Responding to critics on Opportunity UrbanismThere'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.
Labels: opportunity urbanism