In an upcoming study I am working on with Chapman University’s Center for Demographics and Policy, we show that San Francisco and Houston are North America’s “emerging” global cities. They are also rival representative champions and exemplars of two models of civic development. San Francisco is the world’s technology capital; focused on the highest levels of the economic food chain; paragon of the new, intangible economy; and promoter environmental values and compact development. Houston is the closest thing to American laissez-faire; unabashed embracer of the old economy of tangible stuff, including unfashionable, but highly profitable, industries like oil, chemicals, and shipping.
San Francisco embraces development restrictions that it sees as environmentally sustainable --- and not coincidentally produced the highest housing costs compared to income in the nation, rendering the region unaffordable to all but the elite --- whereas Houston has risen as an “opportunity city” for the non-elite; and the land of no-zoning and unrestricted development. Somewhat unexpectedly, both cities are remarkably socially tolerant. Houston has an openly lesbian Democratic mayor and is extremely diverse, and while San Francisco may be a bit more free wheeling with its Folsom Street Fair and such, it’s also more strictly enforces its intellectual and political orthodoxy.
Yet to date the competition between these two emerging models has been non-existent, at least from Houston’s perspective. Simply put, the Bay Area has played its hand brilliantly, and is lavished with praise in the media. In contrast Houston seems to be missing the self-promotion gene, at least outside what it has to pay for with advertising. The Bay Area has built its own image, often with the avid support of journalists who grant tech moguls demi-god status, and understandably prefer San Francisco’s spectacular scenery, mild weather and world-class restaurants to flat, steamy Houston, whose exciting food scene is typically housed in nondescript strip malls.
In conventional (that is New York or London) terms it’s easy to see San Francisco as a global capital. It has long been established as an elite national center, the financial capital of the West Coast, as well as the traditional center, along with parts of New York, of the American counter-culture. With the comparative decline of Los Angeles, the Bay Area reigns supreme on the west coast. Its technology industry strides the globe like a colossus, its tech titans have managed, at least to date, to play simultaneously the roles of both modern day robber barons and populist heroes.
Houston is less obvious. Though the energy capital of the world, Houston is still emerging as a prominent national and global city. It’s less mature, and was a small, obscure city when San Francisco was already emerging as the uncontested capital of the west coast. And unlike San Francisco, whose only real rival is much smaller Seattle, Houston competes with an equally large, and in many ways also rising rival in Dallas-Ft. Worth.
Unlike tech, energy has produced few rockstars, but many who are castigated as demons. Although there are 5,000 energy companies and 26 Fortune 500 headquarters in Houston, few of its leaders have achieved public prominence apart from Dick Cheney and Enron’s Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay --- not exactly folk heroes.
This is not to say some energy people don’t deserve celebration. For example, few Americans noticed the recent death of George Mitchell, the father of the fracking revolution that has driven America’s greenhouse gas emissions down at the fastest rate in the world, and one of America’s premier developers of master planned developments in the form of The Woodlands near Houston. The Economist said of this son of poor Greek immigrants, “Few businesspeople have done as much to change the world as George Mitchell.” (Most people hearing the name would probably think of former Maine Senator George Mitchell).
The maturity curve alone isn’t enough to account for the difference. Two additional factors are at work. First, the Bay Area self-consciously sees itself as a leader and moral exemplar. It wants to world to follow where it leads. Houston it seems, perhaps in line with its laissez-faire approach, wants to leave others alone, and be left to its own. It may boast of having a great model, but whether others adopt has been of no particularly great local concern.
The second big divergence relates to media. After all, the media, understood broadly, is how we come to have knowledge about or opinions of many things. Simply put, San Francisco and the tech industry get the power of media, while Houston doesn’t.
The content creators may still prefer a New York, LA, or DC but the tech moguls are circling the last redoubts of entertainment and information. Apple now has a dominant position in content distribution for music and is expanding in other areas. Google generates huge advertising revenues that are greater than the entire newspaper and magazine industry. Despite its many troubles, Yahoo remains one of the most-visited news sites. Meanwhile in just last year or two, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has bought the venerable New Republic while Seattle’s Jeff Bezos recently bought the Washington Post. Pierre Omidyar, founder of Ebay, recently announced a $250 million new media venture featuring Glenn Greenwald and other well-known leftist media types.
This isn’t just hubris, it’s good business. With Silicon Valley magnates starting to come under the same scrutiny as their 1% peers in other industries, it pays to have the means to control the narrative. Glenn Greenwald helped break the story on NSA snooping, but now that he’s on Silicon Valley’s payroll, how likely is it that he’ll take a similarly tough line on tech company privacy matters? Give the Bay Area/tech crowd their due – they know what they are doing.
Houston, by contrast, has close to zero media influence or impact and seems not to care. It’s much less an influencer of media than one whose reputation has been shaped by it, and often not in a good way. Though there are many sprawl dominated metropolises in America, it’s Houston that has become the bête noire of urbanists.
It’s easy to understand historically why Houston has so little media influence, but harder to understand why the city is so blasé about it. Tory Gattis, a former McKinsey consultant and local Houston blogger, suggests that it has to do with the DNA of the energy industry. Most energy companies in Houston are B2B operations, so have little need for mass media. Energy has always been a political game and the industry’s approach has been a fairly direct one: employ a phalanx of lobbyists and former politicians around the world to help secure deals. Also, unlike with the latest smart phone or social media app, you don’t need to convince anybody to fill up his gas tank or turn on his furnace in the winter. The product is already completely understood by the end customer and literally sells itself.
This mindset explains why the city has a blind spot, a missing gene if you will, that keeps it from understanding the necessity of having a robust media presence as part of its ambition to become a true global city. The Bay Area tech community may have been slow to the party when it comes to lobbying, but they are spending big to catch up fast and many of their executives have political as well as media aspirations. But despite its incredible wealth and surfeit of billionaires, Houston is absolute nowhere when it comes to media or thought leadership, and seems indifferent to the fact.
Beyond merely asserting a role on the stage, getting in the media game is critical to the survival of Houston and its model. The Bay Area sees itself as a model for a future America and world. It is spending big, lobbying big, and invading politics to create the kind of future it wants to see. Its mindset is to dominate.
Houston may be content to let San Francisco go its own way but the reverse does not hold. Silicon Valley has its sights set on overturning the fossil fuel industry through big investments (and good ol’ government pork) in green tech companies. Legal mandates that favor their investments are popular. It should be no surprise that folks like Bay Area billionaire Thomas Steyer have been vocal opponents of the KeystoneXL pipeline. (Such opposition is not uniform. Mark Zuckerberg’s Fwd.us organization supports KeystoneXL. But there’s clearly a lot of Silicon Valley support for policies that aren’t great for the Houston model).
Houston can brag all its wants about its legitimate accomplishments in important areas like job and population growth and in providing middle-class opportunity. But if it wants to claim the mantle of global city, or even just head off threats to its way of doing business, it needs, like the Bay Area, to self-consciously stake out the role of leader. For starters, that means putting its bigtime financial and intellectual muscle behind getting its message out. That means, like it or not, investing not only in oil wells, but inkwells.
Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile.