Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Carroll on Houston's self-image

I'm back from Colorado and hope to put some Denver/Boulder city observations into a post soon. I've noticed a huge backlog of comments in my inbox, and also hope to get to them soon. Please be patient. The to-do list always seems overwhelming after a vacation, even a short one.

Today we have a guest post from Carroll Robinson, former City Councilmember and currently Associate Dean of External Affairs for Texas Southern University's Barbara Jordan – Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs. It talks about Houston's status as a great city. On a related side note, I came across a copy of "Monopoly: USA Greatest Cities Edition" this weekend in a Boulder games shop on the Pearl Street Mall. Guess what? Hasbro doesn't consider Houston a great city. San Antonio, Dallas, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Seattle, and St. Louis are, but not the fourth-largest city in the country. We get lumped with Detroit as the only cities in the top 12 metros to get left out. Needless to say, I was a little miffed. On to the op-ed:

Houston Let’s Show Them Who We Are

Carroll G. Robinson, Esq.*

Houston is a great city; it is not a small town or a bedroom community. It is a city full of generous people with great hearts who are active volunteers who care about their city, its people and its neighborhoods.

Houston is an old city (established in 1836) that is still growing and that is not as physically rundown (unattractive) as many of the old urban cities of the Mid-West or Northeast.

Despite all its detractors, Houston is a city blessed with great year-round weather. (Not great weather year round. No city has that.)

People complain that Houston has no planning and has no character because we have no zoning. That is just not true.

The character of Houston is opportunity. We may not have zoning, but we do have some land use regulations and there is planning. There is great cooperation between the public, private and civic sectors.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder (buyer?). If Houston lacked beauty and character, it would not be a city with a growing population of people moving in from other places across the country and from around the world.

Houston is ostracized for the impact on our community of being home to the heart of the nation’s energy and petro-chemical industry.

Which communities across the country are willing to give up their consumption of the energy and petro-chemical products produced in Texas to help reduce the level of our air pollution and its health effects on Houstonians?

Being able to walk around a town does not make it a great city. Nor does the presence of cars detract from the greatness of a city.

No one walks from one end of Manhattan to the other. No one walks from one end of Boston or Philadelphia or D.C. to the other.

Without their historic sites, no one would be visiting Boston or Philadelphia to walk around. In fact, most of the walking in those cities is confined to rather small geographic areas.

All the great cities in America are dominated by motor vehicles even where they have outstanding mass transit systems including rail.

Houston is a city of diverse neighborhoods inside the Loop and outside of it. Southwest Houston and Northeast Houston are two unique and distinct places in the city. Mid-Town is different from China Town on Bellaire. Downtown Houston is not the East End or Sunnyside Houston.

Each area of Houston has its own physical and historic character, beauty and needs.

Houston is a diverse and international city. It has one of the largest Hispanic, African-American, Asian, African and Caribbean populations in the nation.

It is home to an extraordinary number of minority entrepreneurs and businesses.

Houston is America’s gateway to Mexico and Latin, Central and South America. The Port of Houston is one of the busiest ports in the world and Houston has one of the busiest airport systems in the country.

Houston is a home to the arts and culture as well as The Texas Medical Center, one of the world’s greatest Medical Centers.

Houston is going to continue to grow and become more densely populated. Our rail system will grow, more of our neighborhoods will become more walkable and our air will get cleaner, and our city will get greener because Houstonians as a community, individuals, government, businesses, and civic organizations are committed to making our city a better place to live, work and raise a family now and in the future.

Its time to stop looking down at ourselves, to stop worrying about what people outside of the city are saying or writing about us.

Houston’s success has come from what we have done and continue to do, and not what others have said about our city. Our “can do” attitude is where our success will continue to come from.

The rest of America will know Houston is a great city when our children’s performance in school is the best in our nation. They will know Houston is a great city when our children are the healthiest in the nation. They will know Houston is a great city when we are the safest, cleanest, healthiest and among the greenest big cities in America.

Let’s get back to work showing America who we are in Houston and let’s stop worrying about what they say. Actions speak louder than words.


At 5:59 PM, July 05, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I believe Mayor White is pushing a "practical" green agenda pretty hard, inc. going after polluting refineries. Air quality is on an improving trend, although not as fast as some would like.

There are a lot of groups focused on quality of life, inc. the Mayor, the GHP, and Blueprint Houston - among others.

