Mayor White on what makes Houston special
Mayor White gave an amazingly thoughtful lecture to the Rice Design Alliance
at the MFA this evening. His topic was what distinguishes Houston from other cities, and the resulting challenges. He laid out four primary differentiators:
- An Open and Diverse City. Friendly and welcoming, with people from all over the world. He used the word "open" over and over and over, which readers of my blog know is a pet theme of mine in Houston's identity.
- A Growing City of Opportunity. He noted the interdependence of the first two characteristics: if you aren't growing, then you tend to start seeing newcomers and neighbors as potential competitors for limited jobs and opportunity, and you stop being open and welcoming to them. He also rejected the false assertion that growth is incompatible with quality-of-life.
- Affordability. In a very flattering part of the speech, he spoke extensively about an analysis I did a couple years back showing that Houston has the highest discretionary incomes in the country (median income minus a standardized cost-of-living), and what that means for our citizens in terms of supporting quality of life, nonprofits, economic advancement, and city amenities.
- Our Political Culture. Minimal corruption vs. most other big cities. Easy construction permitting (vs. hoops, hurdles, bribes, and connections). Clean, open, transparent government. Working together to solve the public pension crisis. Political cooperation in general to get things done.
He then articulated two challenges:
- The hard work it takes to create a sense of unified community out of our diversity. Avoiding us vs. them thinking, ethnic tensions, and wedge issues that divide us. He pointed out that HISD is the largest urban school district in the country that hasn't had to have the Mayor take it over due to performance failure, because we've avoided the school board political meltdowns common in other cities. He also noted how Katrina helped solidify our cohesive identity as a city.
- How growth outruns planning, infrastructure, and quality-of-life. He thinks a lot of progress is being made in this area.
And a few miscellaneous points he made near the end:
- The nature of our city leads to a wide diversity in the built environment. Accept it. If you don't like it, move to a city without diversity.
- No neighborhood seems to want light rail or BRT on its street. They all want it a few blocks away.
- We're in a global competition with other cities based on educated brains.
- He's opposed to traditional zoning planning, and basically endorsed letting the market figure out where stuff belongs. He does like some standards though on things like signs and setbacks.
- A little tongue-in-cheek dig that got a chuckle from the audience: "Urban planners think they know how everybody should live."
- He seems to be comfortable with term limits, warning that long-term politicians get used to power and complacent. They stop really listening to the public with humility, and start to think they "know it all." He thinks the key to long-term strategic and tactical continuity in a city's development is based on embedding it broadly in our institutions and citizens, not through the authoritarian hand of a single political czar (like Mayor Riley in Charleston and Mayor Daley in Chicago).
That about taps out my notes. It was a wonderfully engaging speech - even without any visuals/slides - told with some good humor. We're really lucky to have him as our Mayor. Just ask Dallas