Kotkin on cities as engines of upward social mobilityJoel Kotkin has an excellent piece (pdf) in the most recent Democracy Journal on the diverging city models in America. I highly recommend all 14 pages, but I'll try to put extensive key excerpts here, including the ones that mention Houston. I apologize in advance for the length of this post - there's a lot of good stuff in here.
The craze over coffeeshops and condos won’t revive American cities.
Improving urban life for the middle class will.
“A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle class people . . . greenhorns into competent citizens,” the great urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote. “Cities don’t lure the middle class, they create it.”
Sadly, in recent decades, this notion of cities as mechanisms for upward mobility has broken down. Many cities, rather than trying to uplift their working class and nurture a middle class, have chosen to concentrate on luring the affluent, the “hip,” and the young as their primary development strategy. In some cases, such as in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, this has created the basis for a new kind of urban area, the “boutique city,” which effectively abandons the middle class for the allure of an elite-based strategy focused on top-tier business services, arts, and hip culture.
Many other cities, particularly hard-pressed former industrial centers such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Detroit, have attempted to follow this “cool city” model without much success. They may have developed Potemkin villages of coolness in their center, but they remain among the poorest and most neglected regions of North America. Cleveland, for instance, with its much-ballyhooed downtown renaissance catalyzed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, ranked first in urban poverty in 2004.
In contrast, there is a group of cities which most commentators consider chronically unhip—primarily sprawling new cities of the South and West—but which are actually the most dynamic in the creation of middle-class residents. These cities—such as Phoenix, Houston, Charlotte, and Las Vegas — traditionally have put their focus on their basic infrastructure and economic competitiveness and, for the most part, enjoy relatively low costs of living, particularly for housing. As unhip as they may seem, it is these cities that present a model for how urban America can not only rejuvenate itself, but rejuvenate America’s central promise of upward mobility as well.
Cities of Aspiration
Surveying the urban landscape, one lesson of the past few years starts to become clear: It is hip to be square. In an age of loft condos and lattes, the least-appreciated American urban form may turn out to be the one that still best adheres to the traditional role of cities as generators of upward mobility. These are the new Sunbelt cities—places like Houston, Charlotte, Orlando, and Phoenix—whose sprawl and rough edges often elicit derision from traditional urbanists, even as they attract newcomers and create middle-class jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities. Between 1994 and 2005, the Phoenix area expanded its job base by 52 percent, Orlando by 48 percent, Charlotte by 31 percent, and Houston by 25 percent. In comparison, New York and greater Chicago expanded by only single digits, while the Cleveland, Baltimore, and Philadelphia areas all lost jobs.
The differentials in housing are, if anything, starker. In cities like San Francisco, less than one tenth of households can afford a median priced home; in Phoenix, one-third can do so, as can over half in Dallas, San Antonio, Charlotte, and Houston. Of course, one can argue that there are cities with even lower housing costs, notably in the depressed Midwest. But unlike those old industrial centers, the Sunbelt cities are in a rapid growth mode, creating large numbers of new jobs while attracting new residents both domestically and, increasingly, from abroad.
What drives the growth of these cities are the very aspirations that have created great urban centers throughout history. Phoenix and Houston, in terms of their job growth and appeal to those seeking a better life, resemble New York, San Francisco, Chicago, or Pittsburgh at the turn of the last century. Like the great American boomtowns of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, today’s aspirational cities are protean, being constantly redefined by newcomers. In fact, almost a third of all Phoenix residents, according to the 2000 Census, arrived only five years ago or less. The prototypical Phoenician, or Houstonian, like their counterpart in New York a century earlier, is often someone who came with little more than hopes to create a better life. “We came with nothing. We came here because it had wealth that was increasing. You can find opportunities,” Phoenix entrepreneur Deb Weidenhamer told me. “People come here for a new start and come with ambitions. . . . Longevity here doesn’t matter here. You can be here 10 years and it’s like you’re an old fogey—on the East Coast you’d be like a newcomer.”
Equally important, the lower cost of living in most aspirational cities translates into a better life, including for professionals. San Francisco and Silicon Valley may generate higher wages in fields like software of financial services, but weighted against the cost of living, Phoenix, Dallas, and Houston actually deliver to their workers, in real terms, higher purchasing power.
Towards a New Urban Strategy: Back to Basics
Late-twentieth-century cities like Houston, Phoenix, Charlotte, or Dallas were essentially built to meet the tastes of the mass of Americans for a detached house, a yard, and an automobile commute. They also enjoy, for the most part, more up-to-date infrastructure, such as major airports surrounded by lots of land allowing for expansion, which is increasingly critical to urban growth.
