Thursday, June 14, 2007

Responding to critics on Opportunity Urbanism

There's been a lot of positive feedback on both the Opportunity Urbanism report and my op-ed last Sunday, but there has also been some criticism and a bit of confusion, which I'm hoping to clear up in this post.

The confusion aspect finally became clear to me yesterday. Joel, the team and I wrote Opportunity Urbanism as a way to say to other cities, "hey, you can learn something positive from what's going on in Houston." If Portland is the paragon for smart growth and new urbanism, we wanted Houston to be known as the same thing for opportunity urbanism. That doesn't mean there aren't sprawling suburbs and opportunity in Portland (there are), and it also doesn't mean that Houston doesn't or can't have rail transit and mixed-use urbanism (it can and will) - but each city has a different strength or brand that they're known for.

The problem is that our report was interpreted as a comprehensive strategy for Houston, which it was never intended to be. In fact, we actively avoided going down that path, realizing that would virtually eliminate readership outside of Houston. And there was also broad agreement before we started the project that Houston didn't really need another strategy report: the major problems were well known, and strategies and solutions were already in various stages of development. So we spent a relatively minor part of the project and the report on those issues: education, air pollution, health care, parks, open space, and the ever-amorphous "quality of life." Later, education and workforce challenges got "beefed up" in the report because they are so integral to upward social mobility, but other issues were generally considered outside the scope of what we were trying to understand and convey to the outside world. Of course, if we were doing a strategy report for Houston, those issues would absolutely have gotten far more attention.

So the problem comes when people read it thinking they're looking at a strategy report for Houston, and it basically ignores key issues, and implies "everything's rosy - no changes here - set engines to cruise control" (with the exception of workforce education). I can see how people might get upset. I apologize for giving that impression, and, knowing what I know now, if I could go back a few weeks and do it over again, we'd roll it out much differently - making it far more clear that "Houston does this thing really well, and we want to tell the world about it, but this in no way lets Houston off the hook for its many challenges."

I think that broadly covers the criticisms. There is one point I want to directly address from Lisa Falkenberg's column:
Opportunity cities, by their very nature, Kotkin writes, may tend to attract and retain fewer educated and technically skilled workers, including immigrants and minorities.
I confirmed with Joel this was a wording mistake we should have caught. Clearly in the data and graphs, we show that opportunity cities are attracting more educated migrants than superstar cities (who are actually losing them on a net basis). But they may end up being a lower percentage of the overall population, because we also attract blue collar and immigrant workers. And that's a good thing. If Houston tomorrow shut down the ship channel, manufacturing and the construction industries, and evicted all those workers and their families from the city, we would clearly be far worse off for it. Our "percentage college educated" stat would look very nice, but it would obviously be a bad thing for Houston.

Hope that clears things up a bit.

Want to close with another link: the Houston Press has a nice interview transcript with Joel Kotkin on Houston and opportunity urbanism.



At 7:56 AM, June 15, 2007, Blogger Gavin said...

Thanks for the link to the Houston Press transcript. It provides some nice context about the study and where Kotkin is coming from. I wish this would have been published prior to the pie-in-the-sky op-ed on Sunday.

At 12:15 AM, June 16, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Here is a philosophical question:

Why are we so happy about the fact that Houston is growing, or that people coming here stand a good chance of making money and climbing up? Both of these are nice things, but if I am a longtime resident of Houston - if this is a city where I plan to stay and eventually die - wouldn't I be much more concerned with quality of life issues? Nice neighborhoods, pleasant roadways, abundant recreation and leisure opportunities, etc.? Shouldn't I want my city to be as cool, hip, and exciting as possible?

Growth demographics are nice from an investor's perspective, or for someone playing some sort of imaginary Risk game in which you want Houston to become the biggest, most powerful city, but from an actual resident's perspective, who cares?

(And yes, I realize that a healthy growth rate helps bring about those other things, but in that case it's a means to an end, not the end in itself.)

At 9:03 AM, June 16, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Good question. Several answers. First, in my op-ed I noted that studies have shown larger cities generate more wealth, innovation, and opportunities *per capita*. So growth helps the existing residents too, not to mention their children and grandchildren.

Second, we are not against any of the things you describe. They are absolutely important and the city should be working on them. Of course, that requires a strong, growing economy and a robust, growing tax base - along with plenty of private discretionary income to support those things.

Where the logic has gotten messed up is cities believing they should focus on QoL/hip/cool first, and economic growth will follow, when it actually happens in reverse: economic growth and opportunity are the necessary foundation to support QoL/hip/cool.

