Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Mayor White on what makes Houston special

Mayor White gave an amazingly thoughtful lecture to the Rice Design Alliance at the MFA this evening. His topic was what distinguishes Houston from other cities, and the resulting challenges. He laid out four primary differentiators:
  1. An Open and Diverse City. Friendly and welcoming, with people from all over the world. He used the word "open" over and over and over, which readers of my blog know is a pet theme of mine in Houston's identity.
  2. A Growing City of Opportunity. He noted the interdependence of the first two characteristics: if you aren't growing, then you tend to start seeing newcomers and neighbors as potential competitors for limited jobs and opportunity, and you stop being open and welcoming to them. He also rejected the false assertion that growth is incompatible with quality-of-life.
  3. Affordability. In a very flattering part of the speech, he spoke extensively about an analysis I did a couple years back showing that Houston has the highest discretionary incomes in the country (median income minus a standardized cost-of-living), and what that means for our citizens in terms of supporting quality of life, nonprofits, economic advancement, and city amenities.
  4. Our Political Culture. Minimal corruption vs. most other big cities. Easy construction permitting (vs. hoops, hurdles, bribes, and connections). Clean, open, transparent government. Working together to solve the public pension crisis. Political cooperation in general to get things done.
He then articulated two challenges:
  1. The hard work it takes to create a sense of unified community out of our diversity. Avoiding us vs. them thinking, ethnic tensions, and wedge issues that divide us. He pointed out that HISD is the largest urban school district in the country that hasn't had to have the Mayor take it over due to performance failure, because we've avoided the school board political meltdowns common in other cities. He also noted how Katrina helped solidify our cohesive identity as a city.
  2. How growth outruns planning, infrastructure, and quality-of-life. He thinks a lot of progress is being made in this area.
And a few miscellaneous points he made near the end:
  • The nature of our city leads to a wide diversity in the built environment. Accept it. If you don't like it, move to a city without diversity.
  • No neighborhood seems to want light rail or BRT on its street. They all want it a few blocks away.
  • We're in a global competition with other cities based on educated brains.
  • He's opposed to traditional zoning planning, and basically endorsed letting the market figure out where stuff belongs. He does like some standards though on things like signs and setbacks.
  • A little tongue-in-cheek dig that got a chuckle from the audience: "Urban planners think they know how everybody should live."
  • He seems to be comfortable with term limits, warning that long-term politicians get used to power and complacent. They stop really listening to the public with humility, and start to think they "know it all." He thinks the key to long-term strategic and tactical continuity in a city's development is based on embedding it broadly in our institutions and citizens, not through the authoritarian hand of a single political czar (like Mayor Riley in Charleston and Mayor Daley in Chicago).
That about taps out my notes. It was a wonderfully engaging speech - even without any visuals/slides - told with some good humor. We're really lucky to have him as our Mayor. Just ask Dallas.


At 3:33 PM, February 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where is the analysis you did posted?

At 5:25 PM, February 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No Mayor White, urban planners don't think they know how everybody should live! If this statement attributed to you is true, I find it most insulting.

In Houston, those with money, power and influence seem to know best how everyone should live. The poor have no voice in this city.

More importantly, you and the social elite have the ability to dictate how we should live and the power to enforce it. Your friends use the organs of government for their own benefit.

Sprawl is not growth, Mr. Mayor.
What does 'open' mean? 'Open' as in open season on the poor and politically weak in our city, perhaps? Everyone is not able to take advantage of whatever 'open' is. Land grabing gentrification of the inner loop is not 'open.'

Land use (traditional) zoning is a relic of the 19th century industrial age. Nobody with any sense wants that here. But what we do want is a visionary plan as to where we are going and how we ALL can get there together, sir.

Nobody will want BRT or light rail until gasoline goes to $10 a gallon. When Iran starts selling gas for Euros instead of dollars. (That is why Iran is in our crosshairs, not nuclear bombs.) Everyone will want to catch Metro as conflict with Venezuela, Nigeria and Iran destablize our way of life and as Chinese consumption continues to increase.

288 and the Beltway are obsolete. Why are we building subdivision after subdivision in the county and beyond without a real transportation plan, Mr. Mayor? Where's the energy plan for the city, Mayor? Houston's energy peek is in the summer, where's the plan, Mayor?

This, Mr. Mayor, is what us urban planners want to know. What is the vision? What is the plan? If you can't provide it, then let us help you. We cannot leave this up to happenstance.