Perhaps the most spectacular example of this approach (back to basics) can be found in Houston. For decades, the city has focused largely on the fundamentals of growth, pressing relentlessly to dredge its harbor, improve drainage, and construct state-of-the-art industrial facilities. With a gritty efficiency, the city has transformed itself into a major global center, assuming leadership of the world’s energy industry and quietly built the world largest medical complex. [Full disclosure: I am a working on a project about the future of Houston for the Greater Houston Partnership (Tory: as am I). I have also worked on projects in Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, among other cities, all of which, along with Houston, I feel free to criticize.]
This did not happen by coincidence. During the 1990s, Bob Lanier, the son of an oil refinery worker who grew up in nearby Baytown, served as mayor. When he took office, the city was in deep trouble; it had lost 200,000 jobs in the near-total economic meltdown after the energy bust of the 1980s. Its once proud skyline was filled with “see through” towers, empty of workers. Lanier, a former developer and lifelong Democrat, helped turn the city around by doing the little things and doing them right, such as filling potholes, streamlining regulations, reducing crime, and improving services to the city’s varied neighborhoods. Most of all, Lanier focused on infrastructure: roads, sewers, and cleaning the streets. At a time when many cities have chosen to eschew road building and actually encourage gridlock, sometimes with the hope of forcing greater densification, Houston has chosen to build new roads, including tollways, as well as an expanding mass-transit system. As a result, it is among the few major American cities to see commute times diminish over the past decade. (Actually, based on the TTI data I remember, I think they have diminished compared to the early 80s, the peak of the last oil boom, when we were the worst in the nation, but I'm not sure they've improved since '96. Still, we've done substantially better than pretty much all other major metros - not to mention many smaller metros - at restraining congestion growth.)
This is not to say Houston is without problems. It has higher than average rates of poverty and large areas of poor housing. It is also struggling to accommodate upwards of a 100,000 Katrina evacuees, many of them poor African Americans. Yet what has come out clearly in scores of interviews and discussions with a broad array of Houstonians — from business leaders and current Mayor Bill White to community activists and Katrina refugees—is that many residents regard opportunity as their city’s primary attribute. Certainly, people do not move primarily to humid and flat Houston for the weather or topography; they come largely for the chance to succeed.
The Future of American Cities
Ultimately, the critical question for cities boils down to what essential purpose they should serve. Are cities to become, as H.G. Wells predicted over a century ago, largely entertainment districts—what he called “places of concourse and rendezvous”? Or have cities, as George Gilder has argued, been rendered irrelevant as economic units by technology? After all, a broadband hook-up in Bismarck, North Dakota is just as connected to the world economy as one in Brooklyn. It could well be that our major cities, under current trends, will devolve into socially bifurcated regions increasingly irrelevant to America’s mainstream political culture, islands of ultra-affluence and poverty, many of whose residents are either temporary or part-time.
As a lifelong urban dweller, I don’t believe our cities’ best days must lie behind them — particularly if we are to include more-sprawling, multi-polar cities such as Phoenix or Houston. Cities still possess many critical assets such as historic neighborhoods, freight and rail connections, major hospitals, universities, and research institutions, which make them invaluable assets to the surrounding regions and the nation as a whole. There are also intangible assets that make the fate of cities critical to the future of the republic. For one thing, they are repositories of much of our historical memory; no matter how much the suburbs and exurbs evolve, they are unlikely to provide the sense of place and cultural focus that resides in the urban core. This is most true in older cities, like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, but also, to a much more limited extent, the case in younger, more vital places like Houston, Dallas, and Charlotte.
And as our aspirational cities today show, America’s urban centers can still be, with the right leadership and smart policies, the engines of upward mobility that have powered this country for the past century. But to do so they must pursue such basic strategies as encouraging entrepreneurial growth, reducing regulatory and tax barriers to business, creating efficient transportation systems, improving education, and prioritizing public safety and public open space. It would be far better to spend the hundred of millions now wasted by many cities on convention centers, boutique hotels, performing arts centers, and subsidized condo development on these more essential services, the true sinews of an expanding urban economy.
To be sure, fancy bookstores, organic markets, sushi bars, and art galleries are important parts of urban life, but they only represent a critical factor for a small slice of the population. And they will come along naturally, as arts and amenities tend to, with economic growth and wealth creation; focusing on amenities first gets the urban equation completely backward.
Great cities are about many things, but none more than being a place for a broad spectrum of people to improve their lives and that of their families. Great cities are about real diversity of ages, family types, and incomes—not just agglomerations of the affluent and those who serve them. What we want for our cities is what we should want for our country as a whole: to be a place of great opportunity, hope and a better life, particularly for those for whom this is still part of their American dream.