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?

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Density, Vibrancy, and Opportunity Zones by Tory Gattis

[ Here’s the second part of Tory Gattis’ take on vibrancy and car based urbanism. – Aaron. ]

Last week I tried taking Jane Jacobs’ four tenants of vibrancy and applying them to the car-based city, describing the concept of the mobility/draw zone. It can be roughly summarized in this excerpt:

So the four tenets of vibrancy transformed for the car-based city get reduced to two:
  1. Loose zoning/permitting constraints to enable both a wide diversity of businesses as well as population density where there is consumer demand (apartments, condos, townhomes)
  2. Maximized mobility with a well-designed, high-capacity arterial and freeway network

These two principles maximize the population within the largest possible mobility/draw zone, which gives vibrancy its best chance of reaching critical mass and flourishing.

The next day, I promised these two topics (among others) in a future post. This is that post.

  • Rename “mobility/draw-zones” to “opportunity zones”, since they represent the opportunity region for a consumer, explorer, job seeker, or business owner – and the larger it is and the more people it has, the larger the opportunity and the resulting vibrancy.
  • How Manhattan and Houston have very similar opportunity zones despite dramatic differences in urban form, and have the potential for similar levels of vibrancy in some respects.

Density is a big focus of debate in today’s urban planning. Again, if your assumed mobility mode is 3mph walking, or walking plus mass transit, you need a lot of people in a small area to create vibrancy within the mobility zone. In Jacob’s world, mobility is basically fixed and density is variable. In the car-based world, density is relatively fixed (well below Jacob’s standard of >100 dwellings/acre because of the need to accommodate cars and parking plus the majority desire for single-family residential living or mid-density apartments), but mobility is variable depending on the road network and traffic congestion – which can substantially affect the size of the mobility zone. Since what really counts is the population within the 10-20 minute mobility zone – as a proxy for easily accessible diversity and vibrancy – lets take a look at some estimated mobility zones in Manhattan and Houston:

Population Sq miles Pop/sq.Mile
Manhattan 1,487,536 22.6 65,820
Houston 2,000,000 570 3,509

15 min off-peak trip in 5 min intervals, speed in mph 1st 5m 2nd 5m 3rd 5m Dist (mi) Area (pi*r^2) Population in zone
Manhattan scenarios
All walking 3 3 3 0.75 1.8 116,255
Walk/wait + subway + walk 3 30 3 3.00 28.3 1,860,078
Walk/wait + taxi* 3 12 12 2.25 15.9 1,046,294
All taxi* 12 12 12 3.00 28.3 1,860,078
Houston scenarios
Arterial drive 30 30 30 7.50 176.6 619,737
Artery, freeway, artery 30 65 30 10.42 340.7 1,195,480
Artery, then all freeway 30 65 65 13.33 558.2 1,958,674

* Average Manhattan taxi covers 1.9 miles in 10 minutes, ~12 mph (source)
(note that some Manhattan scenarios actually show a mobility zone population larger than the actual population of Manhattan, due to the circular nature of the model vs. Manhattan’s actual long, thin-island geography – but it still serves its illustrative purpose)

Several interesting observations come out of this table:

  • A car-based city with a strong freeway network has the potential to match the vibrancy and diversity of a high-density city like Manhattan. This is not to say that Houston and New York are equivalent. This is an analysis of the diversity available in a typical, everyday 15-minute trip. Special occasion trips (museums, sporting events, concerts, theater, etc.) have a much higher acceptable commute time, and therefore draw on a larger area. New York is a much older and larger city that can draw on a regional metro population of 21 million, substantially more than Houston’s 5 million.
  • The classic “monotony of the suburban edge cities” phenomenon is explained by looking at the all-arterial drive scenario, which is common on the fringes. The fringes also drop population density rapidly as they get farther out, further reducing the mobility zone population and therefore diversity/vibrancy (ex: the mobility zone of interest for suburban Sugar Land in southwest Houston is to the north and east, not south or west).
  • Los Angeles was the first large-scale car-based city, and it is often not held in high regard. Why? LA has many arterials with overloaded, slow freeways and no frontage roads (although they do have higher density to somewhat make up for it). That drives LA towards the “all-arterial” scenario, or the middle scenario at best. Houston has a strong frontage-road network with substantial retail, office, and other commercial services – the car-based city equivalent of “vibrant street retail.” Even commercial/retail space not on the frontage roads is often within a couple minutes of a frontage road. This allows Houston to make the third scenario a relatively common one, with it’s attendant high access to diversity within the mobility zone.
  • Jacobs describes a “density dead zone” of greater than 12 dwellings per acre but less than 100 dwellings per acre – too dense to be suburban but too sparse to be really urban. These areas almost never achieve vibrancy or diversity. Arterial-driven car-based cities with weak freeway networks seem to be the car-based equivalent of this “dead zone” with low density and relatively low-to-moderate mobility.

Comments welcome and encouraged.

This post originally appeared in Houston Strategies on May 11, 2006.

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Applying Jane Jacobs Tenets of Vibrant Neighborhoods to Car-Based Cities by Tory Gattis

[ Tory Gattis is a former McKinsey consultant who writes about urbanism for the Houston Chronicle, in his blog Houston Strategies, and elsewhere. He’s an unabashed and articulate proponent of the “Houston model” of urbanism. In this post, he applies Jane Jacobs’ views of the virtues of density to a car-based city like Houston. While I realize many won’t appreciate this point of view, I want to continue to present a variety of well-argued positions that challenge the thinking of all of my readers at some point along the way. Next week, Tory applies the insights of this piece to Houston vs. Manhattan – Aaron. ]

Jane Jacobs four tenets of vibrant neighborhoods are, in short form:

  1. Mixed primary uses that create traffic/vibrancy throughout the day
  2. Short blocks to make neighborhoods more walkable
  3. Mixed age and overhead buildings to enable a diversity of businesses
  4. Population density

To put them in context, it’s important to understand that Ms. Jacobs formed these tenets while observing her Greenwich Village NYC neighborhood (and similar ones) during the 1950s (the book came out in 1961). It was an urban world in the midst of a major transitional upheaval, as the car moved from a luxury to a standard household item for the middle classes. Cities at the time had been built around walking and mass transit, and accommodating the car was traumatic: too narrow streets, not enough parking, and freeways plowing through neighborhoods. Today, the vast majority of us live in an urban/suburban landscape built around the car – with accommodations for parking and major arterials and freeways – which makes the tenets seem almost quaint and disconnected from our modern world.

