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Is Houston the American City of the Future?

A scholar who's been studying the place for half a century thinks so, and it does seem to be ahead of other cities in some respects. But there also are some ways it's behind the curve.

Downtown Houston. (Shutterstock)
The first time I visited Houston, many years ago, I drove straight into the center of the city on Interstate 10, white-knuckling it among a chaotic swarm of some of the most aggressive, pedal-to-the-metal motorists I'd ever encountered. That night I dreamed I had been racing in the Indianapolis 500, frantically dodging other drivers at lethal speeds and barely coming out alive.

I have been in many car-dominated cities since then, but that first taste of Houston has never quite left me. No matter how harrowing it may be to drive through Los Angeles or Atlanta, Houston still represents something qualitatively different to me. Maybe that's just my illusion, but maybe not: I read recently that Houston leads the nation's big cities in its rate of pedestrian and cycling fatalities.

Houston has long struck many observers as different, perhaps even unique among American cities, and not just in its highway free-for-all. There is the absence of any zoning in the traditional sense; the almost compulsive commitment to unrestricted growth; and the reluctance to impose environmental regulation in what may be the nation's most flood-prone metropolis.

Stephen Klineberg believes Houston is different as well, and he brings serious academic rigor to such an assertion: He has been studying the city for nearly 50 years as a professor at Rice University. But his Houston isn't unusual merely in its famously quirky approach to land use; he believes it offers a preview of what the rest of America's cities are going to be a generation hence. "In 2050," Klineberg writes in his new book, Prophetic City, "all of America will look very much like Houston today."

What makes him so sure? Demographics, to start with. American cities are nearly all coping with rapid increases in immigration and diversity; Houston has been doing this longer than virtually any of them. It acquired a substantial Latino population long before most cities had one. Now, decades later, it is dealing with the long-term consequences of immigration while rival cities are treating it as something relatively new.

The numbers in Houston are quite remarkable. Its population comprises the most even split among the four major demographic groups — Latino, Anglo, African American and Asian — of any big city in the country. Other places are getting there. Houston is there. The most recent population estimates for Houston and surrounding Harris County show the area to be 42 percent Latino, 31 percent Anglo, 19 percent Black and 8 percent Asian.

One consequence of this early diversity has been growing recognition of the differences not only between these groups but within them. Immigrants from Cuba and South America have a much different experience — largely a more positive one — than those who come from Mexico or Central America. Vietnamese immigrants lag behind recent arrivals from India, Pakistan, China and Taiwan in their economic advancement. Residents of other large cities are learning this; Houstonians know it instinctively. They also know that third-generation immigrants from most of the Latin countries are not progressing educationally the way city leaders hoped they would. Houston's leaders realize this because they already have an ample supply of third-generation immigrants to study.

In 2018, just 9 percent of the pupils in the Houston Independent School District were Anglos. Virtually all the rest were Black or Hispanic. This public-school divide is deepening in virtually all large cities, but it has existed longer in Houston, and Houston residents have been even more reluctant than those in other cities to spend money on the public schools their families do not use. Klineberg describes this mentality succinctly. "These are not my children," he portrays the middle-class Anglo as insisting. "Why should I have to pay any more to educate them."

But another change in educational sentiment may be developing faster in Houston than almost anywhere else. The city's current mayor, Sylvester Turner, is African American and a passionate believer in neighborhood schools. "When you take kids out to another community," he told Klineberg, "you disconnect them instead of providing additional life-support skills." He has strong support for this view in much of the Black community; when he expresses these views to Black audiences, he is almost always applauded. A large proportion of Houston's Black residents are coming to believe they do not need to sit next to Anglo kids in order to learn. Turner was elected to a second term decisively in 2019.

There are signs of something similar emerging in other places. A few years earlier, powerful support for neighborhood schools emerged in Chicago when then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided to close 50 of them, mostly in African American neighborhoods. It would be surprising if we did not see more of this neighborhood-school solidarity in the years to come. Any move in this direction will have to compete with an equally intense belief among many white progressives that mandated city-wide integration is the solution to racial inequity. But the debate is going to take place.

