Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Opportunity Urbanism

Joel Kotkin has published a paean to Houston entitled "Opportunity Urbanism: An Emerging Paradigm for the 21st Century."

In this article Kotkin favorably contrasts the rapidly growing Sunbelt cities such as Houston, Dallas and Phoenix with "superstar" cities such as New York, San Francisco and even Chicago. Superstar cities in Kotkin's view revolve around the rich and the creative class that largely services them. There is little place for the middle class, in part because of stratospheric housing pricing and in part because of lack of economic opportunity. Advancement is difficult for the middle class in the stratified business and cultural environment of superstar cities.

In contrast, cities like Houston embody "opportunity urbanism." In Kotkin's view such cities encourage innovation and reward hard work by regular folk. Like Chicago a century ago, such cities are often reviled as uncouth and filled with money grubbers. As Kotkin slices the data, however, such cities offer relatively low housing costs and high quality educational systems. Taxes are lower and regulations less burdensome than in the superstar cities.

According to Kotkin, cities that exemplify opportunity urbanism are competing well against the superstar cities for corporate headquarters, cultural institutions and even members of the creative class. He seems to believe that such cities are in a relatively early stage of their development and will mature into superstar cities. He doesn't talk about what will happen to the superstar cities--perhaps they will become Venice-like temples of urban form lacking real economic substance.

Kotkin says that one characteristic of opportunity urbanism is a high level of public investment in humble but important infrastructure--transportation, schools, sewers, and the like. Interestingly, most of the cities Kotkin identifies as examples of opportunity urbanism have relatively weak public transit systems compared to the public transit systems of the superstar cities. Kotkin briefly acknowledges the challenge that sprawl development poses to poor people getting access to jobs. His suggestion is that the most effective way to give the poor access to the job market is not to expand the transit system to try to network all of the outlying areas. Rather, Kotkin suggests the more effective approach is to equip the poor with cars so they can have the same access to employment centers as anyone else (pg. 35 of 43).

Note that Kotkin reports (pg. 34 of 43) that:

Houston officials recently announced plans to double investment in new transportation infrastructure to $77.3 billion by 2025. Dallas-Forth Worth, El Paso, and other Texas cities are also preparing massive new transportation infrastructure.

Kotkin argues that there is a direct link between such investments and the kind of economic and social dynamism that characterizes opportunity urbanism.

One interesting and slightly paranoid implication from this argument is that this region's reluctance to make substantial new transportation investments reflects the desire of the local elites to maintain the status quo. In other words, they prefer stable slow growth that keeps existing arrangements in place over faster growth and its associated social upheaval that may displace them with nouveau riche.

Kotkin's analysis is a somewhat refreshing populist antidote to those urbanists who prioritize the trappings of wealth--e.g., high real estate prices, elevated per-capita consumption of sushi, rarefied cultural attractions--and downplay the role of the city in propelling people of modest circumstances into the middle class and beyond.

One gets the sense that Kotkin's description of Houston as an energetic, entrepreneurial city might have fit Chicago a century ago. Today the mantle of "superstar city" does not fit comfortably on this region's civic head. It's like a crown that is too big for the head of the king. Yet, by the measures Kotkin uses, Chicago isn't an exemplar of opportunity urbanism either.

I suspect Kotkin's article may fit the data to support his love letter to Houston. Nevertheless, it is an interesting read.


Anonymous said...

I think that there are a couple problems with Kotkin's great new paradigm. In regards to taxes and regulatory burdens, it is clear that many of the new sunbelt cities have lower taxes. But this is really because their infrastructure and job bases are heavily subsidized. The "superstar" cities are all net payers of taxes; cities like Phoenix are net receivers.
Secondly, there is no mention whether the model for these cities is sustainable. They were all built in and era of cheap energy with no concern for the enviornmental problems they may create. They rely completely on oil, since the only way to get around is by car. If oil gets real expensive, these cities will become wastelands. At least in the "superstar" cities there are alternatives -- they were built before the auto age and will survive after it.
If the old superstar cities cater only to the rich, and the new sunbelt cities are built for the masses, how come their growth has coincided with a general increase in income inequality? The business enviornment of those sunbelt cities is dominated by corporate chains. Larger, more dense cities such as New York or Chicago have far more opportunities for small retail businesses; because of that, money tends to stay in the community. In the suburbs, all that money spent on TGIF, or Ruby Tuesday -- it all goes to the stockholders of those corporations. And who owns stock in our country?
In the end, this sort of argument is an argument against standards. Is it wrong for a city to want strong cultural institutions? Is it elitist to say that sprawl development is ugly and depressing? I don't think so. The design of of our cities should be held to the highest standard, and we should have reason to care about the places we live in. Suburban style development is ultimately unsustainable because it is a style that no one really cares about. These places were built by no one and no one has any attachment to them. And in the end, no one will bother to save them.

Anonymous said...

Oh Jesus, rather than funding public transit, the government should buy everyone a car? WTF.