Monday, March 17, 2008

America's next great world city (+ tourism proposal)

A while back, The American magazine asked urban historian Joel Kotkin to write a piece on America's next great world city. It took a little work, but he convinced the editors that Houston was the place, and now the article is out and available online. I highly encourage reading the whole thing, but here are my favorite excerpts:
Lone Star Rising

How a combination of ambition, entrepreneurship, trade, and tolerance made Houston America’s booming opportunity city.

None of this, however, adequately explains Houston’s ascendancy. Other cities enjoy better locations for shipping, richer agricultural resources, or similar proximity to oil fields. The answer, I have come to understand as I have worked in Houston as a reporter and consultant, echoes something that the late Soichiro Honda once told me: “More important than gold and diamonds are people.” This critical resource, more than anything, accounts for Houston’s headlong drive toward becoming not only the leading city of Texas and the South, but also a player on the global scene: it is emerging as one of the world’s great cities.
As Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg notes, roughly 80 percent of Houstonians, according to his annual local surveys, consistently agree with the proposition that “if they work hard, they can succeed here.”
In 1960, Houston was the home of hardly any major energy companies, ranking behind New York, Los Angeles, and even Tulsa; today, 16 large companies make their headquarters there, more than all those cities combined.

Rather than lapsing into a tailspin in the 1980s, Houston continued its rapid growth. A place with fewer than 300,000 people in 1930 is now a mega-region with a population nearing five million (actually 5.5+). The population of the metropolitan area itself, which did not even rank in the U.S. top 20 in 1940, is today the fourth largest in the country (not quite yet: 4th-largest city, but 6th-largest metro - probably 5th by the 2010 Census). The 2006 census estimate pegged Houston’s population at 2,144,491, only 700,000 behind third-place Chicago. In 1960, Houston was the home of just one Fortune 500 company; as of 2007, the area has 23. And the city is well positioned to benefit from its important place in the energy industry, a sector of the global economy that is only going to grow in strategic importance in the early 21st century.


Lauding Houston to urban planners is not much different than extolling red meat at a convention of vegans.

Ultimately, it’s a question of defining what makes a city great. Many city planners today focus largely on aesthetics, the arts, and the perception of being “cool.” Academics and many economic-development experts link urban success to cities’ appeal to the “creative class” of college-educated young people. In this calculus, the traditional practice of gauging a city’s success by studying patterns of population or employment growth, or noting the opportunities available for working-class or middle-class families to flourish, rarely registers as important.


Over the past decade, Houston, Phoenix, and Dallas each have matched the employment growth of New York, Boston, San Francisco, and the Silicon Valley area combined. One of the most powerful weapons of opportunity cities in this contest is the growing divergence in costs between them and “superstar” cities. The latter clearly provide somewhat higher wages to professional, financial, and engineering workers. Yet for most people, the vast differences in the cost of living and real estate prices allows professionals working in Phoenix, Charlotte, or Houston to enjoy a considerably higher standard of living.

Over time, these cost differences, as well as the associated continuing shift in employment opportunities, has begun to alter one of the most critical indicators of future economic growth: the flow of educated labor. Indeed, since the late 1990s there has been a rising outflow of workers with postsecondary education from increasingly expensive cities like Boston, New York, and San Francisco and a parallel shift toward more family-friendly, modestly priced metropolitan areas.

The Next Great World City?

Given these trends, it seems likely that the next great American city will emerge from the ranks of the opportunity cities. The ultimate winner will come from those that keep up with the infrastructure needed to accommodate their growth. They also will have to deal with issues of education, crime, and creating a skilled workforce— issues that are important anywhere, of course, but can be particularly challenging in a rapidly growing metropolis.

Perhaps the key factor that will influence the rise of the next great American city is the ability to fit into the global economy. An opportunity city with only modest links overseas can certainly grow rapidly, but only an urban center with powerful ties to global commerce is likely to achieve greatness.