My children's future is too important to leave it up to a roll of your dice.

At 6:18 PM, February 21, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think the vision is an open, adaptive, market-driven city of opportunity. A city where you have to freedom to follow your own path, rather than being dictated to by a city bureaucracy. A city where the poor can afford to buy their own home, and then cash out nicely if their neighborhood gentrifies (or even do pretty well if their neighborhood doesn't gentrify, but stays nice in a city that stays economically healthy and growing). It's a vision of freedom, not of control. If you want nth degree planning, move to the Woodlands (which is not a knock - it's very nice - but it's not what Houston aspires to be).

At 6:19 AM, February 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Try again...what you describe is not a vision or plan...what you describe are the characteristics of how the city works for SOME. In terms of the poor cashing out, well, it would be better described as kicked or forced out, since many did not own their housing in the first place. After they 'cash out' as you describe, the affordable housing stock is not being replaced once lost to our 'market driven' area with no vision or plan. If you want an example of bureaucracy, try to build some affordable housing in this city! It is easier for CDC's to get funding to build market priced housing than affordable housing for the poor, elderly or special needs.

The Woodlands is not Houston. Stick to the point. Bureaucracy is not the issue, zoning and planning to any degree is not the issue...a vision and a plan is. What will our city physically look like in 50-100 years?(i.e. housing, transportation, open space, wetlands, infrastructure, commercial, industrial, public and civic space) How do we achieve it?

At 2:08 PM, February 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


While the previous poster may have gotten a little too upset at a joke the Mayor made to a group of architects, your response cannot be forgiven so easily.

The poor do not have a vision of "cashing out nicely" when their neighborhood gentrifies. They want to own a home...period! In fact, until the late 90s, almost no one looked at their homes as a day-trading investment vehicle. It certainly was not the American Dream.

This recent phenomenon further erodes the fabric of a neighborhood. When a community is reduced to a collection of just so many real estate investors, there is no more least no more than you would call a group at a black jack table a fraternity.

The Dream is to own a home, not flip it. Your example is what's wrong with America, not what's right with it.

At 3:03 PM, February 22, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm not arguing for "house flipping", but studies have shown that the number one biggest factor globally in getting out of poverty is owning your own home. Not only does it force you to save and build equity, but, over time, it tends to go up in value (usually a little bit faster than inflation), so by the time you retire, you have a very substantial asset that you own outright: you can draw down that value with a home equity loan, or you can sell it and retire elsewhere.

A community is certainly more than a collection of real estate investors, but it is also very clear that ownership means more people are active in improving their community, as opposed to renters, who rarely take an interest in keeping things up.

I find the anti-gentrification trend confusing: so are we saying we only want neighborhoods in a city to go down in value or stay flat? That doesn't seem healthy for a city in the long term. If a neighborhood seems "in danger" of gentrifying, it seems that the right response - rather than yelling "Stop!" at the freight train of progress - is to work hard helping existing residents get financing to own their homes so they benefit from the appreciation. There are all sorts of programs to help the poor qualify for loans to buy a house.

At 3:10 PM, February 22, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

To "In defense of urban planners":

In entrepreneurship, there is a term called "opportunistic adaptation", which basically means "forget the plans, have a general direction/vision and jump on opportunities as they appear." At the pace society is changing/evolving, I think this has become a much more realistic scenario than long-term planning. I'm not saying "don't think ahead" - because that has value - but don't fantasize that you can control the future.

At 10:04 AM, April 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We need to be careful not to confuse political theory with what actually works in building a city. Market driven, private sector decisions work to some extent; public regulation and planning works to some extent. Neither is a panacea. Houston suffers because we don't do enough planning. Infrastructure investments are often poorly planned and not well coordinated. Does that mean we need to go to the other extreme and become a heavily regulated zoned city? No, of course not. We need to identify the areas in which we need more planning and develop the selective tools we need. Spouting platitudes about planning always being bad or always being good are not helpful. Planners have created some real messes---Cabrini Green in Chicago is a dramatic example---by allowing theory about how people should live to overcome historic patterns. Devotion to market theory and the myth that all current development patterns are people's choices without consideration of government influence and even subsidization on those choices has the same result. (Reflect that while master planned communities garner 5% of the market nationwide, they capture 35% in Houston region. Lots of people seem to be choosing more "regulation.") Particularly as we grow more dense and larger, more nuanced and practical judgment of when we need planning and of when we need regulation is superior to political platitudes.


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