Since the start of the millennium, Houston and other cities have been pumping millions of dollars into revitalizing their downtowns.
The urbanists fueling much of this effort say folks will move into city centers as long as there are urban amenities to support them.
Joel Kotkin thinks that's a lot of hype.
Kotkin, a lecturer and writer on economic, political and social trends, believes the suburbs are where the action is and that a healthy urban core is only a small fraction of what makes a city thrive.
While he was in town this week lecturing to real estate groups, he shared his views on Houston's future with reporter Nancy Sarnoff.
Q: When discussing quality of life in Houston, words like heat, mosquitoes and traffic seem to permeate the conversation. How do we overcome this negative perception?
A: What is quality of life? Is it to most people what they can do in their neighborhood or back yard? Or is it having some magnificent edifice in the center of the city where they can go, "Oh my God, isn't that spectacular?"
Is the quality of life in Houston really bad? There are some things you can't do anything about. The climate is what it is. It's not like you don't pay attention to quality of life, but is quality of life defined by pouring billions of dollars into downtown so a bunch of yuppies can make believe they're in Manhattan?
Or is quality of life about hundreds of thousands and millions of people getting a house and having a decent quality of life and in many cases, for the immigrants, a quality of life that was unimaginable to their parents. Isn't that what America is about, or not?
Q: Some $300 million was spent on a 7.5-mile light rail system that runs from downtown to the Astrodome complex. Supporters said the train would help bring the city into the 21st century. Do you agree with that theory?
A: I think you are a 21st-century city. The cities that are built on transit are 20th-century cities. It's a good thing to have, but does a business move to Houston because it has a transit system? I hate to tell you your traffic's not that bad compared to a lot of cities.
It is a good thing to have. It's part of your infrastructure, like your airport and your port. But this idea that, "Oh, we'll be a world-class city." This endless -- excuse the expression -- this endless penis envy that cities have about, "Oh, if we can only be like someone else," instead of saying how do we work with who we are to make ourselves better?
I think it is a good thing, but it can't be more than a fraction of the solution. This is not going to be a city of straphangers. It's never going to happen. You probably can't afford to build a system to carry the number of people that go to work every day. Plus, if you look at the employment projection charts, they're moving further and further out.
Q: As someone who doesn't live here, but studies American cities, what do you see as the biggest problem facing Houston's future?
A: A craving to be someone else is probably the biggest problem. First thing is to figure out who you are. Ask people what they want.
Don't talk to five university professors and three new urbanists.
Ask, why do people come to Houston? Why do they stay here? What are the attributes they like? What are the things they don't like, and how do you work on your bad stuff and accentuate your good stuff like you would do with any individual? And stop trying to be somebody else. I think in L.A., we've finally gotten to a point in where we say, "You know, we don't want to be New York." We want to be who we are, and we have, if you will, a kind of urban magic of our own that we identify with. I think Houston's got to go through that maturing process.
Q: How would you grade Houston and the way it has been developing in the past few years?
A: I think Houston is one of the most interesting cities in the country. It has this ethnic mix. Here you've got Latin, Asian, African, Middle Eastern.
It's also an interesting place because of the way it has evolved. Maybe because of the lack of zoning that a lot of interesting things have happened here. In a way, it's like L.A., it's a triumph of the will. It shouldn't exist. It's an artificial city built on an artificial harbor. And it's not a climate that was designed for human habitation.
I think Houston has lots of opportunities to do interesting things because it's got a really good economy, it's very diversified, and I think Houstonians are very innovative.
Part of what my message will be in these talks is you ought to be proud of what you are. Don't say, "Oh, if we could only be like Boston." Boston is becoming an ephemeral, elite city where the middle class has no upward mobility.
This is a city of upward mobility and aspiration, and that's what Houston should be selling itself as. Not as, "Well, we're kind of getting like Boston, we're kind of hip and cool." To hell with that crap.
Houston has vitality. It's got young demographics. It's a city of opportunity. If I was 25 years old, I probably couldn't move to Los Angeles. Houston would be one of those places you'd look at: Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas.
Q: Mayor Bill White recently announced plans to build an $80 million, 13-acre park in downtown Houston, saying it would spur retail and residential development. Do you believe urban parks can work as catalysts to this type of growth?
A: If you have an urban park, well, that'll be nice, but then you have to ask the question, was the money that was spent there, could that have been spent in a bunch of neighborhoods in Latino and Asian neighborhoods that just happen not to be near where developers are speculating?
Not to be cynical. We see the same thing in Los Angeles. I see it in almost every city in the country now. People are focusing on the ephemeral and not on the real. And I'm not criticizing Bill White. I like him, and he's really smart, but I think people have been captivated by these legends.
Ultimately you will never have families living downtown where there are homeless people. They're not going to do it. Or they'll do it for a while and then get annoyed by it after being panhandled for the 498th time.
We're creating these kind of Potemkin villages with arts and culture. As functioning places where middle-class people and families live, they're not working. We have to fundamentally focus on those issues as opposed
to these ephemeral
Copyright 2004, The Houston Chronicle