Monday, February 23, 2009

Houston vs. how Americans want to live

David Brooks had an extremely insightful column last week in the NY Times on what Americans are looking for in their ideal living environment. I liked the opening in particular:

You may not know it to look at them, but urban planners are human and have dreams. One dream many share is that Americans will give up their love affair with suburban sprawl and will rediscover denser, more environmentally friendly, less auto-dependent ways of living.

Those dreams have been aroused over the past few months. The economic crisis has devastated the fast-growing developments on the far suburban fringe. Americans now taste the bitter fruit of their overconsumption.

The time has finally come, some writers are predicting, when Americans will finally repent. They’ll move back to the urban core. They will ride more bicycles, have smaller homes and tinier fridges and rediscover the joys of dense community — and maybe even superior beer.

America will, in short, finally begin to look a little more like Amsterdam.

Well, Amsterdam is a wonderful city, but Americans never seem to want to live there. And even now, in this moment of chastening pain, they don’t seem to want the Dutch option.

He then dissects the recent Pew study, noting that Americans are restless (most want to live elsewhere, especially to go West), that rural and suburban residents are happier with where they live than urbanites, and that cities are mostly attractive to the young, but far less so over the age of 35 (esp. NYC and LA). Continuing:

If you jumble together the five most popular American metro areas — Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Orlando and Tampa (how is Austin not on this list?) — you get an image of the American Dream circa 2009. These are places where you can imagine yourself with a stuffed garage — filled with skis, kayaks, soccer equipment, hiking boots and boating equipment. These are places you can imagine yourself leading an active outdoor lifestyle.

These are places (except for Orlando) where spectacular natural scenery is visible from medium-density residential neighborhoods, where the boundary between suburb and city is hard to detect. These are places with loose social structures and relative social equality, without the Ivy League status system of the Northeast or the star structure of L.A. These places are car-dependent and spread out, but they also have strong cultural identities and pedestrian meeting places. They offer at least the promise of friendlier neighborhoods, slower lifestyles and service-sector employment. They are neither traditional urban centers nor atomized suburban sprawl. They are not, except for Seattle, especially ideological, blue or red.

They offer the dream, so characteristic on this continent, of having it all: the machine and the garden. The wide-open space and the casual wardrobes.

I previously discussed this survey in this post, noting that Houston scored in the middle of the pack and that it has a clear bias towards high-tourism cities that people are likely to have visited. But I still think Pew and Mr. Brooks are on to something here.

Let's see how Houston measures up to these criteria:
  • Yes: skis (water), soccer equipment, boating equipment, loose social structures and relative social equality, car-dependent and spread out, strong cultural identities, friendlier neighborhoods, service-sector employment, not ideological
  • No: skis (snow), kayaks, hiking boots, spectacular natural scenery, pedestrian meeting places (does the Galleria count? Discovery Green?)
  • Mixed: active outdoor lifestyle, wide-open space, casual wardrobes, slower lifestyles (we're considered a pretty fast-paced place, but there's still a lot of the leisurely old South here too)
Not too bad.

I had a phone call with a friend today that moved from Houston to Phoenix for career and relationship reasons, and he's a big fan of Houston, but he positively gushed about the outdoor options in the mountains outside of Phoenix. Another friend of mine talked about the outdoor weekend focus of people in Austin. Not so much here. The outdoor lifestyle is only partially embraced here - mainly golf and boating. We just don't have inherently attractive topography or a summer climate you want to be outdoors in if air conditioning is an option. Neither we can do anything about.

But it does indicate we're on the right track with some of our quality-of-life initiatives: bayou parks and trails, more park space (including flood control), and encouraging and enabling mixed-use pedestrian-oriented developments where there is demand and near rail stops.

What are we missing? Well, I'd certainly vote for a more casual dress standard in our business community. Less of the suit-and-tie fest at Partnership events. We don't have to go all Hawaiian, but maybe Silicon Valley business casual is not a bad compromise standard (especially with our summers).

On the other hand, Xanax in the water supply seems unlikely, and I know of no technology yet for affordably constructing mountains. Maybe a future job for our nanotechnology pioneers and their first swarm of solar-powered self-replicating nanobots... ;-) then they can move on to the weather problem...

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At 11:07 PM, February 23, 2009, Blogger Max Concrete said...

Houston is certainly weak in outdoor/wilderness offerings, so we're less attractive to the younger crowd seeking that lifestyle. But I have also recently seen a report of a study which concluded that interest in wilderness activities and national park visits is at a low. (Unfortunately, I can't remember specifics or who published the study.) So I still think the large majority of the population isn't highly influenced by wilderness opportunities, which explains why cities like Houston and Dallas still do well.

At 11:46 AM, February 24, 2009, Blogger Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

I think what you will find at least for the first three (I have less experience with Orlando and Tampa), that those cities care much more about quality of life issues than Houston or perhaps a better way to say it is that those cities cater to different quality of life issues than Houston.

You are correct that San Diego, Denver and Seattle all have been blessed with surrounding natural beauty. But these cities also make sure that the city itself is beautiful. They develop waterfronts, parks, bike trails, and town centers integrated into the neighborhood. They have started to focus on mass transit over highways. They have planning for the city so that the major industrial centers of the city are separate from the residential areas. Seattle, for example, has its industrial areas concentrated in South Seattle, far from the developing urban neighborhoods to the north. Houston has industrial areas along Washington Ave. and within the Heights, two developing urban areas. This is because the city refuses to enact any real planning. For all the talk about “property rights,” this type of policy (or lack-there-of) has a real effect on the neighborhood’s image and quality of life.