Lastly, for the vast majority of people, their *real* quality of life is directly linked to their opportunity and discretionary income. It's the real core. The other stuff we lump under the "quality of life" label is icing on the cake. For one real world example, take a look at Paris, probably considered one of the top "quality of life" cities on the planet, yet filled with discontent and even the occasional riot because of economic and opportunity weaknesses.

At 11:35 AM, June 16, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

I understand your reply. It seems though that things like growth are still just a means to the most important end, which is the quality of life that Houston offers its residents. I realize that the goals are not contradictory, but it seems like the message I am getting here is, "Be satisfied that Houston is growing; worrying about quality of life is just for people with an inferiority complex."

At 11:52 AM, June 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mike,

From my perpective the main issue for a city such as Houston is the creation of Jobs and opportunities for ALL its citizens, including the possible millions who will immigrant soon. Alot of people will be moving to Houston in the coming decades, many of them have been forced out of other places that didn't offer basic things like running water, reliable electricity, paved streets etc. Houston does not exist in bubble and is not insulated from the rest of the world. Maybe if Houston was an island in a remote corner of the continent things would be different.
I speak from the perspective of someone who is involved with lower income Mexican immigrant families. Alot of these people cannot afford and are not interested in luxurious extras. They need basic educational opportuniites that are connected to job opportunities. Owning a home, even if it is modest is a great stabilizing power for a family. The most important issue is to coordinate and promote education, jobs and housing in the optimal fashion to allow ALL residents to live with dignity and hope. Fancy arts districts are good, but hopefully entrepenuers and philanthropists can pitch in with those things.

At 12:24 PM, June 16, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> the message I am getting here is, "Be satisfied that Houston is growing; worrying about quality of life is just for people with an inferiority complex."

Not the case. More like "Houston has an amazing strength as an opportunity city - let's be careful not to jeopardize that system as we improve QoL issues." Those risks/threats are things like not investing enough in mobility (especially car, but also transit), aggressive land use controls driving up costs, or raising taxes for QoL public investments that people don't really want to pay that much for (a debatable gray area, of course).

At 5:58 PM, June 16, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Since when is Houston in danger of not investing enough in mobility, aggressive land use controls, or raising taxes for QoL issues?

Interesting to note that, while Dallas has zoning, cost of living there is only a hair more than it is in Houston. Meanwhile they have twice the growth rate that we do among domestic migrants, in large part because they've escaped our image of ugliness and disorder. If I were chiefly interested in making Houston grow bigger, my first objective would probably be more aggressive land use controls.

At 6:01 PM, June 16, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Dear anonymous,

I respect what you're doing for these less fortunate families. But you can't honestly expect me to want nothing more out of the city where I choose to make my home than that it be a haven for immigrants.

At 5:02 PM, June 18, 2007, Anonymous Brian Shelley said...

I was amused to read David Crossley’s Sunday Retort (or should I say Opinion Essay for derogatory effect) to Tory in the Chronicle. I’m sure I missed a couple of my economic classes, so let me try to dissect his key points. We should use public funds to create more public goods like aesthetic roadways and parks so that those who didn’t pay for these public goods can move to our city and consume those externalities. That seems silly, except that these new entrants will be the “creative class” that even though we have no proof, we know that they produce enormous externalities of their own that the masses will enjoy. Thus any city that courts the “creative class” will raise the income level of its residents and attract people from all walks of life to enjoy this virtuous cycle of externalities.

I know that this is an annoying encumbrance to a good economic story, but let’s look at the data to make sure we’re right. Hmmm…the cities that court the creative class seem to have stagnant population growth rates and have broad emigration outflows from lower income residents. Interesting…when you adjust for purchasing power parity we find that the average income in these cities is lower than in those cities that don’t suck up to the “creative class”. Wow…we find that income gaps are wider in those cities that suck up to the “creative class”. This implies that there is no benefit to the existing average wage citizen to sucking up to the creative class. That implies that the creative class produces insufficient externalities. It also implies that those who are less well off in sycophant cities are subsidizing the lifestyles of those who are at the very top of the income distribution.

At 7:28 PM, June 19, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...


What's wrong with using public funds to build nice roadways and parks?

Most of your analysis is a bit oversimplified. There are more differences between Houston and these cities you mention than just the decision to "cater to the creative class" (i.e. make the city beautiful). If you really want to compare Houston to a city that has tried harder to make itself attractive, and eliminate as many other outside variables as possible, try Dallas. They're growing faster than we are, their cost of living is barely above ours, and they've attracted a diverse array of companies rather than just relying on oil.


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