Trees for Houston and TXDoT work on planting more trees/landscaping.

HISD is one of the top urban school districts in the nation, but it has a long way to go. Still, they are headed in the right direction. And I see a moderate chance of school choice/competition getting passed in the next few years.

Violent crime is up since Katrina, but overall crime is down.

Fatter children: that's a national problem - not specific to Houston at all.

At 7:07 PM, July 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although there are many other interesting things to this discussion, I wanted to add a little to this point made by Tory:

"Fatter children: that's a national problem - not specific to Houston at all."

This is just not true. Houston is the fattest City in the country (granted we slip in and out of first place, but we're definitely up there), and recent research shows that urban sprawl causes obesity.

I found a website and an article that seem to illustrate this point well, although they do come from the hippie liberal powerhouses, the US Center for Disease Control and Forbes Magazine:

At 8:51 PM, July 05, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The fattest city ranking is just arbitrary crap. See

I think the sprawl-obesity link is inconclusive once you isolate for age, race, and other factors. Older people naturally buy homes for their families, and older people tend to be more overweight. When I was a kid, I got plenty of exercise living in suburbia because I rode my bike everywhere. Now kids get rides and spend more time playing video games. Obesity is driven by what you choose to eat and do - it's that simple. Govt shouldn't dictate our built environment for our health any more than they should ban unhealthy foods. See "Prohibition" for the last failed attempt to nanny-state our citizens' good health.

At 7:33 AM, July 06, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

If you assume society will get ever-wealthier and ever-more technologically sophisticated (which it has historically, and which I do firmly believe), then it's almost impossible to come up with a scenario where people give up personal vehicles run by whatever the best technology of the day is. How long they are run on oil and gas is an open question - although an in-depth piece in The Economist magazine in April lays out a compelling case for many more decades of energy under $100/barrel, whether oil, gas, tar sands, bioethanol, gas-to-liquids, coal-to-liquids, shale oil, or biodiesel.

Eventually, I think we could see highly-efficient solar panels - possibly on top of our own homes - that simply pull the hydrogen off of the water to fuel our vehicles. That would be a major economic transition for the energy industry and the city of Houston, but Houston's basic suburban form - not to mention most of America's - will remain unchanged. I would argue that Houston is the city best adapting to the personal-vehicle current reality and future with its mega-freeway investments, and cities clinging to the old forms are the ones not adapting and evolving.

At 10:36 AM, July 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a senior engineering manager for a major aerospace firm here in the Clear Lake area of Houston, I am familiar with the image that Houston has earned among well-paid, high-technology professionals, including scientists and engineers. Quite frankly, let's face some simple facts:

- We live in a "aesthetically-challenged" area. We have no scenic mountain vistas, pristine lakes, or beautiful white sand beaches.
- We have no zoning or effective architectural review standards and no political will to develop them.
- We abuse the very few natural features we have by building heavy industrial plants, erecting 1200-acre container ports and putting up 80-foot billboards along our waterfronts.
- The image we present to professionals is thus primarily associated with uncontrolled commercial and residential squalor, heavy industry, and belching petro-chem plants.
- Our poor air quality and environmental problems are fully documented. Not much is being done.
- We have a confiscatory and abusive system of property taxes that soak the suburbs to finance the municipal areas inside-the-Beltway.
- Our outlook towards many of these major issues is primarily love-it-or-leave-it.

Obviously we're not Colorado Springs or Laguna Beach, but trying to get high-tech professionals to move to Houston is clearly exacerbated by these types of factors, many of which are within our control.

Bob Maddocks
Clear Lake

At 11:30 AM, July 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

here's a pertinant article from today's chronicle:

At 10:03 PM, July 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, agreed with the above two posts. You can argue the benefits of Houston all you want, you can say that we're "evolving" because we build big freeways, but the fact that nobody with a degree from a good university wants to set foot in Houston (unless they are getting paid tons of money) says something.

Noone comes to Houston for Houston's sake. Our growth is driven by the fact that people can make money and buy a house here before moving/vacationing somewhere else. I've spent a lot of time defending Houston to people who have moved to Austin and think we are the pits, and sooner or later you realize, hey, people would not be saying so many bad things if there wasn't some truth to them.

