Monday, August 01, 2011

Houston's not resilient? Really?

Alert reader Jessie sent me this article about Houston ranking "very low" on a "resilience capacity index".  For real.  I was dumbfounded too. And now I'm going to post out-of-character and get a little snippy...

Let's skip right past the parade of articles and data showing Houston and Texas weathering the great recession better than just about everywhere else in the country.  It's so strong Rick Perry might win the Republican presidential nomination based on it.  That alone should make them question their entire methodology.  Go back to the dot-com and Enron crashes, and you'll find the same minimal impact.  Sounds like we're pretty resilient to me.

Then there's their explicit declaration that it represents the ability of a city to weather the shock of a major storm or flood.  I'll point to both Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Ike.  Both were devastating - yet we bounced back relatively quickly from each one.  You might note on their map that New Orleans ranks higher than Houston, yet Hurricane Katrina knocked New Orleans on its back for years.  Maybe they need to add a "levees upkeep" variable to the index?

Let's look at some of the problematic variables that make up the index:
  • Economic diversification: I'll admit there's some value here, but it's also worth noting that some of the wealthiest and most successful cities in the country built that success around one strong, dominant industry: NYC and finance, DC and govt, SF/SV and tech, Houston and energy, etc.
  • Income equality: also a proxy for "we don't have any high-paying industries" - nor the corresponding tax base.  How is this helpful for resilience? (more on the value of income disparity here)
  • Educational attainment, being out of poverty, and home ownership: a proxy for using tight zoning and land-use regulation to keep out apartments, new and affordable housing, and immigrants.
  • Metropolitan Stability: aka "stagnation".  Cities that aren't growing have amazingly stable populations because nobody wants to move there and none of the residents can sell their houses.
My cynical side thinks that, since the University of Buffalo put this out, they intentionally chose variables that made Buffalo look good, even though it's one of the most stagnant metro economies in the country.

All in all one of the worst designed indexes I've ever seen - and there are some doozies out there.

OK, I feel better.  End venting (and snippyness).  Back to normal next week...

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At 9:12 PM, August 01, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Houston not resilient?? Anyone who makes a claim such as this has their head in the sand.

As for New York, trust me (I lived there), it rains for one hour and the entire city panics and just about shuts down.


At 11:34 PM, August 01, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

Agree that Houston is more resilient, however:

>>NYC and finance, DC and govt, SF/SV and tech, Houston and energy, etc.

I think the question for Houston is if we are somehow destined to be more like Detroit than like DC. The Federal government is not going away anytime in the foreseeable future, but I could see Houston losing some share to either cleantech or Asian / Middle Eastern energy hubs.

Also, I'm not sure that Houston is very resilient to something like $10 / gallon gasoline. Sure it might be great for those that work in the energy industry, and for expanding the ranks of those that do work in that field, but I've read in other studies that places like NYC and Boston, because of their vastly superior public transportation alternatives, would overall fare better in such a scenario.

Houston - and Texas in general - do have a history of boom and bust. So while I don't agree with the idea of Stability as an indicator either, I don't think anyone who remembers the mid to late 1980's in Texas wants to re-live that economic time period either.

Finally, Houston has an unemployment rate currently of 9% which is probably going to get higher with all of the budget cutting going on at NASA and within our education system (a large chunk of which is courtesy of Rick Perry). The US unemployment rate is 9.2% according to the same article. So - we've still got close to 275k people unemployed here, and that's with all of the advantages of having our port, medical center, energy industry, etc.

Like I said, on balance I still agree with you, but we may not be as resilient as you think. Especially if the rest of the country is going down the toilet, Houston is IMHO not going to somehow buck the trend - we will lose out to Asia and emerging markets just as most other US cities will.

At 8:22 AM, August 02, 2011, Anonymous Eric M said...

Looking at a map of the survey, it's rather dramatic how the split between "resilient" and "not resilient" cities seems to run right down the Mason-Dixon line. Almost as if the survey was specifically designed to create a North-South split.

At 11:49 AM, August 02, 2011, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

The most resilient places, by the author's measure, are a who's who of dead or dying metro areas.

According to the author, "The reality here is that the slower growing regions actually have more capacity to withstand the shock. It’s counter-intuitive, but they tend to be stable."

Yes, corpses are remarkably stable. They are vary rarely harmed by adverse conditions. They always bounce right back to their corpse like state.

At 12:02 PM, August 02, 2011, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

The part that I find most annoying is Houston's rank of 327 on "civic infrastructure". I find that remarkable. I suppose if you believe that the government should provide all the services and connectivity amongst groups then Houston is the abject failure that the ranking suggests.

But if you consider the civic mindedness and huge panoply of civic organizations, institutions and volunteers that Houston musters to serve the diverse needs of a large region then we are way ahead of places ranked higher like New York City and Chicago

At 12:27 PM, August 02, 2011, Anonymous Mike said...

On the relationship between income separation and our high paying jobs and Fortune 500's, it could be that out of a good thing comes a bad thing. I'm glad we have high paying jobs and Fortune 500's, but I think that income separation is a problem we have to face, as it creates a divided society.

At 12:40 PM, August 02, 2011, Anonymous Terry said...

Also, she listed Rochester, Minnesota as one of the most resilient. How could you have a city less diverse than Rochester - its wholly dependent on Mayo Clinic.

At 1:21 PM, August 02, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks, J. Very good, and funny, points. I didn't see the specific low ranking on civic infrastructure, which is absolutely absurd if you've spent any time around Houston's nonprofit community. Incredible depth, support, and resources.

At 1:56 PM, August 02, 2011, Blogger Gary said...

For forty years Pittsburgh has been praised for its "miraculous renaissance." And indeed, without its factories polluting any more & an infrastructure designed for a much greater city (the metro area actually has fewer people than it had in 1960, as I recall), it is a beautiful place with abundant services (assuming you can stand endless bitter winters). But everybody I know who has tried to work there has ended up leaving, for wont of opportunities to progress. So it just ages in place. Apparently that's what the lady has in mind by "resilience."

Meanwhile those Texas metropoli at the bottom of her list have been attracting outsiders at an ever accelerating rate for well over a century.

I think it just shows that pretty much anybody can make a list; and in this age, somebody or another will print it.

At 9:54 PM, August 07, 2011, Blogger NYYmatt25 said...

dear eric, i have lived in new york half my life; the entire city does not panic after an hour long rain shower. we don't even panic after 24 inches of snow. we get angry at city officials and help others in need.


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