Monday, January 21, 2013

What the Urbanophile and I believe about cities

Last month The Urbanophile posted his statement of beliefs about cities, and a lot of them resonated with me about Houston.  Here are some favorite excerpts along with my own thoughts.
* Great cities, like great wines, have to express their terroir. There is no one-size-fits-all model of urban success. Our cities are as diverse as their citizenry. To succeed, they need to express their own essential and unique character.  
 This is why you always have to be skeptical when somebody says something like "For Houston to be world class we have to do X like city Y."  I believe that especially applies to heavy rail commuter transit in our decentralized, car-based city, but it also applies to recent questions like "Why can't Houston have downtown retail like Chicago's Magnificent Mile or New York's Fifth Avenue?"  Because we're not like them, and we already have our pedestrian-oriented upscale shopping district: it's called The Galleria, one of the largest malls in the country, and with plenty of parking and climate control to boot!
* Don’t try to beat other cities at their game. Instead, make them beat you at yours. Cities are unique – yours included. Instead of fretting about measuring up to the planet’s elite metropoli or trying to emulate them, cities should figure out their unique strengths that other places can’t match.
Hear, hear! To quote an old post of mine: "Houston starts the 21st-century with a set of amenities 99% of the planet’s cities would kill for: a vibrant core with several hundred thousand jobs; a profitable and growing set of major industry clusters (Energy, the Texas Medical Center, the Port); the second-most Fortune 500 headquarters in the country (26); top-notch museums, festivals, theater, arts and cultural organizations; major league sports and stadiums; a revitalized downtown; astonishing affordability (especially housing); a culture of openness, friendliness, opportunity, and charity (reinforced by Katrina); global diversity; a young and growing population; progressiveness; entrepreneurial energy and optimism; efficient and business-friendly local government; regional unity; a smorgasbord of tasty and inexpensive international restaurants; and tremendous mobility infrastructure (including the freeway and transit networks, railroads, the port, and a set of truly world-class hub airports)."
* It says something powerful about a city when people vote with their feet to move there, to plant their flag, to seek their fortune. There is no more telling statistic about a place than in-migration. It’s important to know if people are moving into or out of a city–and why.
The most ignored statistic of the creative class city boosters, because their idols - NYC, Boston, Chicago, SF, LA - fail horribly on it.
* Moreover, new blood isn’t just nice to have, it’s essential. In an ever-more globalized, rapidly changing, competitive world, a city’s best interests are not served by being populated with people who’ve never lived anywhere else.
 Points for our global diversity.
* But it isn’t just about the best and brightest, either. Attracting the educated is important, but cities are also where the poor come to become middle class, where immigrants come to build a better future for themselves and their families. Their needs must be taken up, too–and equally.
Hallelujah for Opportunity Urbanism (and more here).
* A great city needs great suburbs. To pull our cities up, there’s no need to tear our suburbs down. To be successful in the modern era, its important for every part of a metropolitan region to thrive and bring its “A game”. 
* “Building on assets” is a trap. The only reason we have any man-made assets in the first place is that previous generations of leaders didn’t follow that strategy. Only building on assets is a strategy about defending the past, not embracing the future. It is the spending down of our urban inheritance. Yes, leverage assets, but also add totally new things to the pot for future generations.
Absolutely.
* We need to look forward, not backward. There is no more corrosive force than nostalgia. We should know where we’ve come from and what we stand for. But we can’t become imprisoned by a yearning for an imagined past that never really was.
* We need to embrace a 21st century vision of urbanism. Urbanism – Yes, but trying to copy Greenwich Village 1950 is not the answer. To find it, we must boldly re-imagine the possibilities of what a city can be and bravely identify what works today-and what doesn’t.
Yep - time to rethink Jane Jacobs.
* We don’t know where this ride is taking us. We’re at a pivotal time in America’s urban history. So much is changing, and more change is yet to come. For our own sake, we should not assume that we’ve arrived where we’re headed, or that we have the answers. If there’s one thing we should take away from the urban planning failures of the past, it is a strong dose of humility.
"Planning for utopia" doesn't work.  Cities need the freedom to evolve organically.

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10 Comments:

At 2:45 AM, January 23, 2013, Blogger Rail Claimore said...

The "building on assets" part resonates with me, having been to most of the largest metropolitan areas in the country now. Most of them are doing just that and are now content with either mediocrity or slow growth. This is not only the prevalent attitude in most of the Creative Class cities, but it's something that's emphasized even in most Sunbelt cities like Atlanta and Dallas: they constantly talk about and trump their status as transportation hubs. While Houston has assets that these two cities will never have (the port), it doesn't feel the need to promote them so much. Instead, it looks for the next new thing, meaning it's not falling into that trap.

 
At 5:48 PM, January 24, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

OK, there were a couple of comments over at my twin blog that I laughed at so hard I had to share here:

http://blog.chron.com/opportunityurbanist/2013/01/what-the-urbanophile-and-i-believe-about-cities/#comments

First commentor:
The Galleria is pedestrian oriented? I guess that term has lost all meaning.

Reply:
I don't know about you, but I've never driven around in the galleria. In fact, it's almost like the entire mall was "designed for walking."

Hahahahahahahaha!!! :-D Clever response. Man, that cracked me up.

 
At 6:36 PM, January 31, 2013, Anonymous Mike said...

