Monday, January 26, 2009

A Pragmatic Approach to Houston’s Future (part 1 of 2)

Local PBS has asked me to participate in a panel exploring Houston's future - specifically regarding traffic, livability, and regional growth (more here, including a participant list). The panel will be broadcast live at 7pm Thursday evening on local channel 8 PBS. They asked me to write an essay for their web site in advance of the event, and I want to also post it here for posterity. Since it's sort of long, I'll break it into two parts. The content mirrors much of what I said at the Emerging Green Builders event last week. Part one:

Don’t panic. That would be my first advice to Houston. All through its relatively short history, people have agonized in the face of tremendous growth from one to two to four and now six million people in the metro area. We’ve adjusted quite well – thank you – consistently ranking near the top in economic, job, and population growth. Clearly we’re doing something very right to attract and keep all these people. That’s not to say we haven’t had growing pains, but “continuous improvement” should be our guiding philosophy, not “radical change.” When it comes to new strategies, here are some realities we need to recognize:
  • Growth is good. Studies of cities show that a doubling of population is accompanied by more than a doubling of creative and economic output. The larger the population of a metro, the greater the innovation and wealth creation per person.
  • People want space. Sprawl is not evil. Throughout history, even going back to the medieval nobles and their country estates, people have always desired more personal space as they have grown more affluent. Make this space unavailable by forcing density through regulation or inadequate transportation, as in Europe or Japan, and not only does housing become unaffordable, but fertility rates will drop below replacement levels as families shrink. If they can’t increase the size of their home, they will shrink the size of their household, which creates a financially destabilizing demographic implosion.
  • Density has limited appeal. As young people push marriage later, we have a new twenty-something stage of life where people want to live in a dense, vibrant, urban core. But, inevitably, as they marry and start families, space, cost, and school concerns draw them to the suburbs. Houston should absolutely offer good urban lifestyle options to those who desire it, but it will always be a relatively small part of our population.
  • People cannot be forced into the dense core or on long commuter transit rides against their will. If people can’t access nice, affordable homes and good schools within a reasonable commute, employers will move out to suburbs, leading people to move even further out, expanding sprawl, and draining the core’s tax base.
  • Houston has a pedestrian-hostile tropical climate five months of the year. While northern transit-based cities benefit from a personal warming technology – the coat – the only personal cooling technology that exists for southern cities is an air-conditioned vehicle.
  • Cities that are hostile to the car will stagnate. The car is now a permanent part of our culture. Busy lifestyles require its comfort, speed, and convenience – but the propulsion technology will change to be greener and more energy efficient. This represents the future for the vast majority – not dense, transit-oriented living.
  • Planned density almost always fails. Planners try to protect low-density areas and designate high-density ones, but, inevitably, NIMBYs protest and shoot down the high-density development if there is a regulatory mechanism for them to do so – like a zoning board they can influence. Recent data shows that Houston’s free market approach builds one-third more density per capita than Portland’s highly prescriptive, planned approach. And a recent ULI advisory panel was emphatic in recommending that Houston not adopt zoning.
  • Commuter rail rarely works in a post-WW2 car-based city. Old cities in Europe and America were built with dense cores for the primary mobility mode of the time: walking. Rail allowed people to move to the suburbs and still commute to the single dense core of jobs (like Manhattan or downtown Chicago). Newer, mostly post-WW2, car-based, Sunbelt cities like Houston have decentralized jobs spread over many different centers, like downtown, uptown, the medical center, Greenway Plaza, the Energy Corridor, Westchase, Greenspoint, Clear Lake, and more. Less than 7% of our jobs are downtown. Trying to connect commuters to these job centers with rail would not only be astronomically expensive, but would lead to impractically long commute times with multiple transfers and long walks for people to reach their final destination buildings.
Long-time readers of this blog will recognize these points from earlier posts that cover them with more detail and nuance than I had room for here (like, for example, selective commuter rail that might work). My apologies for the necessary simplifications.

Part two on Thursday night will cover my recommended strategies.

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At 11:47 PM, January 26, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...


PBS has also asked me to come. I'll see you there.


At 8:20 AM, January 27, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"People want space. Sprawl is not evil."

