Monday, May 27, 2019

Should "Be Someone" be Houston's official motto?


Most Houstonians are familiar with Houston's most famous piece of graffiti, the "Be Someone" message in giant letters on the Union Pacific bridge over I45 north of downtown.  It's gone through a lot of iterations and defacement over the years, including recently, but the fact that it keeps coming back is a testament to its popularity.  Long ago I did a post here titled "What message is your city telling you?" discussing an essay by Paul Graham (of Y Combinator fame).  His basic theme is that each city has its own subtle message it's sending you about what's important and how you should direct your ambition.

Here are some of his examples:
  • New York: "You should make more money."
  • Boston/Cambridge: "You should be smarter." (or at least better read)
  • Silicon Valley: "You should be more powerful." (i.e. change the world)
"Cambridge as a result feels like a town whose main industry is ideas, while New York's is finance and Silicon Valley's is startups."
  • SF/Berkeley: "You should live better." (more conscientious, more civilized, better 'quality of life')
  • LA: "You should be more beautiful and famous."
  • DC: "You should know more important people."
  • Paris: "You should do things with more style."
  • London: "You should be more aristocratic." (higher class - although he says this signal is weaker than it used to be)
Here's the summary list of messages he came up with:
"So far the complete list of messages I've picked up from cities is: wealth, style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, economic power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life."
And here's what I came up with at the time for Houston:
"So what about our little town of hard working engineers and entrepreneurs? The city of Canion, Cooley, DeBakey, and a gaggle of energy and real estate mavericks? Well, I think we can rule out style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life. Wealth, maybe a bit, but I think the primary one is economic power - "You should be a bigger player in business." (even the business of medicine) We don't seem to care too much whether you're an entrepreneur, developer, or top executive - just so long as you're a big shot. And if you're not a big shot, the message is to become one by whatever path necessary - whether on your own or through a large organization. 
Maybe not the ideal message I'd choose (although not bad), but I think it's an accurate reflection of the culture of the city." 
Later my friend Anne suggested maybe "industriousness" is a better ambition message for Houston rather than "economic power", because it's more inclusive of people working hard in all sorts of endeavors, including nonprofits. Both of those certainly fit well with a "Be Someone" motto encouraging people to go out and make a difference in the world.

I think it would great for the city to embrace "Be Someone" as our official motto and start baking it into our identity as a city (cue the T-shirts).  It's a great message we could put just about everywhere.  A similar example of an inspiring motto is "Live a Great Story".  On a practical note, that probably means cleaning up the sign and protecting it from future defacement, maybe with a protective spray-paint-repelling clear coat and/or some sort of physical protective shield added to the bridge.  But the real value is beyond the sign itself, but in the collective sense of identity it can unify Houstonians around.

Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments...

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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

A new big-name urban planning book advocating the Houston model

I've been wanting to discuss this new contrarian urban planning book "Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities" by Alain Bertaud (former urban planner at the World Bank) for quite a while, since it's a ringing endorsement for Houston's model as well as my own concept of opportunity zones.  We are essentially the poster child for the policies advocated in this book.

Apologies in advance for the long post, but I promise you it is a great nutshell summary of a very long 432-page book you're being saved from reading! (unless you're an actual practicing urban planner, in which case the whole book is required reading)

