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Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

Houston: The City With No Limits

This week another city marketing campaign designed to attract residents, this one from Houston. Their tag line is “The City With No Limits” and they have a web site with that URL. There are also TV ads, etc. to go with it.

If there’s a city in America that has a truly distinct take on urbanism, it’s probably Houston. And Texas is a place with a clearly distinct vision of itself and presence within the American mind. Yet how does Houston choose to market itself? As just another member of the generic checklist club. The video below will give you a flavor. If the video doesn’t display, click over to my site.

With Houston’s traditional focus on being the “opportunity city” you’d think that some portrayal of how opportunity uniquely plays out in the city would be front and center. But it’s not. Other than links to corporate job sites, there’s really nothing on opportunity in Houston. It’s just spin on lifestyle. But if fashion shows, ballet, and light rail are your thing, is Houston really going to be your top choice? I’m skeptical. The Houston selling point is economic opportunity, but it’s only weakly presented. Other than facile fillips like the moon landing, little sense of the distinctiveness, culture, or value proposition of Houston and Texas come through here. The video and campaign also don’t convey any strong sense of limitless. In fact, my takeaway is that life in Houston operates within the exact same confines as virtually every other major city.

I’d have to rate this one as a miss, which is particularly disappointing in light of the “opportunity” presented by Houston to get it right and their willingness to cut against the grain in other areas. It just goes again to prove my axiom that while every company tries its hardest to convince you of how much different and better it is than every other company in its industry, every city tries its hardest to convince you it’s exactly like every other city that’s conventionally considered cool.

I don’t blame the agencies that create these things, by the way. I’ve done quite a bit of thinking and analysis and believe the underlying problems are structural and embedded in the initiative from the word Go. I may post more on this later.

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

How Houston’s Missing Media Gene Hobbles Its Ambitions

My latest post is online over at New Geography and is called “How Houston’s Missing Media Gene Hobbles Its Ambitions.” In it I contrast San Francisco and Houston as representative champions of two different models of both urban development, and future vision for the US economy. But while San Francisco has risen to the challenge, Houston has largely not because it has failed to tell its story to the world. That’s in part because it feels no need to self-promote and especially focus on getting its narrative out via the media.

Here’s an excerpt:

The second big divergence relates to media. After all, the media, understood broadly, is how we come to have knowledge about or opinions of many things. Simply put, San Francisco and the tech industry get the power of media, while Houston doesn’t.

The content creators may still prefer a New York, LA, or DC but the tech moguls are circling the last redoubts of entertainment and information. Apple now has a dominant position in content distribution for music and is expanding in other areas. Google generates huge advertising revenues that are greater than the entire newspaper and magazine industry. Despite its many troubles, Yahoo remains one of the most-visited news sites. Meanwhile in just last year or two, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has bought the venerable New Republic while Seattle’s Jeff Bezos recently bought the Washington Post. Pierre Omidyar, founder of Ebay, recently announced a $250 million new media venture featuring Glenn Greenwald.
…..
Houston, by contrast, has close to zero media influence or impact and seems not to care. It’s much less an influencer of media than one whose reputation has been shaped by it, and often not in a good way. Though there are many sprawl dominated metropolises in America, it’s Houston that has become the bête noire of urbanists.

One commenter highlights a point I wish I’d made. Gary B contrasts Houston with Atlanta, where Ted Turner built a media empire. Here’s what he had to say:

To my mind, the more interesting straight-up comparison is Houston to Atlanta. They are both new cities, roughly comparable in size (in the 5-6+ million range) and growing at roughly the same rate; they share much the same Southern background and climate (though Houston is more diverse, drawing immigrants from a much greater portion of the world) and political orientation (thoroughly conservative leadership class, but emerging liberal demographics beneath, at least in the central cities). So why has most national press about Atlanta over recent decades been glowingly positive while those about Houston have been mostly negative? A great deal of it has to do with media presence. Atlanta has had Ted Turner’s media empire, and to a great extent has broadcast its own version of its story nationwide; Houston has left its image to be determined by often envious media empires located thousands of miles away.