KUDOS!!! This needs to be said more often.

Two families in my section of town homes has a child reaching that important age where school will be coming up. The weighing the options of private school or moving to the suburbs for better public schools.

What business is it for a few planner to force these people not to have the option of living in the suburbs.

At 8:21 AM, January 27, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...


And glad to see you on the panel too Neal.

I'll definitely have to DVR that discussion when it airs.

At 12:26 PM, January 27, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any chance you'll be able to post a link to the video of this interview? (after all, it's on public TV).

At 1:18 PM, January 27, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Not sure if they'll post the video online or not. If anybody does find a link to it, please post it here. Thanks.

At 2:00 PM, January 27, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too am very interested in seeing this discussion.

While I disagree with most of your statements and assumptions, I want to point out a couple of things I find particularly incorrect in your post.

First, the belief that somehow the decrease in family size is somehow related to density is just simply wrong. Family size has been decreasing in the US for the past 50 years. During that same period of time we have seen a decrease in density, not the opposite. Over that period people have generally fled the denser, urban centers or migrated to cities where sprawl dominates (Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix for example). The renewed interest in urban lifestyles, walkable neighborhoods, and density is a relatively recent phenomenon based on more recent concerns for the environment, life style, sustainable development, healthier living, and climate change. Many of this interest is coming from people like myself who spent their youth in the sprawling suburbs and are now looking for something different.

I believe the real reason for the decreasing family sizes is because of the society’s shift to an economy based on brains, rather than brawn. Historically, one could enter the workforce straight from high school (or even without a high school diploma) and take up a trade that paid a decent, livable salary. My grandfather never went to school past the 8th grade and he became an airline mechanic with good healthcare, a pension and a salary that put two children through college. That is simply not realistic to most in modern day America. Our manufacturing base has collapsed and most of the products we buy are cheaply made in China or other places of the like. These products are generally used for a couple of years and then tossed to buy another cheaply made gadget. No one bothers fixing anything anymore which has eliminated a huge segment of the economy that was based on repairing things (televisions, radios, phones….you name it). That same grandfather owned the same Zenith television for about 30 years, having it repaired when there was a problem. That is simply unheard of these days.

One of the big reasons that people are getting married later and having less children is because they are spending longer in school. I am in my 30’s, unmarried and it took me 9 years to complete my education. Now granted, I didn’t do this all at once or in a row and I have three degrees (two graduate) which may be a little extraordinary. But spending more time in university or training is the norm these days. You simply can rely on the old “straight to the factory” job out of high school anymore. Another reason (which may be related to education requirements) is that people are moving around a lot more these days. People move other places for school, they uproot for jobs and generally are more transient then ever before. This encourages people to put off children much later, perhaps deciding not to have children at all.

At 2:51 PM, January 27, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

A lot of good points. Yes, there are many forces driving down the average family size. But they have been driven down much less in sprawling America than in space-constrained Europe and Japan. We have at least stayed at replacement level. If we were mostly living in apartments near rail lines, our families would be as small as the Europeans and Japanese.

At 3:40 PM, January 27, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...


We are staying at replacement levels because of immigration, mainly from Latin America.

The fertility rate among non-Hispanic whites is higher than non-Hispanic whites in Europe, but still below replacement rate. If you look at the numbers, this difference with Europe has more to do with some unique religious differences (LDS or other conservative religious communities not found in Europe) and our greater income disparity (again, lack of education, poorer rural areas like Mississippi, etc.). Density really is not relevant.

At 4:34 PM, January 27, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The academic community - and the NY Times - disagree:

At 4:43 PM, January 27, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A good analytical book on demography will be funny and depressing at the same time is "America Alone" by Mark Steyn.

It's actually good read. It analyzes the changes in demography in the past and what is means for the future. Much of what is happening in England and many Western European countries is likely to be our future. One I definitely don't want.

While it does focus some on the fast growing Islamic population in Europe and how existing Europe as we know is slowly disappearing, it does relate a lot to the US and our growing (non-assimilating) Hispanic population.

It also explains in some detail the growing families of suburban and rural areas in the US and the shrinking urban families. Much of what it does is tie real data to cultural movements over time and how demography is affected.

