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Joel Kotkin: Houston Has a ‘Cruddy Reputation’ – But Its No-Zoning Approach Offers Lessons for Other Cities

Joel Kotkin

Joel Kotkin

HOUSTON – Houston has a “cruddy reputation,” but the city’s low-density suburban growth paradigm should be exported to other cities, says urban studies author Joel Kotkin.

In contrast to “New Urbanism” and “Smart Growth” schools of thought that promote renewed urban density, Kotkin calls Houston’s free-market growth approach “Opportunity Urbanism.”

Houston, often criticized for sprawl and a lack of planning, is offering opportunity to middle classes to own a single-family home and reach aspirations for economic advancement, said Kotkin, an urban studies fellow at Chapman University in California.

“Houston is presenting an alternative that really needs to be discussed,” Kotkin said at an Omni hotel luncheon where his new Houston-focused study: “Opportunity Urbanism: Creating Cities for Upward Mobility” was unveiled.

“The lack of zoning in many ways, is an advantage,” Kotkin said. “We want to offer this as an alternative approach of how you build a city.”

The “Opportunity Urbanism” that Kotkin articulates embraces Houston’s suburban growth with multiple employment centers scattered across the suburbs where new single-family homes fit a variety of household budgets.

Houston’s “Opportunity Urbanism” offers upward mobility to the middle class and immigrants; operates with a light touch on urban planning restrictions; provides relatively low cost housing and a cost-of-living; and promotes robust job creation.

“In many ways, Opportunity Urbanism contrasts with the prevailing urban planning paradigm—variously called New Urbanism or Smart Growth—which seeks to replicate the dense, highly concentrated mono-centric city of the past. At the core of this approach is the notion that policies of forced density, through regulatory mandates and often subsidies, are critical to attracting both young, educated people and the global business elite. This approach describes the successful city, in the words of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as “a luxury product,” Kotkin writes in the report.

“The philosophic underpinning of opportunity urbanism lies with the assumption that individuals and businesses usually are best at determining how to organize themselves and their lives,” Kotkin writes. “The Houston model, however, breaks with the conventional view that government regulation should drive and determine the character of urban growth. Rejecting this top-down approach is sometimes denounced by urban analysts, including some in Houston, as “pro-sprawl” and detrimental to higher-density growth. Yet … Houston’s continued suburban expansion has not prevented significant growth within the metropolitan area’s inner core.”

Kotkin’s study was underwritten by the Greater Houston Partnership and Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a property rights non-profit organization.

Kotkin, who frequently writes for Forbes, The Daily Beast and the Orange Country Register, said many people around the country have a negative opinion about Houston.

But Houston has been leading the nation in population growth, job growth and – in 2013 – had more single-family building permits than the entire state of California. But in public forums, Kotkin says he hears groans when Houston is mentioned. The city has an image problem.

“Houston’s biggest problem is it doesn’t communicate well with the world,” Kotkin said. “Houston has always had a cruddy reputation.”

What Houston’s development model of “Opportunity Urbanism” does offer upward mobility to the working classes in times when inequality and class struggles are looming, Kotkin said. Plus it offers a tremendous cultural blend and it is appealing to Millennials by developing an extensive bike system and the Buffalo Bayou park, he said.

Houston’s methods may not work everywhere, but the city delivers concepts that other metropolitan areas should observe.

“I’m not saying every city should be like Houston,” Kotkin said. “Every city has its own DNA and way of doing development.”





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