AS WITH EDUCATION, Houston voters have not been eager to provide generous tax support for social services for the needy. But the structure of social generosity there is a little different from the one that exists in most other places. Houston has an exceptionally strong network of nonprofits. Their performance in dealing with the influx of Hurricane Katrina refugees in 2005 and 2006 was extraordinary by any standard. By one reckoning, Houston ranks first or second among American cities in its level of social spending by nonprofits and charities in general. If public social generosity is likely to be on the stingy side in most cities in the next decade, Houston is a good place to look for clues to how a different model might succeed.

Houston is often identified with Protestant fundamentalism, and evangelicals have been increasing their presence slightly, but here, too, the area is changing fast. The Latino presence has brought an upsurge in Catholicism; meanwhile, immigration has made Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus into a cohort comprising nearly 10 percent of the population. Houston has in no way lost its faith. But as Klineberg puts it, socially conservative religiosity is gradually diminishing as a moral and political force. "With the influx of so many different traditions," he writes, "the way religion manifests itself has changed. No longer is it exclusively centered in specific church denominations."

One important result of all this religious mixing has been a dramatic increase in interfaith organizations and activities. Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston has become a potent force not only in religion but in all aspects of the community. Here, too, Houston seems to be ahead of the curve.

WHERE IS HOUSTON BEHIND THE CURVE? Notwithstanding Klineberg's overall optimism, it is behind in several important respects. Managing the environment is clearly one of them. When Hurricane Harvey struck the city in 2017, it was the single wettest storm in the nation's history and 150,000 homes were flooded. Many of them had been built inside a federal flood-control reservoir. It was legal to build there; sellers of property weren't even required to tell buyers about the parcel's flood history. Harvey was a wake-up call: In 2018, city voters passed a $2.5 billion bond issue to pay for new flood-control infrastructure. But on this issue, as with every other issue of environmental protection, Houston is the furthest thing from a model or an icon of the future. It is struggling to catch up with the present.

Something similar might be said, not without controversy, about urban planning. For decades the city leadership and its libertarian admirers boasted not only about the absence of zoning but about the absence of a comprehensive land use plan of any sort. That began to change in 2015, when then-Mayor Annise Parker managed to steer through "Plan Houston," a comprehensive multi-decade strategy to promote diversity, attractive streetscapes, the arts, workforce development, multi-modal transportation and affordable housing.

Plan Houston was a general blueprint, not a set of specific instructions. Its impact has been modest, although noticeable in a few conspicuous areas, such as expansion of the city's bike lanes. Most important, though, it was a signal that Houston's days without urban planning were coming to an end. It was an acceptance that the city needed something nearly all of its rivals had developed much earlier. "If we don't act now," one of the plan's authors insisted, "we'll miss the opportunity to be a great city."

Plan Houston may have produced few dramatic results so far, but it seems inevitable that there will be more planning ahead as the entire region recovers from the coronavirus pandemic. Decisions will need to be made about what kind of development to encourage, what sorts of subsidies to offer to struggling small businesses, and what the physical structure of the city should look like going forward. When it comes to central planning and decision-making, Houston in 2030 is bound to look more like its counterpart cities, not less.

Then there's the matter of affordability, another of Houston's claims to fame and uniqueness among cities. Free-market urbanists have long traced Houston's healthy population growth to the lenient regulation that has allowed developers to build ambitious new projects just about anywhere and keep the prices reasonable.

The reality is somewhat different. Housing prices in much of the Houston area have remained low compared to those in other cities, but property taxes are no bargain and the sprawling nature of the metropolis forces residents into painfully long, expensive and pollution-creating commutes. In the words of Bill Fulton, the director of Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, "Houston is not an especially affordable city."

So it is a mixed bag. America's "most different" metropolis has important lessons to impart to the rest of the nation's cities. It also has some things to learn from them.

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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