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

More Fun With Per Capita Incomes

After yesterday’s post, I thought I’d throw up some additional comparisons, this time at the metro level. County and metro per capita incomes only go back to 1969, not 1929, but there are still interesting things to see. I’ll post these without analysis for you to ponder on your own. Again, all data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, with charts via Telestrian.

The five boroughs of New York City (Manhattan=New York County, Brooklyn=Kings County, Staten Island=Richmond County). In the case of Manhattan, it’s worth noting that this is a mean not a median value.

New York vs. Los Angeles. Keep in mind, the exurbs of LA are technically considered a separate metro area (Riverside-San Bernardino) and so aren’t included in the LA metro figures:

Chicago vs. Indianapolis:

Denver vs. the Twin Cities vs. Seattle:

Atlanta vs. Dallas-Ft. Worth vs. Houston:

Memphis vs. Nashville:

Cincinnati vs. Cleveland vs. Columbus:

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Reason #763 Why Houston Is Prosperous by Keep Houston Houston

Matty G has a short post up on the economy of Breezy Point, Queens and my first reaction is “right, this is reason #763 why Houston is so prosperous.”

Mostly it has to do with annexation. At one extreme end you have a city like Philadelphia. Philly isn’t all that bad of a place, but when you look at the massive growth of NYC and DC, you have to consider the city’s development trajectory to be a failure. Philly lost population during the nineties and was flat during the aughts, and the city largely coasts on the infrastructure of previous generations. Roadway expansion (e.g. double-decking the Schuylkill) and transit expansion (e.g. Roosevelt Subway, Swampoodle Connection) have both gone nowhere. Taxes are high, services are low, and what little growth has occurred mostly takes the form of cancerous exurban development which has consumed productive farmland without much housing to show in return. Detroit follows the same pattern.

But if you look at the city boundaries this all makes sense. The place is hemmed in on all sides by small boroughs and townships. In some directions you can go from Center City to out-of-the-city in less than four miles.

The fun continues outside the city boundaries. There are no big suburbs outside Philly; instead, counties are a bouillabaisse of boroughs and townships of a couple thousand acres each. This is about the size of your basic Sunbelt master-planned community, so it isn’t particularly surprising that the local governments function more like homeowners associations. Exclusionary zoning is the norm, and most residential subdivisions are required to include large swaths of “open space” which is mostly about maintaining the visual deceit that you live in the “country” and not a suburb.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the annexation distribution you have a city like Dallas. Dallas goes out about eight to ten miles, plus Far North D, which is like an extended middle finger of garden apartments sticking into the adjacent cities. An east-west trip across Dallas is about 20 miles. But while Dallas is in the middle of the “city annexation” distribution, DFW as a whole is hardly in the 50th percentile in terms of prosperity and quality of life.

There is a reason for this: Where Dallas ends, the mega suburbs begin. Arlington and Plano are respectable cities in their own right, holding about 360,000 and 270,000 people, respectively. Carrollton, Frisco, Irving, and Grand Prairie each clock in well above 100,000. Large suburbs are not always favorable to “urban” things like mid-rise and high-rise structures, or LRT and other rail transit. Frisco in particular opted out of the DART taxing area, using sales tax money to subsidize commercial development instead. But large suburban jurisdictions generally tend to have coherent transportation planning, well-developed park systems, and a variety of housing types, including multifamily and small-lot single-family.

Big suburbs also make more effective use of land. The easiest way to measure this is population density. Bellevue, Washington clocks in at 4000 people per square mile. Plano “sprawls” at 3800, Arlington at 3900. Irvine, California holds 3200 a mile, and has what is perhaps the most coherent bike network in SoCal, combining near-100% arterial bike lanes with continuous off-street paths.

Meanwhile, back outside Philly, Exton – a major Amtrak and SEPTA stop – contains fewer than 1400 people per square mile, while neighboring East Whiteland township contains fewer than 1000. Density scarcely improves as you get closer in. The major corporate centers and edge cities of King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting straddle multiple townships which each contain fewer than 2000 people per square mile. By contrast, even Frisco – which is exploding in population and has annexed a lot of vacant land in anticipation of future development – is already at 1900 people per square mile.

