Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Urban Legends: Cities Aren't Doing As Well As You Think

Joel Kotkin has a new essay on how many cities are focusing on glitz - stadiums, convention centers, hip downtowns - and getting good publicity for it, rather than the basics of good city management: infrastructure and education. He addresses 3 urban myths:
  1. Myth: Cities are gaining people
  2. Myth: Cities are where the successful people are
  3. Myth: Cool cities attract the best jobs; uncool cities don't
(It's important to understand that when he uses the word "city", he's referring to the urban core of a metro area, not including its suburbs and exurbs.)

I do want to disagree with one of his points:
"The idea that Cleveland and Oklahoma City, much less Detroit and Kalamazoo, can out-compete New York, San Francisco, London, or Paris on a hipness scale is simply bizarre. These cities will never win the battle for the dollars or affections of the young, the nomadic rich, and tourists."

I think you could probably include Houston in that list of cities, but I think he misses the point. We're not trying to match cities like New York and San Francisco, just "close the gap" enough to hold on to residents, especially younger ones, as well as make local corporate recruiting easier. As an example, Houston's theater and museum scenes certainly don't match New York, but they're "good enough" for all but the most sophisticated tastes. If we didn't have them, we would certainly lose more young people and have a harder time recruiting employees to local companies, but we've built them up enough to meet the vast majority of people's needs.

His conclusion:

"Cities must return to a progressive focus on fixing their real problems--that is, the problems of the majority of the people who live there--not serving the interests of artists, hipsters, and their wealthy patrons. Right now school reform is often hostage to the power of teachers' unions. City budgets, which could be applied to improving economic infrastructure, are frequently bloated by, among other things, excessive public sector employment and overgenerous pensions. In the contest for the remaining public funds, the knitted interests of downtown property holders, arts foundations, sports promoters, and nightclub owners often overwhelm those of more conventional small businesses and family-oriented neighborhoods that could serve as havens for the middle class.

Ultimately, a new urban progressivism must challenge this power axis. It would force local governments to focus on the most important historical work of cities: the transformation of newcomers to America into successful, middle-class citizens. This has underlain the emergence of all great modern cities, from fifteenth-century Venice to seventeenth-century Amsterdam to twentieth-century New York. The American metropolis can be more than a way station for the wealthy young and part-time destination for the nomadic rich. It can be a place where average people live, thrive, and build communities across lines of race and class. Now that would be a cool city."

To be honest, I actually think Houston is doing many of the right things he's talking about. Yeah, we have gotten caught up in some of the glitz: stadiums, convention centers, a hip downtown - but we've also been pretty diligent on improving infrastructure and education. It's important we don't get the "grass is greener" envy problem and forget those real priorities that we're handling pretty well right now. It's easy to neglect your strengths until one day you wake up... and they're gone.


At 1:39 PM, May 25, 2005, Blogger David Sucher said...

I wonder what cities Kotkins is talking about...you notice that he offers no facts or numbers but just vague accusations.

At 9:33 AM, May 27, 2005, Blogger John Whiteside said...

One of the things that Houston has, but outsiders tend not to know about, is the kind of interesting local culture and diversity that people like Richard Florida talk about. If Houston were just cheap housing and warm weather lots of people who are here (including me) would be fleeing to more expensive and interesting places. I always find it funny to hear Austin talked about as a big center of creativity when Houston actually has 10 times as much going on.

The local theater/art scene (as opposed to the official big-ticket places) here in Houston compares very favorably with Boston and DC, two cities I've lived in that are always considered on the forefront on hip & cool (which in the case of DC is extremely funny, IMHO).

At 4:11 PM, May 27, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree, and we actually rank pretty high (#7) in his creative class rankings. But when I read his articles or interviews, he *never* uses Houston as an example, because the conventional wisdom is that Houston is not a creative class city, and he probably thinks it would hurt his credibility to say it.

Earlier post:

At 3:44 PM, June 21, 2005, Blogger Andrew said...

Preception is reality and Houston with Andrea Yates, Enron, and a repution for being overweight, sweaty, and dumb. Will never ever be considered anything but a podunk hick town. We don't have successful tv shows or movies named after us or filmed here, we don't have sports teams that win regularly or even with championships, and we don't have beautiful landscapes.
So we in Houston will have to be satified with being 2nd class.


Post a Comment

<< Home