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As the name of my new book of essays suggests, I have always believed that place and prosperity are deeply intertwined. A city or town probably won’t be prosperous unless it has lots of place amenities – things that draw people to the location like parks, good schools, restaurants and stores, cultural institutions, walkable neighborhoods. And a city or town probably can’t afford all those amenities unless it is prosperous. 


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And throughout my life, I’ve tried to seek out strong places, often in search of my own prosperity. My hometown in Upstate New York had a very strong sense of place, but larger economic forces limited opportunity for me. I lived in high-amenity locations in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. In Ventura, California, I found a location that provided me with both a sense of place and access to prosperity for 25 years. In San Diego, I lived in Little Italy — one of the most compelling urban places anywhere in the country.

Then I moved to Houston.

If ever there was a city that seemed to undermine the idea that place and prosperity are intertwined, it is Houston. Throughout almost all of the city’s history, prosperity has not been a problem — even when, as during the Depression, it’s been a problem for the rest of the country. As my colleague Steve Klineberg is fond of saying, the line on Houston was, “You could dress a gorilla up in a suit, send him downtown, and he’ll be a millionaire in a week.”

And while Houston has some well known high-amenity neighborhoods, place was rarely viewed as being high on the list of priorities. Houston is rich but utilitarian. What other city would tolerate an at-grade railroad crossing in its most affluent neighborhood? Like Los Angeles, it’s designed as a driving city — but you really can’t walk down the street even if you want to because the sidewalks are so bad.

Even in business districts, street level urban design is ordinary at best. For example, I like to call the Texas Medical Center, which has an employment density comparable to London or Sydney, the “Rosslyn of Texas”. Urban planners will know what I mean: The Rosslyn business district in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac from Georgetown, is notorious for its lousy pedestrian environment. (Arlington is, thankfully, fixing this problem.) That’s why Houston has a reputation among urban planners as not a city but an un-city.

And yet.

Houston has challenged me as an urbanist unlike any other city I’ve ever encountered. It’s made me question everything I have ever believed about place and prosperity and the relationship between the two. It’s an exciting mishmash of people, cultures, and activity, even if most everybody goes from one place to another in a car. As in Los Angeles, its best neighborhoods are truly great. It’s a city of dense business districts: TMC (for all its faults), Uptown, the Energy Corridor. Remember where the gorilla had to go to become a millionaire: downtown.

And people do walk. Just not on the streets.

They walk along the bayous — perhaps the nation’s most impressive set of linear parks — in enormous numbers, though most of this walking is for recreation, not to get anywhere. And they walk all the time to get from one place to another through the tunnels downtown and the skywalks in the TMC. (Really, what other city would actually have tours of their skywalks and tunnels?)

There’s little question that in the future, Houston will have to become more urban — and more amenity-rich in an urban way — to compete with other cities for the best talent. Up to now, it hasn’t been hard to attract folks to live in Houston. If you wanted to get rich in a week (like the gorilla), where else would you go? If you were a petroleum engineer, where would you go? But as Houston’s economy diversifies — and as the energy industry becomes more dependent on technology talent — the city finds itself in competition with Seattle, San Francisco, New York, D.C., and other hot cities.

And there’s no question that Houston’s urban amenities must be spread around more equitably so that everyone can thrive. Houston may be one of the nation’s most prosperous cities, but it is also one of the most inequitable, and that inequity is baked into the city’s geography of neighborhoods. As gentrification creeps across historically African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods, the city has to find ways not only to increase urban amenities but ensure that all share in those amenities. Gentrification is a tricky business, but Houston is a can-do city.

All these goals can be furthered, I believe, if we knit the city together more tightly in ways that help connect neighborhoods so they are not so dependent on the car. A few years ago, Charles Birnbaum of The Cultural Landscape Foundation came to town and presented an interesting idea: That Houston’s built environment was moving into a third era. The first era was the era of infrastructure: the freeways of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The second era was the era of monuments: the office buildings of the ‘80s. Now we are in an era of “natural connectivity,” as we improve and connect the bayous with great linear parks. We need to move into a fourth era, where we truly connect our amenities across the city — and with our business districts — in a way we have not done before.

As I often say, the secret to building a great city is pretty simple: You take as much money as possible and stuff it into as small a space as possible for as long as you can. If you do that, you’ll get a great city every time. Think of New York or San Francisco, Boston or Washington, D.C. (That’s why I think Las Vegas — boxed in by federal land — will be one of the great cities of, oh, the 22nd or 23rd century.) Houston is doing this now, and the results are becoming more evident every day. But to be successful in the future — and to be city that works for everybody — Houston will have to improve its quality of place and connect that quality to its prosperity in a whole new way. It’s time to turn the un-city into a city.

William Fulton is the former director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

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