|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
“…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.