Which brings us to Houston, the opposite extreme. Houston’s expansion knows no geographic or political boundaries. When other cities incorporate, it just goes around. Suburbs like West U, Bellaire, and the Villages become enclaves. Strategic annexations of roadways and other tracts of land extend Houston’s reach even further. A cross-section of strategic Houston annexations from Prairie View to Lynchburg measures 65 miles across. A trip from Willowbrook to El Dorado is forty.

When your city is this large, it leads to some interesting paradoxes. Houston’s nominal population density of 3600 people per sq. mile is surpassed by many of the enclaves. West U, in particular, is north of 7000. But Houston is scattered with pockets of density above 10,000/sq. mi, and portions of Gulfton and Gulfgate check in north of 20k. Houston’s 3600 is also almost exactly 30% higher than Phoenix, which pursues the exact same transportation and annexation policies but with Euclidean zoning.

Really rough back-of-the-metaphorical-envelope calculations tell me that if you drew a line at Beltway 8, you’d come out with a population density in the 6000s. (Note: see followup post.) Which is really incredible. That’s higher than Portland or San Jose, and almost to Minneapolis and Seattle, both of which have more constrained geographic boundaries. And this density is achieved in a relatively young, Sunbelt city, that grew up almost entirely around cars.

Not bad.

The reader may note that the title of this blog post said “prosperous,” while an earlier paragraph on Dallas mentioned “quality of life.” This because the two are indirectly related. Prosperity is inextricably linked to population; you need people to have an economy, you need people with skills to have clusters, the more people you have the more skills there’ll be and the more clusters you’ll get. Likewise, life is typically more enjoyable if there’s more stuff. What the stuff is doesn’t matter – it might be restaurants, museums, churches, or death metal. People do stuff and the more people you put in reach of yourself the more stuff there is and the more likely it is you’ll find stuff you like.

Now there’s two ways to gain access to people and stuff. The first is you can put people closer together. The second is you can build faster transportation so it’s easier to get to them. The Chicago “L” is a slow loris, but at 11000 people per square mile citywide, it’ll still take you to a lot of places. The intersection of North and Halsted affords a view of a set of three successive 10mph corners on the Ravenswood and Evanston Ls. But as you can see there’s also a whole of stuff built there. On the other side, Phoenix is not particularly dense, but you can always hop on this thing and go wherever. Of course the best option is to combine density with high-speed transportation infrastructure which gets you the spur through Midtown or perhaps Roppongi.

Both of these things, land use and transportation, are more easily accomplished in a larger governmental jurisdiction. The primary opposition to land use is NIMBY – “I don’t want to look up at the Ashby high-rise while I’m mowing my lawn.” The primary opposition to transportation infrastructure is, again, NIMBY – “I don’t want to live next to this freeway.” The latter is somewhat more understandable, since freeways generate noise and pollution externalities that residential towers don’t. But in both cases you’re pitting NIMBY concerns against regional concerns. The larger a city you have, the more diluted the NIMBY voices are within the overall governmental framework.

About the only way to screw this up is to devolve decision-making authority to sub-units. DC and NYC do this with zoning decisions, which is sort of exactly why DC and NYC have ludicrous zoning policy. By contrast, Houston’s super neighborhoods are strictly advisory bodies. If you had any doubts you can check out the official site which uses the words “stakeholder,” “plan,” and “priority” twice each in the span of three paragraphs. Anytime you see those words, you know that no actual, real decisions are being made. And that’s the right way to do it.

This post originally appeared in Keep Houston Houston on November 1, 2012.

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.

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Tory Gattis on Social Systems Architecture and Why It Matters

Tory Gattis is an ex-McKinsey consultant and Houston civic advocate who writes the blog Houston Strategies. As you might infer, he’s heavily aligned with the Houston model of civic development. I know that’s something that isn’t very popular in some circles, but it seems to be working for them at least.

Tory recently spoke at TEDxHouston on a variety of topics related to urban development and Houston. The video is below, followed by some commentary. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Here are a few of the takeaways in case you aren’t up for watching the video.