At 5:15 PM, January 27, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the article you referenced in the Times.

"Several population specialists emphasized that housing is just one influence on fertility, and difficult to tease out from other factors, like income or optimism. 'If you lower the cost of housing, you’re going to lower the cost of raising a child,' said Seth Sanders, director of the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland. 'But if you look at how much it costs to raise a child, only one-third of the cost is housing. So my guess is that the impact is not very large.'"

From further down in the article:

"But that does not mean the new arrivals look like their parents’ generation. For starters, they are much more likely to be Hispanic, to live in a red state and to be part of an evangelical Christian family.

Hispanic women in 2006 gave birth at a rate corresponding to lifetime averages of 2.96 children per woman, compared with 2.11 for non-Hispanic black women and 1.86 for non-Hispanic whites. The fertility rates for Hispanic immigrants were higher than those in many of their countries of origin, including Mexico, where the rate is 2.4, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

General birth rates were highest in Republican strongholds like Utah (94.1 births per 1,000 women), Arizona (81.6), Idaho (80.9) and Texas (78.8). They were lowest in states won by John Kerry in 2004, including Vermont (52.2), New Hampshire (53.4), Maine (54.5), Rhode Island (54.6) and Massachusetts (57). The rate in New York was 61.1, well below the national average of 68.5. The rate in New Jersey was 64.4; in Connecticut, 58.8.

The report does not include information on religion or socioeconomic status, but researchers have long linked religious observance and affiliation with higher rates of fertility, even attributing the growth of evangelical churches and decline of mainline Protestant churches to differences in fertility rates."

The three highest rates are found in Utah, Arizona and Idaho three states with the highest proportion of LDS. Texas, a border state, was 4th. The states with the lowest (all in New England) are all far, far from the Mexican border.

If your hypothesis was true, you would expect a place like New York or California to have some of the lowest birth rates. In fact, the lowest birth rate is in Vermont, probably one of the most rural and least dense states in the country.

Vermont and the other states that have low birth rates have one thing in New England is probably one of the most educated places in the country. This is also one of the wealthiest areas in the country.

Wealth and education, not density, is the controlling factor here. I would suspect poor areas of the south Bronx (an extremely dense area) have high birth rates comparable to poor areas of the Valley in South Texas.

At 7:12 PM, January 27, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

From Newsweek:

"According to Pew, if current trends continue, the U.S. population will rise from 296 million in 2005 to 438 million in 2050. Eighty-two percent—let me repeat that: 82 percent—of the increase will be attributable to immigrants arriving after 2005 and to their descendants. By that point, whites may make up only 47 percent of the country, ending centuries of a majority-white America."

So, the vast majority of our expected increase in population will be attributable to immigration. Put another way, the US of 300 million people today would only be expected to grow to around 325 million by the year 2050 without the effects of immigration - an annualized growth rate of 0.18% - barely above replacement levels.

At 8:30 PM, January 27, 2009, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


Not to nitpick, but 438/298 = 1.48. So it's 48%.

At 8:54 PM, January 27, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

All those factors are at play, but density is also one. Maybe not the dominant one, but one, as mentioned in the article.

Yes, the USA is only at replacement levels without immigration - roughly 2.1 children per woman. But Japan, Italy, and other countries are far worse, below 1.5 children per woman.

At 9:33 PM, January 27, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>But Japan, Italy, and other countries are far worse, below 1.5 children per woman.

Well, taking the case of Japan, they have 130 million people crammed into an area smaller than California at roughly 10 times the density of California - I don't think Tokyo's subways and high-rises are the main culprits limiting population growth - if anything I would think that they have helped facilitate Japan's growth. If Japan looked more like Houston, it would not have been able to achieve such density and population levels in the first place. Indeed, Japan's national density of 870 people per square kilometer is the same as Harris County (the US density level is 31 per square km).

As we prepare for roughly 450 million people in the US by 2050, I'd say we have some things to learn from the Japanese (and Italians) about how to support increased density levels in our urban areas. Either that or a bunch of you are going to have to move to Montana - because I'm not.

