Monday, August 20, 2007

Why city growth and size matters

Houston is lucky in that we still have a generally positive attitude towards growth, although I see that attitude weakening every year as the burdens mount on our transportation, health care, and education systems (among others). Many cities on the east and west coasts are strongly in the anti-growth camp at this point, which is why it's good to remind people from time to time why growth is good, and worth the hassles it brings.

Excerpting from an excerpt of a study by the Santa Fe Institute, famous for their modeling of complex systems:
Cities have an almost magical ability, spurred by increased human interaction, to stimulate innovation and increase wealth.
In other words, if the number of city denizens doubles, these factors—both negative (crime) and positive (wealth creation, total wages and gross domestic product)—will more than double.
As cities get larger, they create more wealth, and they are more innovative at a faster rate.
What was surprising to the team was that the creative output (jobs, wealth generated and innovation), as cities grow, becomes faster and faster per capita.
The problem is that these benefits of growth are hidden, while the costs are directly in our face on a daily basis, making it all the more important for government officials and others to keep reminding citizens of the gains, as well as convince voters to pay for the infrastructure necessary to support it.

As I finished writing this post, it felt a little familiar, and a little research uncovered that I already wrote about it in February, where I actually gave a longer excerpt and went into more depth on the implications (which sparked quite a stream of comments). My tip came from the Creative Class blog in both instances, so it looks like they also posted on it twice. Oh well, as they say in advertising: repeat, repeat, repeat to get your message across...

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At 5:51 PM, August 20, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Hmm, I cannot think of a single city that is "anti-growth".

At 6:19 PM, August 20, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

In the major coastal cities, not only do polls show an aversion to growth, very harsh development regulations actively fight it.

At 7:14 PM, August 20, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

But when you say growth, you mean polls asking about "sprawl". Sprawl is just one means of achieving growth. Cities on the coasts are also more mature than Houston, and are encouraging different types of growth - more dense growth. Even Houston is seeing more of these efforts inside the loop with more dense development, more attempts at historic preservation. Attempted regulation includes proposals to make developers pay for or include park lands / green space in their developments.

I think there is probably a natural curve here - as a young city, it is "anything goes", wild west attitude. As you become a major metropolis, there are a lot of vested interests - including both developers, as well as citizens. Gradually, the citizens become more powerful and can choose to have "smart growth" or "no growth" versus "sprawl".

At 9:45 PM, August 20, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think planners in those cities would like to see high-density growth, but the reality is no-growth from the articles I've seen. The planners shut down the low-density growth, and citizen protests shut down most potential high-density growth. As the tongue-in-cheek saying goes, "people hate two things: sprawl, and density."

At 9:41 AM, August 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hear the catch phrase "smart growth" and "sustainable development" all the time. What I really hear is anti-growth or non-market oriented development.

Also, "smart growth" cities are more entrenched with big developers because they are the only ones who can effectively navigate the regulations (or avoid them through variance and influence zoning boards).

Also, Michael, any city that consistent avoids development that the population wants to build what planners want would be anti-growth in the market realm. Sure, the planners want growth, but only on their terms (and even that sense of growth is questionable).

At 10:45 AM, August 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As Edward Abbey noted, growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.

Some of the responses to your post are pointing to the need for more precision than a statement like "remind[ing] people why growth is good," because while some forms of growth may yield benefits for a broad array of stakeholders, others may not at all and could even be broadly detrimental.

At 12:37 PM, August 21, 2007, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

It is so unfortunate that many planners blame free markets for the perverse effects of non-market rules.

1) End set back rules to encourage pedestrian accessible development. I have seen virtually no one defend this rule.
2) Allow commercial properties to “bank” parking spaces down the street or in a parking garage so that commercial properties can be closer together and have more pedestrian accessibility.
3) Allow developers to “bank” retention ponds in a nearby designated wetlands area to encourage density, eliminate wasted space and the often unsightly chain-link fence surrounding these retention ponds.

At 3:52 PM, August 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In the major coastal cities, not only do polls show an aversion to growth, very harsh development regulations actively fight it."

Don't you think the people who live there know what's best for them? Most of these cities have run out of easily developable land, and are trying to preserve scenic natural areas. There are other important things besides just growth.

"repeat, repeat, repeat to get your message across..."

That strategy is pretty evident in this blog.

At 4:32 PM, August 22, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, these tradeoffs need to be made. But people need to also understand the benefits of growth to make those tradeoffs intelligently - thus this post.

At 9:08 AM, August 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike, is it the people who are deciding this or some overly powerful planning/zoning commission panel.

Many of these development restrictive cities are forcing the development that people want to move further out. The stringent development restrictions(although not the only cause) will force sprawl in many cities that are actively trying to stop it.

At 7:45 PM, August 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The problem that I mentioned is not cities pushing development out, it's cities running out of room. Cities like Boston, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles are not surrounded by the infinite flat land that Houston is surrounded by.

Why do you guys think that all the growth is happening in metropolises like Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta, while the coastal metropolises have plateaued? Do you think that it's because the people of the first four cities are just more enlightened as to the advantages of growth? Or is it because they're surrounded by cheap open land, and the coastal cities aren't?

Lastly, I've never heard anyone in the above cities complain about oppressive zoning boards.


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