1. Size Matters. City size is important. City-regions benefit hugely from scale economics. For example, a football stadium costs the same if you have a few people to pay for it or a lot of people to pay for it. People are also more productive and make more money in bigger cities. Gattis cites a variety of statistics on this, which should be familiar to anyone who has been reading about the research of Geoffrey West.

2. Income/Cost. The importance of cost adjusted personal income. Looking only at income provides an incomplete view since regions vary widely in costs, particularly housing cost. Per Gattis, Houston metro ranks #1 in the country in personal income adjusted for cost of living.

3. Business Climate Houston has no zoning and is just generally a pro-business environment, making it an attractive place for entrepreneurs and established businesses alike.

4. Mobility. Personal mobility, especially highways, is critical to expanding the “opportunity zone.” In fact, Gattis claims good auto mobility reduces sprawl. Houston is approaching the limit on freeway expansion, however, and transit options are needed. But given the highly dispersed nature of the region’s origins and destinations, bus would be far preferable to rail.

5. Organization. This is a bit of a non-sequitor in the the video, but the limits of hierarchy in the modern age is very apropos of urban redevelopment. Many cities seek redevelopment via a strong “top down” model. That’s still the best way to get things like stadiums and transit systems done. Unfortunately, things like reviving the urban core require an equally vibrant bottom up culture.

I don’t expect this video to convince many folks, but it is always good to hear divergent points of view.

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

Miscellaneous Musings

Someone over at SSC took a four day trip to Cleveland and posted a pretty great series of dozens of photos about that city. You can see them here:

If you have time to peruse these, you’ll see another city with a sparkling urban history and built environment. But as with Cincinnati, these haven’t translated into a positive demographic or economic climate. Included are pictures of Cleveland’s transit system, which includes high quality rapid rail transit lines. If transit will revitalize our decaying cities, how does one explain away the Cleveland example?

Here is an interesting study. Called the Measure of America, it applies UN standards for human development to US states and congressional districts. I haven’t digested it in full detail, but here are some money maps of the nation at a glance by congressional district. As you’ll see, it is typically big city suburban districts that are doing ok in the Midwest. The rest of the place is suffering.

The mayor of Louisville was in Tampa, Florida last week trying to lure expats back home to Kentucky. I’m sure the free Maker’s helped attract them to that meeting at least. The city even has its own MySpace page. The concept isn’t a bad one, but I think overly focusing on trying to lure former residents back misses the broader opportunity for engaging them as an alumni network.

Houston is the cities urbanites love to hate. The NYT attacks them for not recycling. Ed Glaeser of Harvard defends them versus New York. Someone else takes offense at that notion. I’ve written about Houston before. That city, along with other sun belt boomtowns like Atlanta and Dallas, have to somehow be explained away by the sophisticates who say that the ultimate successful city has to look something like San Francisco.

USA Today writes about a new book called Traffic, by a guy named Tom Vanderbilt. It is all about driving in America today, and appears to have all sorts of interesting facts, including a discussion of roundabouts. It may be worth checking out.

Indianapolis has its own streetcar web page now. Welcome to the club. If the experience of other cities is any guide, it is probably $100-150 million for a downtown circulator line. I wonder how much of this would overlap the Cultural Trail? Oh, and Columbus just approved a streetcar study.

Kansas City is planning to put light rail on the ballot in November.

A Republican state senator in Indiana advocates privatizing the lottery.

Jam Productions buys the historic but decrepit Uptown Theater in Chicago for $3.23 million. I took a tour of this some years back when it was open for a rare visit from the public. It’s a magnificent building, but has suffered a lot of damage. Incredible as it might seem, almost all of the interior damage was caused during a single winter when the heat wasn’t turned on and the pipes burst – that was within the last 15 years.

Thanks to Jeff over at Daytonology for pointing out this NYT Magazine article about desegregation by class instead of race in the wake of recent Supreme Court rulings. Louisville, Kentucky is a big case study.

Apparently the Swedes are coming – to Columbus, Ohio.

An article about I-469 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “After 20 years, Interstate 469 remains a lightly traveled loop”

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Houston: The Next Great World City?

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.

And:

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.

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.

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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.

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