For decades, Houston has been disdained as a prime example of everything wrong with American cities. There literally are no zoning laws; building permits are easily obtained; unrestricted sprawl continues spreading as the city annexes more land; highway commuting is an ordeal; residents have few parks; schools are mediocre; pollution is rampant and the hot, humid weather can be extremely oppressive.
Yet since 1960, Houston’s population has grown nearly four times faster than the Bay Area’s. Houston families only need $42,000 to live as well as New York City families earning $100,000, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research.
Despite the all-too-obvious drawbacks of uncool Houston, the nation’s sixth largest city must be doing something right. And much of what it does is the mirror image of the elite and highly regulated “innovation economy” model that has been guiding the Bay Area’s competitive strategy.
A detailed blueprint of how Houston became a 21st-century boomtown came out this spring in “Opportunity Urbanism” by Joel Kotkin, an internationally recognized authority on city sociology. The conclusion is that business-oriented Sunbelt cities such as Houston offer the most applicable route to urban greatness for America’s expanding populace. These cities focus primarily on expanding broad opportunities for the masses, instead of catering to the elite.
Four key factors promote opportunity urbanism: Openness to outsiders (Houston welcomed more Hurricane Katrina refugees than any other city); a diverse and highly entrepreneurial economy (Houston transitioned from cotton to oil to technology); friendly business climate (Houston leaders dismantled city segregation in the ’60s to win NASA space headquarters) and a basically positive attitude toward growth (low taxes and limited regulations supporting a low cost of living).
It would be absurd to suggest that the Bay Area should somehow copy Houston’s success formula, considering the vast differences between these two regions. For example, the Bay Area is much more densely built out than Houston and has developed a vastly different societal climate.
Kotkin specifically admits San Francisco/Silicon Valley is one of the very few regions that could achieve world-class success with a “creativity elite” economy. However, it is invaluable for the Bay Area to understand the competition’s tactics.
And it could be even more valuable to our long-term prosperity if Bay Area leaders somehow adapted a few of Houston’s more transportable principles. This would largely involve loosening up our regulatory approach and giving the free market more breathing space, instead of automatically assuming all problems are best solved by fine-tuning new restrictions in hopes of avoiding unforeseen consequences.
If it were possible to enhance the best of the Bay Area by fixing some of our weaker points by incorporating what has worked for Houston, we would become even more competitive in an increasingly demanding global economy.