Tory, I don't suppose it will matter because you have recycled the same points for years, but a couple of comments:

-There's nothing wrong with imitating the best of other cities. In fact, almost every city in the world widely recognized as "great" has extensively looked to other cities to find out what they do best, and the same has been true of Houston - Hermann Park was our version of an Olmstedian park, Rice mimicked other college campuses, the Heights modeled Northeastern planning, etc. Saying Houston shouldn't borrow or learning anything from other cities because we're a low-cost census growth powerhouse is like saying Samsung shouldn't have learned anything from Apple, or GM from Ford.

-Case in point: a downtown shopping district. Why should Houston want a magnificent shopping avenue like Chicago or somewhere else, when we have the Galleria? you scornfully ask. Well Chicago has Woodfield Mall, which is bigger than the Galleria, but ask Chicagoans how many great memories they had at the mall. Whenever downtown Houston someday does come alive and have street traffic and that eclectic mixture of retail, cultural, and historic attractions that only a downtown can provide, I can't wait to ask people if they would trade it all to go back to just having the Galleria.

-This whole thing relies on a black and white approach - you're either with us or against us! Either you believe in Houston and therefore won't change or question anything, or you want to subvert it to be like the other cities! There's almost a cultural paranoia here - don't take anything from those overplanned Leftist cities; just one drop of their ilk can destroy our Purity of Essence! Come on, we're not Daniel in Babylon. We have many things to improve, even if we lead in population growth.

 
At 7:44 PM, January 31, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Of course I believe we can improve and learn from other cities, I just don't think "because other big cities do it" is a sufficient argument.

The Galleria argument is simply this: each major city tends to have one place where all the top luxury retailers concentrate, and ours is the Galleria. It has the critical mass, and will continue to have it. Wishing it was downtown is as pie in the sky as wishing we could move all the jobs and their towers from the other job centers to downtown and build radial spoke heavy rail to serve it - not going to happen.

 
At 9:01 AM, February 01, 2013, Anonymous Mike said...

Well, the fact that our downtown is one of the five largest cbd's in the country is reason enough to think that rail spokes would be successfully. Have you ever considered that the reason so much of our employment is spread out is because we don't have easier access to downtown? There are many practical advantages to having a business center that does not require a car to get to.

Not every city has one place where luxury retailers concentrate. In Dallas it's split between Northpark and their Galleria. Chicago has downtown and some very luxurious suburban malls, and downtown is split between State Street, Michigan Ave., and Oak Street. There's simply no reason why having the Galleria means we can't make Main St. great again. If you don't care to ever have more than shopping malls, that is fine, but you can allow the rest of us to try without carping from the sidelines.

 
At 2:18 PM, February 01, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

<7% of our jobs are downtown, which does not justify a many multi-billion dollar investment in heavy rail.

DC has tons of heavy rail to downtown, yet the bulk of the private sector jobs are around the beltway. SF has BART focused on downtown, yet almost all the job growth has been in suburban Silicon Valley.

Not requiring a car is not the same as rail. We have one of the most successful HOV express bus networks in the country, and it should be expanded.

Maybe downtown can develop some retail. I'm skeptical after watching it struggle the last couple of decades, esp. the Pavilions. As far as my "carping" goes, I'm simply trying to get the city to focus its resources where it's more likely to have success.

 
At 8:46 PM, February 01, 2013, Anonymous Mike said...

I thought only 1% of jobs were downtown? That was the stat given out repeatedly by rail opponents for years. Now it's less than 7%. Not bad when you consider that every grocery sacker, dry cleaner, and yard worker in our entire metropolitan area counts as a job. Downtown must cover only a percent of a percent of the land area in our MSA, and yet it has 7% of the jobs. Amazing.

Do you think the citizens of either DC or SF would be willing to give up their rail lines to downtown, since so much of their job growth has been in the suburbs? I wonder what someone in either of those cities would say to this idea.

Percentages do not matter as much as actual numbers. We have over 150,000 people working in downtown daily, one of the biggest in the country, despite having no other options to get there but car and bus! Think how many more people would work there if there were rail lines! You want to see job growth? Give people a way to get downtown without either having to sit and traffic or go to a park-and-ride, and suddenly those bland office centers on Katy Fwy. don't look so attractive to newly minted M.A.'s and J.D.'s.

 
At 10:06 PM, February 01, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Never heard the 1% stat, always heard the <7% stat, and that was a while ago. I'd bet ~5% now given widespread job growth the last few years, with not nearly as much downtown.

The DC and SF examples were to show that your point about building rail moving the jobs downtown has been tried, and it didn't work.

Even if we built the rail, people would still have to go to a park and ride, they would just be riding slower rail with multiple stops instead of a faster express bus.

 
At 9:59 AM, February 02, 2013, Anonymous Mike said...

If you never heard the 1% stat, you must not have been here during the 2003 Metro referendum campaign.

Are you saying that DC built rail in an effort to grow downtown employment, and it failed? Is this the narrative I would hear if I were to ask someone in DC?

Commuting by rail is simply more attractive than commuting by bus, HOV lane or not. There is a significant segment of the population that commutes by rail in Dallas, from Plano and Lewisville, that would not commute by bus. It's more attractive. I want to know where the numbers came from that said commuting by rail along existing heavy rail lines would cost "billions."

 
At 10:17 AM, February 02, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Your quote: "Have you ever considered that the reason so much of our employment is spread out is because we don't have easier access to downtown? "

I am simply saying that DC and SF have easy access to downtown, yet the bulk of their job growth is on the periphery.

With one or two exceptions, our existing heavy rail lines are full of freight and not available for commuter rail. This has been studied. We would have to build new lines, and they would definitely cost billions. Check the numbers at other cities that have done it.

 

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