But meanwhile you have these boosters who think a city is great if it has big freeways with low transit times. People who think that the ability to walk around and enjoy a city is outdated or irrelevant. People who think that you're a good place to live as long as you're getting bigger.

If we put our minds to it, we could get a lot accomplished, but I think we are in a state of denial, as evidenced by articles like this one. The ugliest thing I've seen is when people denigrate those who find fault with Houston with personal arguments. They say, Oh, it's just the liberals and weirdos who want to live in beautiful, transit-friendly cities with walkable neighborhoods. Pay them no mind. Their opinions aren't worth as much.

A great city satisfies people from all walks of life. A great city does not rely on a single formula. A great city has options. It is three-dimensional, not one-dimensional. It weighs the criticism of those outside it. It tries new things. Above all, it resists definitions. If anyone tries to say, "This is what makes Houston great, and we should limit ourselves to it," ignore them.

At 9:02 AM, July 08, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

College grads: we're not at the top of the list, but we still attract plenty - esp. from state schools in 500+ mile radius. Maybe not so much from the elite coastal schools. And the Chronicle article mentioned the change of perspective that happens as they hit 30 and need to afford a home and raise a family.

Austin certainly has some very nice aspects, and it would be nice if Houston had a piece of hill country with pretty lakes and streams, but, well, we don't. You've gotta do the best ya can with what ya got, and there are some efforts around the bayous, esp. near downtown. We do have the Heights, which seems a lot like a mini-Austin inside of Houston. And I will tell you there are criticisms of Austin: traffic worse than Houston in many ways, and many people get burned out on the Austin monoculture ("sameness in diversity") as they get towards their later 20s and mature a bit.

Freeways are not incompatible with walkable districts. Houston is trying to develop some, but it will take time, and we have a very pedestrian-hostile climate much of the year (heat is worse than the cold up north - you can bundle up for cold, nothing you can do against humid heat). Like the hill country comment above, you do the best ya can with the climate and topography you're given.

Agreed on the great city definition (which doesn't fit Austin, or Boulder, or Portland, or many other "attractive" cities, by the way - they have a "single formula"). But where I disagree is on the "limiting yourself to one definition" comment. It's not limiting. It's recognizing your strengths and playing them up, while minimizing your weaknesses (as we are currently trying to do with aesthetics and some walkable neighborhoods). A city is a series of tradeoffs, and if you seriously compromise your strengths to build up your weaknesses, that's a recipe for failure (same advice Peter Drucker gave to career building). Houston has to accept its climate and topography, and do the best it can within it. Absolutely no amount of money or effort can make us Austin or Boulder. We can learn from them, certainly, but it's folly to believe we can become them.

Our strengths, combined with a libertarian, lack-of-land-use controls culture has created quite the diverse and eclectic melting pot - the "satisfying people from all walks of life" you mention - and it is one of our great strengths vs. carefully controlled cities. The problem is, it's a very subtle strength that you have to spend a while here to appreciate. It doesn't hit you on a short trip - where all you think is "ugly, hot, sprawl". The truth about Houston - borne out by Klineberg's Houston Area Survey - is that people often have to be prodded to come here, but then they fall in love with the place and never want to leave. We have quite high satisfaction and optimism ratings. Certainly there are things we can do to improve first impressions, but we have to be careful not to compromise what we love in the process.

At 3:39 PM, July 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In terms of college grads, Houston doesn't even make a dent with students from the coasts-- Austin hits with most, and some financial people will not mind Dallas (though it seems they all prefer the coasts).

The problem is Houston cannot even outcompete Austin and Dallas for graduates from schools like Rice and UT. I attend med school here with a lot of Rice and UT students, and none of us plan on staying in Houston for longer than it is required-- and a lot of us grew up here.

Natural beauty is nice, but thats not really the issue here. Aside from Central Park, NYC isnt exactly an ecological paradise-- yet after Cali it seems to be the most desireable location. The issue is while cities like Charlotte and Portland emerge with more urban-style transit systems and encouraging of zoning/parks/planting trees, Houston is generally a treeless flatland with 10 lane highways.

This blog is all about what suburbanites want-- and I should know, I grew up in one of the Houston suburbs. Yet, the real growth and lifeblood of cities is the core once again, and that is where young professionals are locating to. Thus, Houston has become a city designed by old people for old people-- and that is not a good formula for sustainability.


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