This may be where the case for Houston’s emergence is strongest. From its inception, Houston has been oriented to markets outside the country, first through its exports of timber and cotton and later as a major oil port. Trade and the global connections of the energy industry have also paced the development of internationally minded banks, business-service firms, hotels, and specialized shopping areas. An indicator of Houston’s international reach: it now ranks third among U.S. cities, behind Los Angeles and New York, in the number of consulates located there. Another of Houston’s advantages is its history of tolerance. ...

Of course, I agree with Joel's case, but our key missing ingredient is tourism. Huge numbers of people visit NYC, LA, SF, and Chicago (not to mention Paris and London) - and those tourists' experiences create their global reputations. Certainly most of the country - and the world - have heard of Houston (usually regarding NASA, oil, or the med center), but very few have actually visited our city, and until that happens, our world city reputation will be frustratingly limited. Should we care? That's a whole 'nother debate. But if we do, my proposed solution would be a mammoth billion+ dollar Global Museum of Engineering and Technology that would eclipse, in its own way, DC's National Air and Space Museum, Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, LA's Getty Museum, London's British Museum, and Paris' Louvre. Combined with NASA, it would make us a compelling national and even global tourist destination, even if only for a 3-4 day "long weekend" type of trip. And, you know, the Astrodome plus the old Astroworld site would be a fantastic location. A billion dollars is certainly a lot of money, but, to put it in context, our recent stadium building spree cost more, and the Getty in LA cost $1.2 billion, so it's not unprecedented. 10 of the Forbes 400 billionaires live in Houston. Who wants to step up to the plate and have their name immortalized in the same pantheon with Getty and Smithsonian?...

Labels: , , , , , , ,


At 8:38 PM, March 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I think the initial post regarding what will make Houston a world class city is a little short sighted. As Houston matures and brings people into the city from other places, the priorities of the city will change. Despite the dreams of people at the Cato Institute, people in Houston will start to demand better aesthetics, better neighborhoods, a cleaner environment, etc. And people will be willing to sacrifice "cheapness" for these goals. We are already seeing this.

Regarding tourism I think you're mistaken if you think that simply plopping a Getty in Houston will attract that many more tourists. It will certainly help but Houston will still have the reputation of a city that sacrifices beauty and quality of life for the interests of business. This is what has to change.

Houston lacks the physical beauty of many top tourist locations. There is nothing we can do about that. But what can be done is to increase the urbane feel of the city. More pedestrian friendly environments, more transit and better architecture, especially in the core. People travel to Paris not just to visit the Louvre but also go to sit at a cafe along the sidewalk to enjoy a glass of wine. Houston really doesn't have a real street culture where that is possible.

At 9:04 PM, March 17, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Houston doesn't have a street culture because our weather is extremely hostile towards it five months of the year, and I don't see how we get around that. That's why we have the downtown tunnel system.

I am not opposed to some 'quality of life', cleaner environment, and aesthetic improvements, but NYC, LA, and Chicago all have severe problems in those departments too - yet nobody argues against them being world cities.

At 9:22 PM, March 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory I often hear this as the excuse for the lack of pedestrian development in Houston. Honestly, it's rather weak. Boston and many other Northern cities have terrible weather during the winter and they still have a street culture. Houston's winter weather is fairly tolerable. It would be a great time to put out the tables and chairs.

The real reason for the lack of this type of culture is because of the regulations in Houston. With set back and parking requirements, the city has actually encouraged strip malls and other development that is not pedestrian friendly. Secondly, the city really makes it difficult for people to walk. Sidewalks are often not wide enough and sometimes they are non existent. Even in Midtown there aren't enough crosswalks; you are taking your life in your hands when you try to cross some of those streets.

If Houston wants to be a more tourist oriented city, it needs to really concentrate on making the city more pedestrian friendly. This would also have an added benefit of improving the quality of life for residents! A win-win!

At 11:11 PM, March 17, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

I think we need a major theme park (like a Busch Gardens or Disney) and a better link to Galveston / Kemah and a lot of money invested in making Galveston nicer / marketing efforts in order to get onto the general tourist radar. Adding gambling would also help.

