Sunday, September 29, 2013

Are messy cities like Houston more innovative?

I caught this story last week in the NY Times on how a messy desk can make you more innovative, something I can personally relate to.  It made me wonder: do you think the same thing applies on a larger scale to a "messy", unzoned city like Houston?  First, the key excerpt:
A second experiment, however, found that working in chaos has its advantages, too. In this one, college students were placed in a messy or a neat office and asked to dream up new uses for Ping-Pong balls. Those in messy spaces generated ideas that were significantly more creative, according to two independent judges, than those plugging away in offices where stacks of papers and other objects were neatly aligned. 
The results were something of a surprise, says Kathleen D. Vohs, a behavioral scientist at the University of Minnesota and the leader of the study. Few previous studies found much virtue in disarray. The broken-windows theory, proposed decades ago, posits that even slight disorder and neglect can encourage nonchalance, poor discipline and nihilism. Chaos begets chaos. 
But in the study by Dr. Vohs, disordered offices encouraged originality and a search for novelty. In the final portion of the study, adults were given the choice of adding a health “boost” to their lunchtime smoothie that was labeled either “new” or “classic.” The volunteers in the messy space were far more likely to choose the new one; those in the tidy office generally opted for the classic version. 
Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition,” Dr. Vohs and her co-authors conclude in the study, “which can produce fresh insights.” 
The implications of these findings are also practical. “My advice would be, if you need to think outside the box” for a future project, Dr. Vohs says, then let the clutter rise and unfetter your imagination.
The somewhat chaotic, freewheeling nature of development in unzoned Houston is well known.  Is it possible that also feeds our culture?  Consider:
  • We're known for being more open and friendly to outsiders and diversity in general.  Maybe when you're used to constant novelty in your built environment you're more primed to accept novelty in your social circles?
  • We're known for our optimistic, can-do spirit.  We're also very entrepreneurial.  Maybe seeing constant change around us leads us to be optimistic about changing all sorts of things?
  • Our restaurant scene is getting waves of national accolades for its creativity.
  • Our innovative, pioneering work in energy technology (like the fracking revolution), medicine (like the first artificial heart), space/NASA, and, of course, the Astrodome, the world's first domed stadium.
For contrast, consider very static European cities.  Their cultures are far less optimistic or entrepreneurial.  When the buildings around you haven't really changed for over a century, it would seem easy to get the attitude that "nothing I do matters or can really change anything."

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that our culture and our unzoned free-market in development are inextricably linked, and attempts to more tightly control, restrict, or plan development risk long term damage to our open, optimistic, entrepreneurial culture.

Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Ashby not hurting home values; better rankings for Houston, UH, and Rice; support the Astrodome

Just a handful of smaller items this week:
If you'd like to support the Astrodome redevelopment (and you definitely should -  it's only +$8/year on your taxes), the campaign kickoff is this Tuesday at the Hyatt downtown.  Also check out the slick commercial they've made.

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Monday, September 16, 2013

Houston accolades continue, re-imagine METRO, sign the Uber petition, spaceport dreaming, and more

A bit of a backlog of smaller items this week:
"The energy industry and burgeoning trade with Latin America are powering the Third Coast, combined with a relatively low cost, business-friendly climate. By 2023 its capital–Houston–will be widely acknowledged as America’s next great global city. Many other cities across the Gulf, including New Orleans and Corpus Christi, are also major energy hubs. The Third Coast has a concentration of energy jobs five times the national rate, and those jobs have an average annual salary of $100,000, according to EMSI. 
As the area gets wealthier, The Third Coast’s economy will continue to diversify. Houston, which is now the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse metro area, according to a recent Rice study, is home to the world’s largest medical center and has dethroned New York City as the nation’s leading exporter."
  • A Swiss journalist visited Houston a couple months ago and interviewed me for this piece on Houston where I'm quoted.  He informs me it was one of their top 3 most-read stories the day it went up.  Google translate will help you get the gist of it, but it's somewhat painful to read the rough translation.  It concludes with this confusing line:
"The city's motto could therefore be: Its not slip."
Which the author tells me should really translate more like: 
"The city´s motto could therefore be: Being not pretending."
Being not pretending.  I like that!
Finally, I thought I'd end the post with a fancy rendering video of the Ellington spaceport proposal.  Pretty slick.  I hope they can pull it off with a fair economic return on any taxpayer dollars invested.  It would be really cool to have a major spaceport here.


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Monday, September 02, 2013

An alternate view of sprawl

I sorta had an insight this week I thought I'd share with my readers and see what you think.  Sprawl is pretty universally characterized as a bad thing - that we used to have these tight, dense urban cities that then exploded with car-oriented suburban sprawl.  But I think that perspective needs to be re-framed.

Nothing is universal, but traditionally Americans have preferred small, even rural, communities.  Small town America has always appealed to our psyche.  In the 19th-century agricultural age, our economy needed those small towns spread pretty evenly across the country.  Then in the early to mid 20th-century industrial age, the population coalesced into more medium-sized towns oriented around factories.  Factories were still pretty widely spread, and their economics work best when they have a loyal workforce with modest wages and low turnover - thus a preference for small to mid-sized towns where they could be the employer-of-choice (vs. bigger cities where their employees might always be quitting to earn another couple bucks an hour at another employer down the road).

Next came the information age, and the economic shift from manufacturing to services.  All of a sudden, clustering together with others was very important.  With the economy concentrating, it made a lot more sense to live in a small community with easy access to a big one (i.e. a suburb), rather than an isolated small community.  People get the best of both worlds: they live in a small community, but then get access to the big city amenities when they need them, like airports, museums, sports teams, commercial and retail services, and, most importantly, employers and customers.

What I'm saying here is that it's not so much that cities sprawled out, but more that rural/small town population was drawn in towards cities as we moved from the agricultural to the industrial to the information age.  Rather than cities growing out, the national population of small communities coalesced around major metros - the population clustered together from being more decentralized to more centralized as the economics of that became more important.  It's not so much that people rejected living in urban cities to live in the suburbs, but that they rejected living in isolated small towns to live in the suburbs around big cities.   And, btw, those small towns have pretty much always been car-oriented, no matter where they were located.

If you could animate a population map of the country over the last century, what you'd see is the population slowly coming together and concentrating around the big metros (while the total population also dramatically increased, of course).  This is the opposite of the traditional sprawl story, which says that we've been decentralizing.  Yes, many people wish that those suburbanites would make the full move to the urban city (and many are, especially the youngest generation), but in any case we're better off having them in the suburbs than in isolated small and medium sized cities, like they used to live.  Sprawl is an improvement over traditional population distributions, not a regression.

Thoughts appreciated in the comments.

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