice is basically a variation of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” That is, to assume all those people who moved to Houston were somehow stupid folks who don’t understand their own interests. Houston is revealed preference in action.

    Even on an international basis, given the huge preference for the US that international migrants show, it’s tough to believe they are all so dumb about their future prospects. Certainly Canada is a great place to move too, so I won’t disparage that country. But Canada also doesn’t open its arms wide to illiterate Mexican peasants and such the way the US does. America has taken on many of the world’s toughest cases, and has delivered. The stream of people who’ve been seeking to better their lives here over the long term attests to that.

  37. Alon Levy says:

    I’m going to make this a full post about immigration, but, for now, let me just point out that you’re wrong about where immigrants choose to go:


  38. Tory says:

    At this point with the Euro zone, moving between countries there is like moving between states here. Then there are the barriers to legal immigration in America that they don’t have in Canada, Australia, and NZ, who have programs to actively attract talent (something the US should mimic). America is such the promised land that millions risk everything to come here illegally. Finally, if you ran that graph in absolute numbers instead of percentages, I think you’d find the US zooming to the top. America is still the brightest beacon for immigrants all over the world.

  39. Alon, even if you stipulate some national view of immigration, there’s no denying the huge numbers of people who voted with their feet in favor of Houston.

    Tory, I’ve found that Europe loves to shift the basis of comparison to whatever value advances their own agenda or makes them look good. (EU vs. member states)

  40. Alon Levy says:

    Aaron, you’re misunderstanding what I’m saying, because I’m saying exactly nothing about Houston’s value proposition or whatever. I’m attacking a very specific claim here, which is that Houston offers so much more intergenerational mobility that it can overcome the USA’s massive deficit versus many other developed countries (not all – the UK and Italy are as bad as the US – but Canada is among the best). So far, all you’re giving me in support of that claim is platitudes: people move there, so it obviously has to offer something, and “something” obviously has to mean “intergenerational mobility for society at large” (which is not the same as social mobility for immigrants, but as I said, I’m going to post about it today).

    I’m not going to let go of the fact that of the hard numbers regarding income mobility, I’m the only one who’s posted any, with the most and least mobile states stat. That and the national numbers (well, here are links to the actual research). Against that, more platitudes: “America is still the brightest beacon.” (No, it isn’t.) That, and aggressive disinterest in what immigrants say for them(our)selves.

  41. Tory says:

    Summary so far:
    1) claim
    2) here’s a complete report disputing your claim
    3) I dismiss your report, and here’s some refuting stats
    4) here’s why those stats are irrelevant
    5) here’s more stats
    6) here’s why those stats are irrelevant
    7) but I have stats!

    The simple fact is that many people hear of the opportunities in Houston (friends and family that have experienced social mobility), and they move here to experience it for themselves. North of a million new people each decade lately. One of the fastest growing U.S. cities of the 20th century, and now the 21st. If that’s not an “opportunity city”, I don’t know what is.

  42. Jim Russell says:

    A word of caution about inferring too much from robust population and migration numbers. We are just beginning to get a handle on domestic Latino migration and its impact on US regions. I wouldn’t fall over myself to sing the praises of Scranton, Reading, or Allentown given the population boom. There’s a ton of secondary migration streaming out of NYC and LA. LA’s outmigration has been a tremendous boost to San Antonio’s population. The story is more about push (e.g. LA) than pull (e.g. Houston).

  43. Tory says:

    Some supportive excerpts of the opportunity in America and the immigration draw.

    “Most importantly, the innovators at the helm of an economy come from the top quarter of students. While the United States has a dismal track-record of inequality, we treat our brightest minds quite well. The “average test scores are mostly irrelevant as a measure of economic potential,” write Hal Salzman & Lindsay Lowell in the prestigious journal, Nature, “To produce leading-edge technology, one could argue that it is the numbers of high-performing students that is most important in the global economy.”

    The United States, they find, has among the highest percentage of top-performing students in the world. Whether the abundance of smart students is a product of U.S. culture, an artifact of the genetic lottery, or some unknown factor hidden in our education system is anyone’s guess.

    We do know where some of our best talent comes from: other countries. In some ways, the United States steals its way to economic superiority: it rangles the world’s brightest minds to immigrate. The U.S. holds roughly 17% of the world’s International students, compared to 2nd-place Britain (~12%) and far more than education powerhouses, Korea, Switzerland, and Sweden (all below 5%).

    A quarter of CEOs in technology and science are foreign born and 76 percent hold key positions in engineering, technology, and management, according to Stanford researcher and TechCrunch contributor, Vivek Wadhwa.

    “More than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. were founded by immigrants or their children, and these firms alone employ over 10 million individuals. Some of our country’s most iconic brands – including IBM, Google, and Apple – were founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. And nearly half of the top 50 venture-backed companies in the U.S. had at least one immigrant founder,” wrote Aol founder Steve Case (Aol is the parent company of TechCrunch).

    And, our brightest native and immigrant minds are greeted with extraordinary research and economic opportunity. “

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures