Houston: Model City


Do cities have a future? Pessimists point to industrial-era holdovers like Detroit and Cleveland. Urban boosters point to dense, expensive cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco. Yet if you want to see successful 21st-century urbanism, hop on down to Houston and the Lone Star State.

You won't be alone: Last year Houston added 141,000 residents, more than any region in the U.S. save the city's similarly sprawling rival, Dallas-Fort Worth. Over the past decade Houston's population has grown by 24%--five times the rate of San Francisco, Boston and New York. In that time it has attracted 244,000 new residents from other parts of the U.S., while older cities experienced high rates of out-migration. It is even catching up on foreign immigration, enjoying a rate comparable with New York's and roughly 50% higher than that of Boston or Chicago.

So what does Houston have that these other cities lack? Opportunity. Between 2000 and 2009 Houston's employment grew by 260,000. Greater New York City--with nearly three times the population of Houston--has added only 96,000 jobs. The Chicago area has lost 258,000 jobs, San Francisco 217,000, Los Angeles 168,000 and Boston 100,004.

Politicians in big cities talk about jobs, but by keeping taxes, fees and regulatory barriers high they discourage the creation of jobs, at least in the private sector. A business in San Francisco or Los Angeles never knows what bizarre new cost will be imposed by city hall. In New York or Boston you can thrive as a nonprofit executive, high-end consultant or financier, but if you are the owner of a business that wants to grow you're out of luck.

Houston, however, has kept the cost of government low while investing in ports, airports, roads, transit and schools. A person or business moving there gets an immediate raise through lower taxes and cheaper real estate. Houston just works better at nurturing jobs.

It's not just smug coastal places getting smoked by Texas. Since the collapse of the housing bubble Houston has outperformed Sunbelt counterparts like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. A big factor has been that manufacturing, professional services, international trade and technology industries have been the primary drivers of the city's economic growth--rather than construction and speculation. Ironically, this has increased home values. Since 2007 prices of homes in Houston have ticked slightly higher, while those in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and the Bay Area each are down by more than 35%.

Some traditional urbanists will concede these facts but then try to shift the focus to "qualitative" factors: the best-educated residents, the highest salaries, the most expensive real estate. Although it also attracts a large number of low-skill migrants, Houston has considerably expanded its white-collar workforce. According to the Praxis Strategy Group, Houston's ranks of college-educated residents grew 13% between 2005 and 2008. That's about on par with "creative class" capital Portland, Ore. and well more than twice the rate for New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles.

But Houston's biggest advantage cannot be reduced to numbers. Ultimately it is ambition, not style, that sets Houston apart. Texas urbanites are busy constructing new suburban town centers, reviving inner-city neighborhoods and expanding museums, recreational areas and other amenities. In contrast with recession-battered places like Phoenix, Houston remains remarkably open to migrants from the rest of America and abroad.

Houston, perhaps more than any city in the advanced industrial world, epitomizes the René Descartes ideal--applied to the 17th-century entrepreneurial hotbed of Amsterdam--of a great city offering "an inventory of the possible" to longtime residents and newcomers alike. This, more than anything, promises to give Houstonians the future.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.com.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.

Photo by telwink

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Houston is certainly tied to

Houston is certainly tied to energy, also an extremely important medical town and hub for others. It was one of the few estates in USA to escape real estate bubble. So, housing is relatively affordable -- even to blue collar immigrants.


If Houston is a "model city", I am shocked!. To me, Houston is a hodgepodge of urban sprawl probably second only to Los Angeles. The main reason the Houston economy has done better than many U.S. cities over the last decade is not because they have some magical-model formula, it is because of the industries it's economy is based on. Other cities have economies based on industries which proved to be much more affected by the financial crisis and recession. Houston's economy is almost 50% dependent on one industry...Energy(upstream and downstream). How will the very slowly approaching end of fossil fuels affect Houston? Here is a "Quality of Life" comparison of 67 Metropotitan areas from Bizjournal's Portfolio.com: http://www.portfolio.com/interactive-features/2010/05/2010-Quality-of-Li...

Air Pollution

The author fails to mention that Houston has a major air pollution problem. This according to the American Lung Association's report "State of the Air 2010". Metro Houston ranks 16th/of 100+ out of the US Metropolian Statistical Areas in year-round Particle Pollution and Metro Houston ranks 7th/of 100+ out of the US Metropolitan Statistical Areas in Ozone Pollution. Considering Houston's growth and it's WHOLLY inadequate mass transit system, the air pollution is not likely to see much improvement anytime in the near future.


When we were graduating high school there were several who went to Texas because of the greater opportunity for jobs.

I see this really hasn't changed much over the years.

Houston definitely has something the rest of the country doesn't.

etudes = The more you gamble the more you will love this etudes for its great casino customer service and casino games that are second to none.

Interesting comment about

Interesting comment about the weather. As in maybe it isn't "that" bad. Like I said, I'm a Southern guy and July in the 90's with 98% humidity it what I dealt with. So I'm sort of used to it.

I had a question though. My wife and I took a look at Austin last year. The property taxes were HIGH. As in 3%. So a 150-200k median house would have what- a $4,500 a year tax bill? Is that rate state-wide or dependent on the area?

School Districts

Tax rates in Texas are going to be higher because school districts depend on property taxes. Cities, counties, and other local jurisdictions depend on property taxes, but their rates are considerably less than the school districts.

Austin, as an example, the tax rates are:

Austin ISD: 1.21

City of Austin: .42

Travis County: .42

County Health: .06

Community College: .09

As you can see, school districts depend a lot on property taxes.

Houston Livability

Houston's "horrid climate" is one of those lovely urban myths. When I went there for college many years ago, upperclassmen had to reassure us as to how bad the climate was. The reality turned out to be quite different, at least during the 9 months a year we were there. In our non-airconditioned dorms, we could count on poor sleeping weather for a couple of weeks in September and a couple more during May; the rest of the year, the weather was marvelous. I went for four years without buying anything warmer than a sweater (though several straight days below freezing one January froze all the plumbing on campus & reduced us to using port-a-johns). Compared to the decades I subsequently spent in the Northeast, it was practically idyllic. Summer is another matter; you probably would want to spend most of your time in air conditioned comfort or 50 miles down the road on the beach. But I could say much the same for the slightly shorter but exceedingly humid summers in Philadelphia. There are a very few places in the US, particularly on the West Coast and Hawaii, that manage to be comfortable in both summer and winter; for the rest of us, it is a matter of deciding what we dislike most.

I also found the night life of Houston to be "vibrant" (even then, in the 1960s, when it was a far smaller and less sophisticated city); but I think life inside Loop 610 is much better than most of the 'burbs.

It is a Great Deal

Not just oil, but wind farm developers and alt energy companies coming in now. Part of its success comes from being within Texas, which does not give public employees excessively generous pensions, and provides transportation links to other large population centers.

It's one of the few interior sunbelt cities with an economy based on something other than basic sales and marketing jobs, consumer finance, real estate agents, and retail. Very different than Phoenix, Atlanta, or Charlotte.

And housing couldn't be a better deal. Can get a 5-10 year old, 4 Br house in Katy, 10-15 miles from the Energy Corridor for about $250k.

I lived in New Orleans briefly, and that kind of summer is brutal. But I'd take that anyday over the 8 month freeze you get in Chicago or Boston.

Winter in the No.2 Fun City and No.3 Fun City in the U. S.

Boston and Chicago do not have eight months winters. You could have found this out yourself if you had done a little checking. Boston is right on the Atlantic Ocean and for this reason has a relatively mild, short winter. Chicago on the other hand does have a longer "upper midwest" winter. If at all possible avoid the Chicago winter from about Thanksgiving to St. Patricks Day. That way, if you are there the rest of the year, you will still get just enough wintry weather(Halloween to Thanksgiving and St.P.D. to Tax Day) to appreciate the experience of winter. This is just like you will want to avoid, if possible, the months of June, July, and August in Houston. Fun Cities: http://www.portfolio.com/interactive-features/2010/04/living-it-up-the-t...

Sounds nice... but...

I'm a Southern guy and I'm used to hot, humid summers. But even for me, the horror stories I hear about the weather in Houston makes me a little wary of possibly moving there. On the other hand a quick search on Craigslist shows the quality of home you get for under $150,000 is amazing. Anyone from there have a lowdown on the weather?