Monday, August 08, 2005

Unity vs. fragmentation in metro areas

Otis White's Urban Notebook has a post on the cautionary case study of Detroit:

Beyond the ’Burbs - Postcards from the Edge

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Harvard business professor who writes occasionally about cities, says that to be successful cities need two things: magnets (things that draw outsiders to a place) and glue (things that keep them there). If so, Detroit is overdue for some Krazy Glue.

As the Detroit News reported recently, a growing number of residents are moving so far from the city that “the tenuous connections to Detroit have snapped. Residents have few economic, social and emotional connections to the city or to Detroit’s traditional suburbs.” The newspaper focused on Hartland Township, 58 miles from the city, which has more than doubled in population in the last 15 years. Most who’ve moved there aren’t city residents looking for a slice of suburbia but second- or third-generation suburbanites looking for ... something else.

Initially, that something else is a four-bedroom house on an acre of land for about what they’d pay for a three-bedroom tract house in suburban Birmingham or Livonia. But in time, the News reported, these exurbanites adapt to life in a place unattached to any city, leaving behind not only the cultural and sports attractions of Detroit but the restaurants and shopping malls of the suburbs. Eventually, as they stop reading the big-city newspapers, a kind of urban amnesia settles in. As one resident recalled, in four years of conversations with neighbors, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone mention Detroit.”

Detroit is, of course, an extreme case. As the News points out, the city’s business center is anemic, it lacks a modern transit system to funnel suburbanites back to the city and has zero chance of growing through annexation. Result: Today 74 percent of commuters in the region drive from one suburb to another; only 8 percent commute from the suburbs to the city. The economic center of the region has long since moved beyond the city limits. Today, 78 percent of jobs in the region are more than 10 miles from downtown Detroit — the highest percentage in the nation, the News reports.

But no place should be smug about these things, the newspaper added. “Exurbia is to the 21st century what suburbs were to the 20th century,” it said. And clearly the unattached exurbs will present regions with challenges even greater than earlier generations of suburbs did.

I think unity is one of Houston's great unacknowledged strengths. It's certainly an ephemeral concept, but I think the vast majority of people the metro area are comfortable saying they are Houstonians, whether they live inside the city limits or not (nobody says they're from "Southeast Texas"). Consider other cities' fragmented identities:
  • Dallas vs. Ft. Worth vs. the Metroplex vs. North Texas
  • San Francisco vs. San Jose vs. Oakland vs. Silicon Valley vs. the Bay Area
  • Los Angeles vs. Orange County vs. Riverside/SB vs. Southern California
  • Miami vs. Ft. Lauderdale vs. Palm Beach vs. South Florida
  • DC vs. Virginia vs. Maryland vs. Baltimore
  • Phoenix vs. Scottsdale vs. Mesa vs. Glendale vs. Arizona
A key indicator is if your sports team picks a name other than the core city, like the Texas Rangers, Golden State Warriors, Florida Marlins, or Arizona Cardinals or Diamondbacks. I'm sure a lot of Detroit teams would love to change their names to "Michigan [insert animal or car part here]" for marketing purposes, if they thought they could get away with it.

Other large cities that have been very good at keeping their identity and core focus are New York and Chicago.

I think Houston has been both lucky and smart. Lucky, in that we had few geographic barriers in all directions, so central Houston stayed relatively at the center as the population grew in all directions. We are also reasonably central within one large county rather than broken up among many counties like metro Atlanta or the SF Bay Area. This also helped keep most of the big name attractions in the core of Houston like stadiums and museums. Compare this to Dallas, where the center of gravity has shifted dramatically towards DFW airport, including 2 of the 3 major sports stadiums.

On the smart side, not only do we have annexation powers, we also invested heavily in freeways and HOV transit to the core, so employers stayed in the city instead of fleeing to the far suburbs and exurbs. As I've said before, when employers move 20-30 minutes out, employees then feel comfortable moving 20-30 minutes out beyond that where they can get a big house and plot of land uber-cheap, DC and Detroit being prime examples. When people live, work, and play outside of the core city, they stop really caring about it or identifying with it, and that includes no longer supporting core nonprofit museum, arts, or charitable organizations (another great strength of Houston).

Regional unity may not be the most tangible asset, but it's one we should definitely strive to maintain.


At 9:26 PM, August 08, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I lived in the DC area, this lack of regional identity was very noticable and disconcerting to me, especially having lived previously in Houston.

As you know, the DC world is divided into Northern Virginia, Maryland, and "The District", and those political boundaries meant that you cared a whole lot more about your own jurisdiction (mine was NoVa) than you did about the other two. That's no way to tackle regional problems.

With that said, I paused when I read the SF/Oakland/San Jose/Silicon Valley entry on your list. This might be the exception to the rule. Whereas I felt that DC/NoVA/MD were all fighting with each other, the Bay Area cities seem more like tiles in the same mosaic: they're different, but somehow they go together as a whole. There's not that same rivalry... does anyone who has actually lived out there care to comment?

At 10:21 PM, August 08, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Not first hand knowledge, but I have read that both Oakland and San Jose have a chip on their shoulder vs. San Francisco, especially San Jose. It's kind of like Ft. Worth being stuck in Dallas' shadow, except that San Jose is actually substantially larger than San Francisco in this case. But San Francisco draws the tourists and has been annointed king city of that metro area, and there's really not much San Jose, or Oakland, can do about it.

At 12:54 AM, August 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The idea that freeways are necessary to keep businesses from relocating to the suburbs only really applies to cities that compete with their suburbs for business (for example, L.A. only has 4 Fortune 500 companies within its city limits, but the L.A. metro area has many more than that).

But Houston's patterns of annexation mean that this will never be a problem. In Houston, a business that relocates from downtown to Hwy 6 and I-10 is still within the city limits. Anywhere else, a move of that distance means the city core has lost revenue.

At 3:02 AM, August 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I lived in Redwood City back in the early 1980's, and had an office off the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

It is true that there was more cooperation between the East Bay and the penninsula folks.

At 8:10 AM, August 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks, Tom, for the input. My half-baked theory about the Bay Area is this: The major cities and employment centers of the Bay Area don't really compete all that much with each other. They represent different niches. SF has the tourists/artists/major globabl office/banking areas, Oakland is more blue-collar/port/industrial employment, and San Jose and Silicon Valley are purely high-tech/venture capital. Sure, there's some overlap of course, but they're also pretty different. But when I think about other places on Tory's list - like the DFW Metroplex - there seems to be more commonality between the regional employment centers than differences, which adds to the fragmented competition.

Anyway, like I said, it's a half-baked theory, and I could be totally wrong.

At 9:20 AM, August 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Even though Arlington retained the auto manufacturing, the Metroplex was in a transition over the last decade.

With the loss of Delta Airlines at DFW, the winding down of SDI-related projects, and less military operations along with related manufacturing Tarrant County may have lost more commerce and industry than Dallas County. I will need to verify that factor.

Nevertheless, any significant losses may very well be off-set in the future as a result of the massive development by Ross Perot in the northeast part of Tarrant County.

AND, Jones is in the process of moving the Cowgirls from (Irving) Dallas County to (Arlington) Tarrant County which rekindles that fragmented competition you mention.

At 10:26 AM, August 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, SF/SJ/Oakland are too different to really be rivals. Just different scenes all around.

At 11:40 AM, August 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Tory. Right on the mark.I couldn't imagine any other name for our area but Houston or Greater Houston. "Metroplex"??? So sterile...might as well be Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroglob.

At 11:48 AM, August 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

kjb434 -

You probably know a lot more about Philadelphia than I do, but I was just reading that the city is having a building boom the likes of which has not been seen in over 75 years. Now that doesn't say anything about what is or is not happening to their regional economy, but this is the type of news that Detroit could only dream about.

Does anyone with knowledge of Philadelphia care to comment on the direction that city is taking... are they a rising star, treading water, or the next Detroit?

At 6:11 PM, August 09, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I've read that a very small core of central city Philly is doing pretty well (essentially micro-Manhattan, but a lot cheaper), but everything between there and the city limits is not in good shape.

And to the earlier Anonymous that said Houston's annexation powers mean we don't have to worry:
Don't forget, there's Sugar Land, Katy, Pearland, League City, and The Woodlands, plus the state might always take away the annexation powers if there's enough of an uprising.

At 7:10 PM, August 09, 2005, Blogger Matthew DesOrmeaux said...

Very interesting concept that many people don't ever think about. The first place I lived when I moved to the area was League City, but I always just said I lived in Houston when talking to friends.
While New York is mentioned as having a singular regional identity, I think there is substantial division there as well. One often hears Long Island, Manhattan, or other local districts instead of NYC as a whole. Converselly, the rest of the state seems to have a strangely singular identity: "upstate New York" instead of Rochester, Albany, et al.

At 4:57 PM, August 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The sports team name thing is actually a really outstanding standard. The proof has got to be in the semi-breach that the the New York Jets and the New York Giants both play in New Jersey, yet retain the NY.

I'm kind of wondering what that means about the Boston and the Patriots, but it is probably worth noting that the other two teams keep Boston in their names, and the history of the area meant that a lot of the land there was in non-Boston cities.

At 5:15 PM, August 10, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The New England Patriots are a great example of brilliant marketing: why settle for one city when you can claim 6 whole states? It also works because there aren't many home football games every year, so people are willing to drive a lot farther than they would to a baseball or basketball game.

I don't know much about Boston identity. It's small relative to the metro area, but there don't seem to be any strong competitor cities, so maybe people there are comfortable thinking of themselves as "Bostonians", which certainly sounds a lot better than "Eastern Massachusettsonians"... ;-)


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