Tag Archives: Houston

The Pros and Cons of “Triumph of the City”

Editor’s note: This book review was contributed by Rust Wire’s economics expert, Lewis Lehe. If you haven’t already done so, make sure you watch his hilarious and informative videos on congestion pricing. – KG

The last ten years have stoked a renaissance in the genre of “books that make social science research accesible to laypersons while additionally developing the author’s own theory.” The king of the genre is the journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who set airport bookstores ablaze with “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” and “Outliers.”

Jonah Lehrer is a journalist who wrote “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” and “How We Decide.” Tom Vanderbilt is a journalist who wrote “Traffic.” People love these books. One of my ex-roommates has severe dyslexia and, last winter, he hadn’t read a book in five years. I gave him “Outliers,” and within a few months he had read everything Gladwell ever wrote. Now Victor is truly an outlier.

Unfortunately, the genre’s weak spot has been that all these books are written by journalists, rather than the equivocating career researchers behind the original findings. That’s why it’s refreshing to read a book like “Triumph of the City.” Ed Glaeser is a respected Harvard economist who rejuvenated the entire field of urban economics by doing lots of messy data collection and statistical analysis. “Triumph of the City” is a popular exposition of three of his primary findings and a few of his political opinions.

The findings are:
(1) Cities raise incomes because people are more productive when they interact face-to-face.
(2) Zoning, historic preservation, and pro-home-ownership policies engender sprawl.
(3) Urban dwellers emit less carbon.
The book’s policy prescriptions could be summarized by the following:
(1) Don’t do anything that might cause someone to move to Houston.

Pros:
Everyone should read this book, because it challenges conventional wisdom within the urbanist community. He argues powerfully that many activists’ attempts keep out evil developers just push development elsewhere or make cities more expensive. He’s critical of revitalization programs like light rail and convention centers. He’s critical of historic preservation. One of the most novel cases made is that northern California should allow vastly more sprawl, because Californians emit very little carbon into their perpetually temperate atmosphere.  A liberal Republican, Glaeser’s broader opinions figure frequently and honestly, and he has what I would call the “standard economist political belief”–free markets combined with generous social insurance (see Denmark, Australia, Singapore). If you are fundamentally suspicious of unplanned economic activity, then none of the arguments will move you.

I wouldn’t read the book solely for the arguments, however. “Triumph of the City” is also just a great repository of interesting little piece of stat-porn like:
–“If an area has January temperatures that are 5 degrees warmer, its prices go up by 3%”
–“In Los Angeles, construction costs are 25% higher than in Houston, but housing is over 350% more expensive”
–“More than 85% of people living in multifamily dwelling rent their living quarters. More than 85% of people in single-family detached dwellings own them.”

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the immense index at the end. I predict the books and articles there found will soon become heavily cited in college papers, simply because its hard to find such a great listing of so much research in one place. The index explains a lot of claims which, for brevity’s sake, come off as a little brash or far-fetched.

Cons:
The book has a few drawbacks: Glaeser sometimes vacillates on the scope of the word “city.” He compares the Houston metro to New York City proper too often, and he treats  Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) as though it were a singular city. Glaeser also seems to really love Chicago for being pro-growth, but a recent census release showed its population declined over the past ten years. And Glaeser comes close to using Detroit as a synecdoche for the entire Rust Belt, which is a pete peeve of mine. Pittsburgh is 68% percent white, and a third of its adults have a bachelor’s degree. Detroit is 77% African American, and only 12% of its adults have bachelor’s degrees. Both places are solidly Rust Belt, yet their demographic differences mean each city faces entirely different day-to-day challenges, as readers of this web site know.

Finally, Glaeser ignores the influence of illicit Codeine cough syrup consumption, which, to me, is the most salient feature of life in Houston, aka “Syrup City”:

Conclusion:
The book will give you lots of food for thought on how you can save your city. But most importantly, you will walk away feeling that your city is worth saving…that there are pressing global issues we can only solve by clustering together amid sidewalks and bus routes…that we can and should  defeat the suburbs of Houston in pitched, hand-to-hand combat.

-Lewis Lehe

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Filed under Book review, Featured, Good Ideas, Real Estate, sprawl, The Media, Urban Planning

The Future of the City

The Atlantic magazine has a special section on ‘The Future of the City.’

There’s  lot of really interesting stuff here, from local currencies to Robert Moses.

-KG

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Filed under Good Ideas, Real Estate, regionalism, Rust Belt Blogs, Urban Planning

Why is Houston going to be the electric car capital?

Why not Detroit? Or Cleveland? Or a more compact, less-sprawled out city like Pittsburgh?

This Reuters story says Houston, the “petro metro” is aiming to be the electric car capital of America.

Stories like this make me so mad.

A city in the Great Lakes region would be much better suited to this, yet some folks in Houston are showing more leadership on this issue. For instance, Houston has signed a deal to build public charging stations. “Such agreements are key to easing skeptical consumers’ fears of running out of juice if their car batteries run low before they can reach their garage charging stations,” the story explains.

-KG

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Filed under Economic Development, Editorial, Good Ideas, Green Jobs, regionalism, sprawl, U.S. Auto Industry

Rust Belt Cities Recovering from Recession; Sun Belt Cities Still Struggling

CNN is reporting that many cities that were hard hit by the recession early on are starting to recover, while economic conditions continue to decline Sun Belt cities in Florida, California, Nevada and Arizona.

RealtyTrac and The Federal Reserve Bank are reporting that the recession appears to be ending in the Northeast and Midwest but is continuing to ravage the Southwest.

foreclosure

All this is from the article:

Many cities with populations larger than one million experienced rapid increases in foreclosure during the past six months. Seattle, for example, wasn’t the worst hit city, but it experienced the biggest increase in the rate of filings. While a relatively small 1 in 107 homes received notices, that is a 72% jump compared with the same period a year ago. In second place was Minneapolis, where the filing rate grew by 58.6% to 1 in 90 homes; Phoenix spiked 51.7% to 1 in 22.

But some big cities showed substantial improvement. Filings in Greater New York fell 23.5% (1 in 211), and tumbled 40.7% in Boston (1 in 144) and 31.3% in Houston (1 in 153)

Taking the title of foreclosure capital is Las Vegas, which surpassed Stockton, Calif., for the honors. Stockton, which is 80 miles east of San Francisco, wore the crown for all of 2008.

Vegas, with a whopping 1 in 13 properties receiving a foreclosure filing during the first six months of 2009, is six times worse than the national average of 1 in 84. The number grew 56% since the first half of 2008.

The Cape Coral-Ft. Myers, Fla., area was second with 1 in 14 homes. California posted six cities in the top 10 list, with Merced coming in third at 1 in 15 homes being in trouble.

The Rust Belt, however, may have put the worst of its foreclosure problems behind it. Now even economically devastated Detroit recorded only 1 in 54 properties receiving filings. That’s a 16% decline over the first half of 2008.

Cleveland, one of the first cities to get whacked, has also improved and is now ranked only 56th among all U.S. metro areas. The city was once home to the nation’s hardest hit neighborhood — Slavic Village — but filings are now just 1 for every 73 homes, a 30% decline.

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Filed under Headline, The Housing Crisis