I agree we could use some more outdoors / walkable environments. But in general I think Houston is well situated in terms of restaurants, shopping, sports, museums, etc. We still need something unique that you can't find in most other major American cities or global cities that makes people want to come here - I'm not sure if I agree that it needs to be a major museum. For a long weekend, I think San Antonio looks like a lot more fun to the average American or Latin American tourist / family.

At 5:49 AM, March 18, 2008, Blogger John said...

The climate is hostile? Huh? I've watched tourists stumble around DC is August (as miserable as Houston, if not worse), line up in cutting wind to go up the Eiffel Tower in February, ride open-top buses around London in January in freezing rain, traipse around Montreal in the winter, walk the Freedom Trail in Boston in the snow, etc.

(On the pedestrian topic: this city doesn't even offer consistent sidewalks in central city areas like the Heights. It's embarrassing. Just walking my dog involves being forced into the street because sidewalks just stop, or are in such disrepair that you can't traverse them, or because someone has parked their car blocking them & will never get a ticket for it. In DC you have a sidewalk and the city collects taxes and uses them to maintain it. Period. The result is that there is pretty much always a sidewalk to walk on. Oh, and if you park on it, you will get towed away. If we can't even manage that...)

People go to tourist spots because they offer a critical mass of things to do - both cultural/educational and recreational - because they are attractive, and because they are unique. I love Houston, but a big museum isn't going to being many people here; it could be bigger than the Air and Space Museum, but it won't be walking distance from the rest of the Smithsonian museums and the national monuments and the White House and the Capital and the cherry blossoms on the Tidal Basin. We could have art museums that rival New York's but you still won't be able to also go to the top of the Empire State Building, see the Statue of Liberty, and then stroll around Little Italy.

You can talk about the quality of life issues that other cities face, but for a tourist they are often irrelevant. It doesn't really matter that an apartment in NYC is expensive when you're sitting having a drink people-watching in a cafe in the Village or that Paris is crowded while you're strolling along the Seine or gazing at Notre Dame on your five-day visit. These places are romantic and exciting because of their history and culture. That takes lifetimes to develop, and throwing up a big museum isn't going to do it.

At 1:14 PM, March 18, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

While I like the idea of adding a massive museum to provide Houston an icon to draw tourism, I think that we make two big mistakes with regards to tourism.

First, we think too high brow. Whenever a discussion about tourism out comes the immediate comparisons to NY, London and Paris. While these are great places to visit and I'd love Houston to be on that level, we are decades, if not centuries, away from competing with them.

We need to think small. We need to look at pulling people from our own region of Texas first. Then expand to Louisiana, Ark., Okla. People in Baton Rouge, Little Rock and Oklahoma City do not experience a cosmopolitan city every day. We dog Houston saying "Why wouldn't they go to Chicago or NY?" Well it's too far to drive, it's too cold in winter and spring break, and they're "too urban" for the conservative tastes of many in small cities in the southern and central U.S.

Second, we need to think one step at a time. I have complained to the Hermann Park people about the lack of signage in the park. Tourists, without an extensive set of maps, would have no idea about amenties in the park or museum district as a whole. Downtown has done a pretty good job about signage, but it often lacks the physical appeal between attractions. We have to think about infrastructure that will induce locals and out of towners to spend 20-30 more minutes here and there until we reach a point where they go home wishing that they had had more time.

Building a huge theme park, especially on the north side of town would surely draw tourists, but it definitely does not integrate them into the other amenties that the city has to offer. If you were staying in the Woodlands would you really want to trek 1h30m down to Galveston or 1h15m to Kemah?

We need to examine what amenties are missing in our part of the U.S. We need to examine how to integrate new amenties into existing ones to create synergies. We need to examine how to get the biggest bang for our buck. We can't put lipstick on a pig.