Finally, although I like David Brooks, I think he is missing the point. Many people who advocate against the typical suburban sprawl that seems so common in places like Houston, Dallas and Phoenix are not thinking that America is going to suddenly turn into Amsterdam. The goal is something much more modest. An urban environment (or even a suburban environment) were one is not absolutely and completely reliant on the automobile. An environment where alternative transportation is a realistic option, even in the suburbs. An environment where the quality life of the residents is priority one. People are still going to own a car but they will drive less. These cities are moving in that direction. My brother lives in Redmond, Washington (a suburb of Seattle) and he walks or bikes every weekend to a central town center with a market, events, neighborhood bars, etc. In how many suburbs in Houston could you do this realistically? You have to drive on a highway to basically get anywhere.

At 12:35 PM, February 24, 2009, Blogger Peter Wang said...

We suburban dwellers appreciate what we've got in terms of our suburban dwellings (square footage, low price, yards), but that by no means is granting carte blanche to our elected officials to keep doing what they've been doing.

We need to make course corrections to make what we've got BETTER.

Outside of our tidy subdivisions the sprawling Houston roadscape is ferociously ugly and very dangerous (everyone drives like it's NASCAR... I just got back from a small city in Washington State where people drove slowly and carefully. Why is that?)

You have many transportation choices... drive, drive, or drive. Oh, did I mention that you can drive? Enough. We are sick of living in our cars. The infrastructure is made only for driving, and that has to end. Our kids need to be able to get out and ride bikes or walk, like I did when I was growing up in the Chicago suburbs of NW Indiana in the 1960s and 1970s.

Somehow, Houston took what I remember about suburbia in my childhood and put it on steroids, so that the quality of life is really poorer here than it was for me growing up.

Copperfield resident since 1992
That's in 77095

At 12:42 PM, February 24, 2009, Blogger Peter Wang said...

I forgot to mention... my childhood suburban home (Munster, Indiana), in the last decades, has spent a lot of time and money putting in bike lanes, sidewalks, parks... I was very surprised to see these. And they have a commuter train to Downtown Chicago.

You can even bike ride from Downtown Chicago all the way to the Michigan-Indiana border. They have an annual MS150-type of bike ride. I would love to do that someday. Stop every five miles and eat a gyro or a Polish sausage.

At 2:49 PM, February 24, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just got back from a small city in Washington State where people drove slowly and carefully. Why is that?)

I played baseball in an LA area college with a guy from the Seattle 'burbs.

He didn't like LA because everyone was "in a rush."

I think that's just the way they are up there...slow

At 9:58 PM, February 24, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>Another friend of mine talked about the outdoor weekend focus of people in Austin. Not so much here.

We are a much bigger city than Austin -- perhaps they (and Denver / San Diego etc.) have a disproportionate share of outdoorsy types, but that doesn't indicate anything is wrong or weak with Houston to me.

There are plenty of people who get out to Memorial Park, Terry Hershey, Hermann Park, or the Buffalo Bayou parks, not to mention people who head out to Clear Lake, Conroe, Livingston, or Galveston or other area beaches or natural areas. I don't think Houston needs to compete with Austin, San Diego, or Denver in this area - if anything we need to fight the perception that we do not offer outdoor recreation here - one video of people running in shorts around Rice and the Memorial loop in January and playing outdoor hoops / tennis and biking along our many bayou trails would do a lot to change public perception. Also, we still have an edge among many people who are going to be comparing us to New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, etc - not Austin or San Diego. If we can convince people to visit Houston outside the months of June - September and see some of our parks and outdoors activities, I'm pretty sure they'd give us a pass.

As for how we compete with San Diego and Austin, well of course we beat the pants off of them on job opportunities, affordability, and the sheer amount of other stuff (dining, sports, cultural, shopping) there is to do in a city of the size and quality of Houston. (That said, give me a few million $ and I am off to San Diego - at least for the summers!)

At 6:46 PM, February 25, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We just don't have inherently attractive topography or a summer climate you want to be outdoors in if air conditioning is an option. Neither we can do anything about."

I don't know how to comment on this without sounding catty, but this sounds like a personal failing to me. I, and numerous friends, get outdoors alot, whether it is jogging (not me), cycling (me), home and yard remodel or just walking the dogs.

I also happen to know a lot of out of shape friends who complain about every type of weather. These people would likely also complain about the snow and cold in Denver, the heat in Austin, and the rain in Seattle. Those who cannot handle Houston's climate probably cannot handle any climate.

At 9:53 PM, February 25, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I partially agree, but it's also a simple fact that hot, humid, tropical weather slows down human physiology. All your body signals are "don't exert yourself" - protecting you from heat exhaustion/stroke.

At 5:26 AM, February 26, 2009, Blogger engineering said...

Well, having lived in Santa Cruz, Bolivia which is located in the Amazon basin I got to disagree about weather affecting people's outdoor activities.

Also have to disagree with the notion that Houston does not have enough outdoor/wilderness. The city has incredible parks and bayous and trails. If that is not enough the county has acres for outdoor/wilderness activities. You can check them at

For example: the Dwight D. Eisenhower Park and Alexander Deussen Park by Lake Houston. And these are only the tip of the iceberg.

But to add a little fuel to the fire. I don't think industrial areas are necessarily evil since eventually these are reintroduced into the urban living through redevelopment. What I do think is not the best choice of new development are the big box stores.


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