At 7:28 AM, January 28, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

So Japan has 870 people per sq. km, and we have 31, headed towards a whopping 46 (the 50% population increase over 50 years), so we'll be sending people to Montana and need to learn to build Japanese-level densities? I'm not seeing it.

Houston has grown a heck of a lot more than 50% over the last 50 years (try at least 4x), and we have built some density where there is demand, but the overall low-density suburban-oriented build pattern has not changed substantially. Nor has it in any of the high-growth metros of America.

At 9:29 AM, January 28, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>So Japan has 870 people per sq. km, and we have 31, headed towards a whopping 46 (the 50% population increase over 50 years), so we'll be sending people to Montana and need to learn to build Japanese-level densities? I'm not seeing it.

I think our densities are artificially low because of our amount of farmland, parks, and uninhabitable areas (mountains) or undesirable areas (North Dakota, Montana anyone?). Our metro density levels (or perceived density levels) are already much higher than this and growing. To successfully absorb 150 million more people we are either going to have to start settling more and more rural areas, farmland, and previously uninhabitable or undesirable areas, or we're going to have to make our metros better able to deal with high density levels.

>>Houston has grown a heck of a lot more than 50% over the last 50 years (try at least 4x), and we have built some density where there is demand, but the overall low-density suburban-oriented build pattern has not changed substantially. Nor has it in any of the high-growth metros of America.

I would argue that this pattern will need to change if we want to be able to grow successfully. Yes, Houston has successfully grown from next to nothing to a medium-large-sized metropolis over the past 100 years, as has Atlanta, Phoenix, etc. I think the next stage of growth is going to be quite different with new rail, commuter, high-density infill projects, etc - you might argue that it will only be incrementally different and that government should not support such efforts (which I disagree with), but otherwise I think we're actually on the same page. Yes, it's going to take a long time to change our existing development patterns, and to notice the changes, but you've got to get started at some point. Houston has arguably already started doing this - look at West Ave, One Park Place, Discovery Green, all the new mega apartment complexes inside the loop or on the near Southwest side, the new commuter rail and light rail lines that should be in place by 2030, etc - this is not your grandpa's Houston.

At 9:16 PM, January 28, 2009, Blogger Notsuoh Photography said...

Maybe we should spend more money on public schools within city limits. Also, not everyone leaves the intercity because of better schools in the suburbs. I think the issue is a little more complicated than that. Also, I don't believe the reason is always about the need for more space, especially here in Houston. I live in Montrose and it is much like the suburbs. unfortunately I think there are other reasons why some parents might not choose to raise their children in Montrose or other city neighborhoods. I wish those reasons would be discussed more.

At 2:16 PM, January 29, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really hate the myth that if you throw more money at education it'll somehow get better.

We've been doing that for the last 40yrs since the Federal Department of Education was formed. And the only thing that has happen is a decline.

The real reason has a little thing called teacher's unions and tenure. My mom was a high school teacher for over 30s in Louisiana and was a vocal opponent to the teachers union in the state. They hated her because she exposed them for the crooks they are. The last thing a teachers union cares about is the education of the students.

On top of that, a recent study of increased funding and education was performed in Kansas. The education budget was increased over a billion dollars with no improved performance. This has been seen in pretty much every state in the union. We spend more per child in taxes to go to public school than it costs to go to private schools which offer much higher quality of education.

And yes, it is a primary reason other than increasing space for good value. I have several co-workers that purposely put themselves in a home that gives them longer commute times because their child's education is paramount.

At 10:42 PM, January 29, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The larger the population of a metro, the greater the innovation and wealth creation per person." By that logic, the most wealthy and creative cities in the world should be... 1.Mumbai, 2.Karachi, 3.Delhi, 4.Shanghai, 5.Moscow -- the 5 largest cities in the world. Now, Shanghai is creating lots of wealth, but innovation, I don't think any of them. Size is not the goal of quality of life, it's not even the means to the goal.

At 7:11 AM, January 30, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Obviously, economic development (GDP per capita) is also a major factor. I would argue that those cities have far higher wealth and innovation creation per person than their own countrysides or smaller cities in their own country, or other, smaller cities at the same level of economic development in other countries.


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