The Circus Maximus SyndromeGreat New York Times column by one of my favorite columnists, John Tierney, on the edifice syndrome of a lot of cities (read it quick - it will be pay-only by this Saturday).
Older cities have made comebacks the past decade by getting back to that core function of protecting people's lives, but most still haven't figured out how to restore their commercial marketplaces.
Instead, their leaders build projects whose economic benefits go to the Circus Maximus industrial complex: real estate developers, construction workers, bond traders, owners of hotels and sports teams. Aside from the thanks of these groups, politicians also get a pleasant distraction from their mundane duties.
It's more fun to pose next to a model of a model of a new stadium than a new water main. Announcing plans for the Olympics gets better coverage than announcing plans for bridge repairs. If you want immediate gratification, there is nothing like a circus, as a moralist named Salvian observed in the fifth century.
Kind of makes you glad we lost the 2012 Olympics, huh? A tremendous amount of precious energy in this city would be totally focused on it instead of more fundamental foundational improvements - a giant 7 year distraction.
Houston certainly builds its share of edifices, but I think we're reasonably balanced overall. We work pretty hard on the fundamentals, and the stuff we do build is fairly affordable for a city of our size and economic power (stadiums, convention centers, etc.)
He also talks about the new Kotkin book:
You have to ask if the project performs a core function identified by Joel Kotkin in his new book, "The City," a global history of urbanity starting with Ur. He finds that successful cities have always done three things, two of which are straightforward: protecting the lives of inhabitants and providing a congenial home for a commercial marketplace.
The third function is the creation of "sacred space" that gives people a sense of identity with the city. In Ur, it was the shrine of the moon god, Nanna, a 70-foot-high ziggurat towering over the Mesopotamian plain. In Athens, it was the Parthenon. In Venice, it was the Basilica of San Marco.
"In New York, it's Central Park and Fifth Avenue," Mr. Kotkin said. "In Chicago, it's the lakefront. In Los Angeles, it's the Hollywood sign and the sight of the hills ringing the city. It can be a signature building or a distinctive neighborhood - something iconic that makes the city special and binds people together."
I've posted on this before, but I'll ask the question again: we do pretty good on the first two criteria, but what is Houston's sense of sacredness? I have my own ideas, but I'd like to hear people's thoughts in the comments.