Two recent articles on my home town caught my attention recently and sent me back to some of my previous thoughts on the sources of success for one of the most unlikely of successful geographic areas. Last week, Rice University President David Leebron wrote a very insightful essay in The Houston Chronicle entitled “Ten Reasons Houston Attracts New Residents”, in which, as a relative newcomer to the city from New York, he lists ten characteristics of Houston that make it attractive to newcomers, even if they are at first skeptical, as many are. The key traits he identifies are (1) this city welcomes the people who choose to come here; (2) Houston is a pragmatic yet optimistic and ambitious city; (3) Houston is a philanthropic city; (4) Houston has great parks; (5) Houston is a vibrant cultural center; (6) Houston attracts remarkable people from other great places; (7) Houston is a tech city; (8) Houston is an international city; (9) Houston is a tolerant city; and (10) Houston is a diverse city.
I happen to agree with every trait he has suggested, all of which have meaningfully contributed to the attractiveness of Houston and many of which are well-kept secrets until a newcomer arrives.
But there is much more to it. In fact, much of what he describes is a manifestation of deeper aspects of Houston’s culture, as noted by an essay in The Wall Street Journal, “Success and the City”, by Joel Kotkin of Chapman University and Tory Gattis of the blog Houston Strategies. Messrs. Kotkin and Gattis posit that Houston’s pro-growth policies have produced an urban powerhouse and more–a blueprint for metropolitan revival. They maintain that the growth-friendly attitude is what holds everything together in Houston and is much more than energy industry luck; it reflects a unique policy environment that will be crucial when, inevitably, the next slowdown comes.
And I would add even more, with characteristics that I have noted in previous essays that have highlighted our city’s organic culture as well as some cautions about how not to mess it up:
** The future belongs to those regions that are attractive to capital and where it is well-treated, so those attributes, particularly those that are friendly to enterprise and opportunity, that have made Houston attractive to capital should be emphasized.
**A large part of Houston’s attractiveness is that there is “no price of entry” in terms of class, origin, race, or family wealth. Houston is a place where people come from all over the world to pursue whatever version of the American dream they bring with them.
**Our city’s accessibility and openness should be celebrated. We don’t need “image” campaigns or consultants, which are often fronts for transforming our image to one of “urbanity” and the commensurate lifestyle that fits the preference of many “smart growth” advocates.
**Houston can continue to be what The Wall Street Journal once called “the Hong Kong of the Western hemisphere” only if it can avoid the tendency to embrace “progressive” ideas such as zoning and its cousins, land use planning and smart growth theories, along with publicly-financed hotels and transit plans that are insufficiently user-financed.
**It will be of increasing importance to take a critical look at the role and proper functions of government at every level and to be receptive to marketization opportunities wherever they present themselves. The competition for capital will demand this.
**Race- and ethnic-based contract set asides and other group preferences, whether to correct perceived past injustices or promote “diversity”, will have a long-term negative impact on social relations.
**Currently, the most threatening area of risk to our continuing success is the performance of our institutions of public education and Houston’s top priority should be a model elementary and secondary education system. This will not be possible until a declaration of war is declared on childhood illiteracy and competition and accountability become fully integrated into education delivery at every level.
If Texas didn’t have a Houston, we’d want to build one, so let’s take care of the one we have.
Vern Wuensche says
Your comment about the benefit of Houston’s absense of zoning and land use planning I believe to be right on the mark. As with almost all instances where free enterprise is brought to bear, land without zoning is allowed to always be ultimately used for its “highest and best use” as reflected in the judgments of developers about the preferences of many thousands of consumers. NOT to be captive to the judgments of a few misguided bureaucrats.