Is "Opportunity Urbanism" Really A Thing?

Downtown Houston.  Source: wikimedia.org

Joel Kotkin, Wendell Cox and others have gotten together with the Greater Houston Partnership and HRG to produce a new report, Opportunity Urbanism: Creating Cities for Upward Mobility.  At first glance the report reads like Houston and other Sun Belt cities have created a new template for urban development in the 21st century.  But scratch a little deeper, and it’s clear that the authors have simply given a new sexy name to the conventional suburban development model that we’ve seen for the last 70 years.

Kotkin, Cox et al describe what they call a “new urban paradigm” being developed in Houston, called opportunity urbanism.  They say opportunity urbanism maximizes urban growth potential while providing greater upward mobility for residents.  Houston might be what they describe as the leader of the pack in implementing this paradigm, but they cite Dallas-Fort Worth, Oklahoma City and Atlanta as all demonstrating the trademark characteristics of the paradigm.

And what are the trademark characteristics?  It was initially hard for me to discern from the report, but it appears opportunity urbanism is characterized best by the following features:

  • A multi-polar metropolitan area
  • A dispersed population
  • An auto-focused transportation network
Opportunity urbanism metros stand in contrast to what the authors call “luxury urbanism” metros, like New York, San Francisco and Chicago, which they say are characterized by having strongly uni-polar metros, dense communities, and well-established public transit networks.  In addition, they say luxury urbanism metros have the kind of amenities — world-class museums, top-flight universities, beautifully landscaped parks, charming historic residential districts, elegant public spaces — that make them attractive to a select group of wealthy and highly educated people.
The authors argue that while luxury urbanism metros are busy making themselves pretty, opportunity urbanism metros making themselves rich.  They note the high levels of income inequality in luxury urbanism metros, and say that even in instances where income inequality is high with opportunity urbanism metros,

“…lower costs have helped its middle and working class populations to enjoy a higher standard of living than their luxury city counterparts.  The promise of the opportunity urbanism model also can be demonstrated by lower income disparities between racial groups, higher GDP growth, less expansion of poverty and the greater production of high-paying mid-skilled jobs.  In these aspects, opportunity cities like Houston greatly out-perform their often more celebrated rivals.”

That’s a bold claim, but I think the authors are identifying the markers of continued suburban-style growth in the Sun Belt, and choosing to call it something different.

I don’t dispute the growth of many Sun Belt cities.  It’s for real.  Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City and some others have been humming along quite well as other cities have struggled to establish themselves after the Great Recession.  However, what’s missing in this discussion are two very important points: 1) the explosion of the energy sector in Texas and the Gulf Coast to ramp up the economy, and 2) the general adherence to the suburban development paradigm there while the rest of the nation is shifting to something a little different.

The authors claim that Houston and other opportunity cities excel at providing consumers (i.e., new residents) what they want.  “Smart Growth” is tantamount to urban containment, narrows housing preferences and artificially raises housing costs.  I disagree.  Charles Marohn of Strong Towns has written extensively about what he calls the Growth Ponzi Scheme — where the full cost of development is continually deferred through the debt taken on by the cities, developers and individuals who buy into the process.  It may be that housing costs are artificially low in places like Houston, because no one is bearing the full cost of development.

Lastly, the authors created a number of charts and tables demonstrating that levels of income inequality and housing affordability are lower in opportunity cities like Houston, but it occurred to me that this might be because cities like Houston may have fewer wealthy whites who could skew the numbers as in New York or San Francisco, making things look a little more equal overall.

At any rate, I don’t see anything new being done in Houston; only a new name for an old pattern.

One thought on “Is "Opportunity Urbanism" Really A Thing?

  1. Extreme right parties give themselves feel-good names like “Party for Freedom,” “(Swiss) People's Party,” and “(Sweden) Democrats,” because the extreme right brand is so tarnished. That's how I feel about this sort of rebranding of what clearly means conservative urbanism. Because referring to this as conservative urbanism sounds too politicized, they use the term “opportunity urbanism.” The Sweden Democrats aren't particularly democratic, and the opportunity urbanists don't seem to care at all about any national measure of opportunity, like inequality or intergenerational income mobility, at neither of which the US Sunbelt is very good even by US standards.

    In reality, New York is the most unequal US metro area, but among major metro areas it's followed by Miami and Houston, not San Francisco or Boston. But it goes further, for two reasons. First, the US cites inequality numbers before taxes or transfers, and New York and California have higher taxes on the rich and social spending than Texas, reducing their after-taxes-and-transfers inequality more. And second, New York and San Francisco have dual housing markets because of rent controls, and between this and mass transit, this produces a class gradient in living costs. Wealthier people are more likely to be in market-rate housing and to want a car even in New York; the ability not to own a car in New York is a major moderating effect on living costs, while rent controls raise living costs for wealthier people and for people who'd like to move in while lowering them on long-time working-class residents. That's how the Center for Neighborhood Technology produces these maps showing that (at lower middle-class income) it's cheaper to live in central cities than in suburbs, and no cheaper to live in the Sunbelt than in New York.

    The other issue is that it's completely wrong to compare Houston with New York on many questions, especially racial ones. Houston and New York are both multiracial cities, in which non-Hispanic whites are not a majority. Why not compare the entire South with the Northeast? The sort of economic policies that Cox, Kotkin, and other right-wingers applaud in Texas are equally present in the rest of the South. Well, I didn't count them because they're not as big as Miami or Houston, but after New York and Miami, the most unequal US metro areas are various Deep Southern ones like Birmingham and New Orleans. And in those cities, the white majorities (in the state or county if not in the city proper) lead to a very different kind of racial politics from that of either New York or Houston, the kind where there's never any money for public schools, and instead white families of all social classes send their children to segregated private schools.

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