Unity vs. fragmentation in metro areasOtis White's Urban Notebook has a post on the cautionary case study of Detroit:
Beyond the ’Burbs - Postcards from the Edge
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Harvard business professor who writes occasionally about cities, says that to be successful cities need two things: magnets (things that draw outsiders to a place) and glue (things that keep them there). If so, Detroit is overdue for some Krazy Glue.
As the Detroit News reported recently, a growing number of residents are moving so far from the city that “the tenuous connections to Detroit have snapped. Residents have few economic, social and emotional connections to the city or to Detroit’s traditional suburbs.” The newspaper focused on Hartland Township, 58 miles from the city, which has more than doubled in population in the last 15 years. Most who’ve moved there aren’t city residents looking for a slice of suburbia but second- or third-generation suburbanites looking for ... something else.
Initially, that something else is a four-bedroom house on an acre of land for about what they’d pay for a three-bedroom tract house in suburban Birmingham or Livonia. But in time, the News reported, these exurbanites adapt to life in a place unattached to any city, leaving behind not only the cultural and sports attractions of Detroit but the restaurants and shopping malls of the suburbs. Eventually, as they stop reading the big-city newspapers, a kind of urban amnesia settles in. As one resident recalled, in four years of conversations with neighbors, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone mention Detroit.”
Detroit is, of course, an extreme case. As the News points out, the city’s business center is anemic, it lacks a modern transit system to funnel suburbanites back to the city and has zero chance of growing through annexation. Result: Today 74 percent of commuters in the region drive from one suburb to another; only 8 percent commute from the suburbs to the city. The economic center of the region has long since moved beyond the city limits. Today, 78 percent of jobs in the region are more than 10 miles from downtown Detroit — the highest percentage in the nation, the News reports.
But no place should be smug about these things, the newspaper added. “Exurbia is to the 21st century what suburbs were to the 20th century,” it said. And clearly the unattached exurbs will present regions with challenges even greater than earlier generations of suburbs did.
I think unity is one of Houston's great unacknowledged strengths. It's certainly an ephemeral concept, but I think the vast majority of people the metro area are comfortable saying they are Houstonians, whether they live inside the city limits or not (nobody says they're from "Southeast Texas"). Consider other cities' fragmented identities:
- Dallas vs. Ft. Worth vs. the Metroplex vs. North Texas
- San Francisco vs. San Jose vs. Oakland vs. Silicon Valley vs. the Bay Area
- Los Angeles vs. Orange County vs. Riverside/SB vs. Southern California
- Miami vs. Ft. Lauderdale vs. Palm Beach vs. South Florida
- DC vs. Virginia vs. Maryland vs. Baltimore
- Phoenix vs. Scottsdale vs. Mesa vs. Glendale vs. Arizona
Other large cities that have been very good at keeping their identity and core focus are New York and Chicago.
I think Houston has been both lucky and smart. Lucky, in that we had few geographic barriers in all directions, so central Houston stayed relatively at the center as the population grew in all directions. We are also reasonably central within one large county rather than broken up among many counties like metro Atlanta or the SF Bay Area. This also helped keep most of the big name attractions in the core of Houston like stadiums and museums. Compare this to Dallas, where the center of gravity has shifted dramatically towards DFW airport, including 2 of the 3 major sports stadiums.
On the smart side, not only do we have annexation powers, we also invested heavily in freeways and HOV transit to the core, so employers stayed in the city instead of fleeing to the far suburbs and exurbs. As I've said before, when employers move 20-30 minutes out, employees then feel comfortable moving 20-30 minutes out beyond that where they can get a big house and plot of land uber-cheap, DC and Detroit being prime examples. When people live, work, and play outside of the core city, they stop really caring about it or identifying with it, and that includes no longer supporting core nonprofit museum, arts, or charitable organizations (another great strength of Houston).
Regional unity may not be the most tangible asset, but it's one we should definitely strive to maintain.