Houston vs. how Americans want to liveDavid Brooks had an extremely insightful column last week in the NY Times on what Americans are looking for in their ideal living environment. I liked the opening in particular:
He then dissects the recent Pew study, noting that Americans are restless (most want to live elsewhere, especially to go West), that rural and suburban residents are happier with where they live than urbanites, and that cities are mostly attractive to the young, but far less so over the age of 35 (esp. NYC and LA). Continuing:
You may not know it to look at them, but urban planners are human and have dreams. One dream many share is that Americans will give up their love affair with suburban sprawl and will rediscover denser, more environmentally friendly, less auto-dependent ways of living.
Those dreams have been aroused over the past few months. The economic crisis has devastated the fast-growing developments on the far suburban fringe. Americans now taste the bitter fruit of their overconsumption.
The time has finally come, some writers are predicting, when Americans will finally repent. They’ll move back to the urban core. They will ride more bicycles, have smaller homes and tinier fridges and rediscover the joys of dense community — and maybe even superior beer.
America will, in short, finally begin to look a little more like Amsterdam.
Well, Amsterdam is a wonderful city, but Americans never seem to want to live there. And even now, in this moment of chastening pain, they don’t seem to want the Dutch option.
I previously discussed this survey in this post, noting that Houston scored in the middle of the pack and that it has a clear bias towards high-tourism cities that people are likely to have visited. But I still think Pew and Mr. Brooks are on to something here.
If you jumble together the five most popular American metro areas — Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Orlando and Tampa (how is Austin not on this list?) — you get an image of the American Dream circa 2009. These are places where you can imagine yourself with a stuffed garage — filled with skis, kayaks, soccer equipment, hiking boots and boating equipment. These are places you can imagine yourself leading an active outdoor lifestyle.
These are places (except for Orlando) where spectacular natural scenery is visible from medium-density residential neighborhoods, where the boundary between suburb and city is hard to detect. These are places with loose social structures and relative social equality, without the Ivy League status system of the Northeast or the star structure of L.A. These places are car-dependent and spread out, but they also have strong cultural identities and pedestrian meeting places. They offer at least the promise of friendlier neighborhoods, slower lifestyles and service-sector employment. They are neither traditional urban centers nor atomized suburban sprawl. They are not, except for Seattle, especially ideological, blue or red.
They offer the dream, so characteristic on this continent, of having it all: the machine and the garden. The wide-open space and the casual wardrobes.
Let's see how Houston measures up to these criteria:
- Yes: skis (water), soccer equipment, boating equipment, loose social structures and relative social equality, car-dependent and spread out, strong cultural identities, friendlier neighborhoods, service-sector employment, not ideological
- No: skis (snow), kayaks, hiking boots, spectacular natural scenery, pedestrian meeting places (does the Galleria count? Discovery Green?)
- Mixed: active outdoor lifestyle, wide-open space, casual wardrobes, slower lifestyles (we're considered a pretty fast-paced place, but there's still a lot of the leisurely old South here too)
I had a phone call with a friend today that moved from Houston to Phoenix for career and relationship reasons, and he's a big fan of Houston, but he positively gushed about the outdoor options in the mountains outside of Phoenix. Another friend of mine talked about the outdoor weekend focus of people in Austin. Not so much here. The outdoor lifestyle is only partially embraced here - mainly golf and boating. We just don't have inherently attractive topography or a summer climate you want to be outdoors in if air conditioning is an option. Neither we can do anything about.
But it does indicate we're on the right track with some of our quality-of-life initiatives: bayou parks and trails, more park space (including flood control), and encouraging and enabling mixed-use pedestrian-oriented developments where there is demand and near rail stops.
What are we missing? Well, I'd certainly vote for a more casual dress standard in our business community. Less of the suit-and-tie fest at Partnership events. We don't have to go all Hawaiian, but maybe Silicon Valley business casual is not a bad compromise standard (especially with our summers).
On the other hand, Xanax in the water supply seems unlikely, and I know of no technology yet for affordably constructing mountains. Maybe a future job for our nanotechnology pioneers and their first swarm of solar-powered self-replicating nanobots... ;-) then they can move on to the weather problem...