Be Nice, It May Help Your City’s Economy

In some cities, the personality of its residents may play a part in economic success (or failure).
by | January 2016

Scott Beyer

Scott Beyer is a Governing columnist who focuses on urban issues.

Downtown Houston (M&R Glasgow)

Houston’s “personality” became evident to me the first hour I spent there in November. It was around midnight, and I had just checked into my downtown hotel. I was looking for a bodega to pick up some beer. I couldn’t find one, and stopped a man to ask. Nothing was open, he said. But sensing my dilemma, he reached into his grocery bag and produced a can. Before I could pay, he had handed it over, waved me off and said, “Welcome to Houston.”

This encounter has played out again and again in different ways throughout my monthlong stay. Rather than fast-paced and impersonal, Houston has a friendly, small-town feel that is surprising for America’s fourth largest city. People hold doors, provide in-depth directions and smile at you on the street. Even in denser interior neighborhoods, it is common to greet passersby.

This contrasts with other U.S. cities, where strangers avoid eye contact. In some cities, such as New York, this coldness can seem like rudeness, marked by aggressive drivers, open profanity and subway riders who hog bench space.

This may seem overly generalized, and to an extent it is -- of course there are plenty of nice folks in other big cities. But consider recent reader surveys published by Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast. They found America’s friendliest cities were largely in the South, with Houston ranking No. 11, while major Northern and coastal ones dominated their “unfriendly” lists.

This can affect how cities operate. Patrick Jankowski, a researcher for the Greater Houston Partnership, the city’s chamber of commerce, believes Houston’s welcoming mentality helps its bottom line. For decades, the city has experienced explosive growth, and Houston encourages these newcomers through open business and land-use policies. Its center-left political establishment has focused on perpetuating these fortunes. Similar approaches can be found in Austin, Nashville and Oklahoma City.

In “unfriendly” cities -- Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco -- street-level curtness has permeated the sociopolitical climate. Construction projects are viewed as neighborhood takeovers instead of much-needed new housing. It’s easier to find examples of corruption, and narrow self-interests seemingly hold more power, suggesting a lack of social cohesion. As a result, residents face high taxes, expensive housing and barriers to entrepreneurship.

This doesn’t mean that friendliness solely propels growth. But Jankowski says it can contribute to -- and result from -- prosperity. Houston, with its low taxes and regulation, has become meritocratic. It has a fast startup rate, a relatively high average wage and a low cost of living. It also has an optimistic spirit, with 89 percent of residents, according to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, agreeing that “if you work hard, eventually you will succeed.” This perception, along with warm weather and Southern culture, may explain the positive vibe.

Houston’s lessons are twofold, says Jankowski. Leaders should promote policies that open their cities’ economies. Culturally, he says, leaders should encourage, through political rhetoric at least, a more welcoming atmosphere.

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