The Antiplanner has some of the best excerpts in his review of the book, including a mention of Houston:
"Bertaud’s new book, Order without Design, reflects a lifetime of growing skepticism about urban planning dogma. Planners, says Bertaud, based their ideas on rules of thumb that were developed by people who often know nothing about the people they are regulating or planning for. 
For example, Bertaud shows that big cities are more productive because they have bigger labor markets, meaning employers and employees are more likely to find a match that needs their needs and skills. He also shows that the size of a labor market depends on commute times: only people located within an hour of a job center should be considered a part of the labor market. 
Urban planners who try to slow down commute speeds — either by getting people out of their cars and onto transit or by deliberately allowing congestion to grow to reducing driving — end up fracturing major urban areas into multiple smaller labor markets. Planners seek to turn urban areas into “urban villages” in which people both live and work, but such villages, says Bertaud, don’t exist: even though many suburbs have a jobs-housing balance, most people don’t work in the suburbs in which they live. All of these things reduce urban productivity. 
While there are no cities without planners, Bertaud points out that the world-wide range of cities goes from Houston, where there is almost no government intrusion into land markets, to some capital cities such as Brasilia, which were almost completely centrally planned. The comparative experiences within this range has persuaded Bertaud that cities that rely more on markets and less on planning to determine land uses are more affordable, more mobile, and more productive. This is an essential book in the Antiplanner’s library."
From Robert Poole at Reason:
"...one of Bertaud’s central insights: a metro area’s productivity “depends on its ability to maintain mobility as its built-up area grows.” In other words, the urban agglomeration benefits that increase the region’s productivity will continue “only if the transportation network is able to connect workers with firms and providers of goods and services with consumers.” The failure to manage the transportation network to maintain high mobility results in congestion. 
The bottom-line point of this discussion is that “the effective size of the labor market depends on travel time and the spatial distribution of jobs.” Bertaud cites empirical research on urban-area productivity and travel time in Europe, Korea, and the United States. In particular, citing two key research papers, he concludes that “workers’ mobility—their ability to reach a large number of potential jobs in as short a travel time as possible—is a key factor in increasing the productivity of large cities and the welfare of their workers. Large agglomerations of workers do not ensure high productivity in the absence of mobility.” Bertaud concludes that “the main objective of planning should be to increase the speed of transport as a city’s size increases.” 
These insights are expanded upon in much greater detail in the book’s longest chapter, on mobility (Chapter 5). I don’t have the space to summarize that, but a couple of key points are worthy of mention. First is that a poly-centric or widely dispersed pattern of job locations is more conducive to transportation that efficiently links workers to jobs than the 19th-century monocentric pattern, with a transport network focused on a “central business district.” Second, he explains that the trendy idea of “urban villages”—where people can live and work within walking or bicycling distance—is a recipe for stagnation. Yes, people might find “a” job in that village, but it is highly unlikely to be a high-productivity job. This planning policy would reduce, rather than increase, a metro area’s economic productivity."
From Wendell Cox at New Geography:
"Bertaud sees the restrictive land use planning regulations that have proliferated around the world as a major problem. He has particular criticism for urban containment policy, which outlaws or significantly restricts new housing on the urban fringe. He cites the extensive economic evidence associating urban containment with higher house prices.
...
His prescription for what planners should do is very simple:
'The main objective of the planner should be to maintain mobility and housing affordability as a city’s population increases and it diversifies its activities' 
...
Bertaud notes that 'The objective of an urban transport strategy should be to minimize the time required to reach the largest possible number of people, jobs, and amenities.'"
And finally, Nolan Gray in the City Journal:
"Though considered obvious among urban economists, the idea of cities as labor markets has enormous implications for the work of city planners. Take urban form: current city planners aspire to nudge residents into self-contained urban villages. But if we recognize productivity, and its resulting wealth, as a function of access to large labor markets, we’ll know that people will always travel well outside their local neighborhoods for work. Once city planners acknowledge this basic reality, they can get on with the work of supporting, rather than resisting, natural urban patterns—Bertaud wants planners to respect the natural choices of city dwellers.
...
Order without Design is a work with a clear vision for urban policy—a magnum opus from one of the twenty-first century’s great city planners. Similar to Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of the Great American City, Bertaud’s book manages to weave together theory and practice in a way that will be eye-opening to the curious urbanite and enriching to the practicing professional. If city planning has a future, its contours can almost certainly be found here."
Let's hope the book is read and adopted widely in the urban planning community and that they start seeing Houston as a model to emulate rather than avoid!

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

HTX tops for millennials, startups, and middle-class home affordability; Houspitality support, highway vs. rail cost-benefit

So a sad week here at Houston Strategies: I have a draft post where I keep ideas for future posts.  It had gotten quite long over the last 14 years, with tons of good thoughts and links whenever I had time to get to them.  Well, that all came to a crashing end last week when I discovered a Blogger quirk: if you open a post, paste in some content, realize it's not formatted right and accidentally hit Undo twice, it *wipes out the entire post* then auto-saves the blank version (and unlike Google Docs, Blogger does not keep a version history of posts).  Then I unwisely compounded the error trying to close the browser tab before the auto-save instead of just hitting the redo button.  Regardless, it's all gone now - 14 years of potential post ideas... 😳😢

Moving on to this week's items... lots of kudos for Houston this week!
"The region also has a reputation for welcoming newcomers, whether they’re from New York or New Zealand...a global city, with 90 consulates, two international airports, the second busiest seaport in the nation, and nearly 1,000 foreign-owned companies with HTX ops"
"Houston ranked among the top three cities in several specific areas, including diversity, ease of meeting new people, fair income taxes, everyday expenses, salary potential and amenities for children."
More details here, including some cool comparative graphs (hat tip to George). Houston is a pretty dominant #1, notably ahead of #2 Atlanta and #3 Dallas in the overall value graph (also notably ahead of #5 Austin!).
"In 2004, Denver-area voters approved a sale tax increase to pay for “FasTracks,” a plan to build 119 miles of rail transit lines in the metropolitan area. In 2008, California voters approved the sale of bonds to pay for the construction of a 520-mile high-speed rail line between Los Angeles/Anaheim and San Francisco/San Jose. FasTracks is within a metropolitan area and high-speed rail is supposed to connect several metropolitan areas, yet there are a lot of similarities between these two projects. 
Both rely on technologies that were rendered obsolete years before they received voter approval. The agencies sponsoring both projects ignored early warning signals that the projects were not cost effective. Both had large cost overruns. Advocates of both lied to voters about the benefits and costs of the projects. Due to poor planning, both projects remain incomplete. Despite the failure of the projects to date, both have adherents who hope to complete them."

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