At 2:18 PM, March 18, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been to a lot of cold cities. I've never had much of a problem walking aroung there. The heat in Houston is far worse. Cold is uncomfortable and snow makes it hard to get around but you can't come into work after walking a few blocks in 90+ degree weather. In 20 degree weather you can.

At 3:47 PM, March 18, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Great points and I largely agree. I hate to say it but we need to start small. Start to challenge San Antonio perhaps. Create a unique attraction(s) that would draw in the region to Houston.

I think Hermann Park is a great asset and it needs to be better exploited as a public space. For too long it was neglected and I think it is still underused and under utilized. Would love to see more festivals to draw more merchants and street performers down there. This is simply something you don't see a lot of in Houston compared to other cities.

In the end though, we need to make a public commitment to change and back that commitment up with money. For too long a justified revulsion against government waste has been used as an excuse to see government as an inherent wrong. Face it folks, there are some things that only government can do, at least with any efficiency or swiftness.

I grew up in San Antonio and know that the Riverwalk was a dump before the city took the initiative to clean up the area and redevelop it with public art, new sidewalks, planting trees, organize the Rivercenter, etc. Granted, this was done in conjunction with private business but the point is that the government took the first step. For many people in Houston this is somehow seen as "wrong" which is unfortunate.

At 2:32 AM, March 19, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's play to our strengths here. The idea of Texas is known worldwide and totally unique and is rich in mythology. When travelers come to Houston, they want to indulge in confirming every bias they have, living out every Western they have ever seen. They aren't going to come to visit some halfassed imitation of a "world class city". Japanese and German tourists don't want to visit a Scienceopolis, they are probably coming from that. So how about a $1+ billion museum dedicated to Texas and the American West. An air-conditioned Disneyland/Smithsonian/Williamsburg/
Houston Rodeo experience. They would eat it up.

At 10:37 AM, March 19, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about a museum of oil? (maybe there already is one???)

A museum not just about the technical and geologic aspects but also the political and diplomatic game that the world has played for the past 100 some odd years because of oil. There are actually some really interesting stories; look at the success of the recent movie There Will Be Blood for evidence of that.

At 11:09 AM, March 19, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Commonsense, HMNS has Weiss Energy Hall. It's great.

At 12:13 PM, March 19, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The Energy Hall is a great exhibit. You become more grateful of the energy companies and the lengths they go through to keep our comfortable modern live on going.

At 7:32 PM, March 20, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think we need to invest one or several large scale tourism projects; Houston needs to invest in infrastructure, more in transportation (including the Port and airports), education and parks. Houston has the advantage of creating a world class system of linear parks along our many bayous.

At 3:00 PM, March 26, 2008, Blogger engineering said...

Nice hopeful quote - "people in Houston will start to demand better aesthetics, better neighborhoods, a cleaner environment, etc. And people will be willing to sacrifice "cheapness" for these goals."
Invest the money in creating the best green city in the world and a first class transportation system.
I would never compare Houston to London, Paris, NY, LA, San Francisco, etc. Houston is in its own league, the space/NASA city - when Houston portraits this image the world will notice. Plus I would not develop the city to benefit others but to benefit Houstonians.

At 4:08 PM, March 29, 2008, Blogger ddt said...

If Houston truly wants to become a "world city", it (we) should implement the Buffalo Bayou as soon as possible, just as it is written. That is, complete with a man-made island downtown. That plan does it all. It creates both tourist destinations and exciting urban neighborhoods.

At 10:50 PM, March 29, 2008, Blogger Unknown said...

Is anyone aware of the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum?

At 11:08 AM, October 03, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you know out city Houston have faced fierce weather and we have faced power outages and floods. I am in a process of Developing Houston visitor attractions Tourists for tourists to my city as site for my city Houston. I want Houston to be same once again after that IKE and people come back to their normal life and Tourism continue in the same manner as it user to be. Complete range of hotels will be given to the visitor of the site. Also all major attractions that we have in the city will be listed. For tourists all information all other information will be given such as restaurants for various communities, pubs , discos and Casinos


Post a Comment

<< Home