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Houston: Case Study in Opportunity Urbanism

Leonard Gilroy
June 9, 2007, 9:42pm

Today's Houston Chronicle ran a fantastic op-ed by Houston Strategies blogger Tory Gattis articulating the case for Houston as a model of the 21st century, dynamic city of opportunity. There's a widespread perception of Houston as a sprawling free-for-all and epitome of market-driven urban chaos, but having lived there the last several years, it's clear to me that the national perception of Houston doesn't jive with reality. Tory breaks it down:
Houston is at a turning point. With a boost from noted urbanist Joel Kotkin, our city has begun recasting its national reputation from "that ugly, sprawling, weird city without zoning" to the exemplar city for "Opportunity Urbanism," a compelling new paradigm for cities in the 21st century. This paradigm asserts that the fundamental (but recently forgotten) core mission of cities is to accelerate the upward social and economic mobility of its inhabitants. This may sound obvious to the average person, but in the wonkish world of urban policy and planning, the themes of the past decade have been environmentalism (smart growth), pedestrian aesthetics (new urbanism), and meeting the desires of the educated elites (the "creative class"). Each of these movements raised important points– the need for urban core renewal and infill, a lack of quality pedestrian spaces and neighborhoods, and talent as the new basis of global competition, respectively. But they also went a step too far – denying suburban homeownership to those who desire it, demonizing the car and excessively focusing on attracting a narrow class of outside talent by being "hip and cool" instead of developing skills broadly in the existing population. Improving life for the typical resident got lost in the clamor. What do we mean by "improving life" and "upward social and economic mobility?" Kotkin's research team, of which I was a part, identified four enablers: additional education for self or children; affordable homeownership; entrepreneurship; and getting a superior job, better matched to the jobholder's skills with improved productivity and pay. Urban policies and planning can have a direct effect on each of these drivers. How can a city make more of these positive changes happen for more people? Our prescription – and Houston's great strength – revolves around the theme of maximizing residents' "opportunity zone." What constitutes a rich environment for these four enablers to do their positive work? The more education, job, start-up, or affordable home options they have within their personal travel-time/cost tolerance, the more likely most people are to take advantage of them. That's their opportunity zone, and Houston has managed to maximize it in four key ways.
You'd be missing out if you didn't read the rest here. And be sure to check out Tory's related blog posts here and here for more, as well as this piece he and I co-authored for the Chronicle warning of the perils of planning for Houston.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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