The problem as I see it is that these four principles have hardened into dogma in the urban planning community without really understanding the meaning and philosophy behind them. To some extent, I even think Jane Jacobs herself suffered from this too-narrow understanding of her own insight. Let’s see if we can get to the true essence of these principles, and then talk about how they might apply to modern car-based cities.

The goal is a very subjective concept called “vibrancy.” What is vibrancy? To put it simply, vibrancy means a buzz of people interacting and transacting in win-win exchanges – both economic and social. Vibrancy was very visible in Jane’s world: people on the street and sidewalks, jostling and bumping as they went about their daily businesses, often in street-level retail establishments just off the sidewalk. In the car-based world, that vibrancy is more hidden. Sure, you can see the cars (sometimes way, way too many cars in congested traffic), but you don’t really see the people or the interactions as they hide inside the cars, strip centers, and office buildings. They’re there, but we don’t “feel” them as much as we do in a classic Jane Jacobs walkable neighborhood.

Vibrancy starts with a very simple decision: is there some interesting or necessary activity that draws me out of my home? Work? Shopping? Socializing? Whether I’m in a walk-up apartment in New York or a house in the suburbs, the question is the same. More options increases the likelihood of drawing me out. And I have to weigh-up those interesting options against the barriers to going out, particularly mobility: how much time, effort, and money is required to go do this activity? A good, cheap restaurant is an easy choice when it’s right down the street, but a harder one in heavy traffic with unpredictable parking or with some long walks and subway rides in possibly unpleasant weather. There’s always leftovers in the fridge and something on TV, the mortal enemies of “vibrancy”.

The flip-side perspective is that of the business owner: what kind of reasonable customer base will I be able to draw on? The more barriers between me and them, the less likely they are to patronize my business. What is my “draw zone”? The more people – and the more money – in that draw zone, the better my prospects. That means a larger diversity of businesses can be supported.

Looked at through these lenses, Ms. Jacobs’ four tenets make instant sense. If you assume walking as the primary mobility mode, distance becomes a major barrier to vibrancy. Taxis are expensive – not to mention a major pain to flag down, even in NYC – and transit is generally a hassle, slow, and loses time in waiting and transfers. Thus we need as many interesting activities and options as possible within as short a distance as possible to get vibrancy. Mixed-use and mixed-cost buildings increase the variety of options within that short distance – and more options increases the likelihood that one or more of them will be attractive enough to draw you out on a given day, evening, or weekend. Short blocks make walking routes more direct, and put more options within the same travel-time range. And density provides the raw fuel of consumers to keep all those interesting street shops economically viable. The more eclectic a business, the larger the draw zone – in size and population – it needs to stay viable: convenience stores and dry cleaners are easy – offbeat bookstores and sushi restaurants are harder to support. The mobility zones are so limited in this world, that the only way a neighborhood reaches critical mass for vibrancy is to stack as many people as possible right on top of the businesses: mixed-use and density.

In the car-based world, distance becomes far less of an impediment. Speed determines the “mobility/draw zone” – fast arterials and freeways with minimal congestion. Short blocks and mixed-use become somewhat irrelevant because the pertinent geography now spreads over miles instead of blocks. Mixed age/cost buildings are still important, but over a much larger area. Harsh zoning and permitting can limit commercial space availability, increasing scarcity and prices and driving out lower value uses, thus limiting commercial diversity (see yesterday’s post on Opportunity City vs. Pleasantville). Density still matters somewhat, but far less than before. Generally speaking, in Jane’s world, mobility is relatively fixed and slow (walking, transit), but density is variable – therefore the key to vibrancy is to pump up density. In the car-based city, density tends to stay in a reasonably narrow and low range because of the need to accommodate cars and parking – plus consumer preferences for stand-alone homes – but mobility is variable: average trip speed is very dependent on the availability of high-capacity, smoothly-running arterials and freeways. I would go so far as to call the freeway the “short block” of the car-based city because of its similar relative improvement to the size of the mobility/draw zone.

So the four tenets of vibrancy transformed for the car-based city get reduced to two:

  1. Loose zoning/permitting constraints to enable both a wide diversity of businesses as well as population density where there is consumer demand (apartments, condos, townhomes)
  2. Maximized mobility with a well-designed, high-capacity arterial and freeway network

These two principles maximize the population within the largest possible mobility/draw zone, which gives vibrancy its best chance of reaching critical mass and flourishing.

All of this is not to say that car-based cities like Houston don’t need mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods – but they’re not required for us to be a vibrant city/metro. A “nice-to-have” amenity, if you will. What’s going on in downtown, uptown, midtown, and The Village (among others) are good, healthy developments – and I think Jane would approve – but they’re not the end-all/be-all of vibrancy.

Next week, we’ll go into more depth on density vs. mobility by comparing Manhattan and Houston trip scenarios, and what that means for vibrancy, “suburban monotony”, frontage/feeder roads, and Jane Jacobs’ “dead zones”.

This post originally appeared in Houston Strategies on May 3, 2006.

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