Opportunity Urbanism: A Novel Idea For U.S. Cities

By Scott Beyer…

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 5.52.20 PMAs the U.S. grows more urban and diverse, the debate rages over which city-building model will best create future prosperity. A new Houston think tank is providing views on this subject seldom heard in urban planning circles. In late 2014, Joel Kotkin, a Chapman University geographer and fellow Forbes writer, started the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. The think tank focuses on how U.S. cities—many of which declined in the last half-century—can regrow their economies.

Kotkin, who is often criticized for defending suburban sprawl, began the center to promote ideas that challenged current planning orthodoxy. As he sees it, the profession is now driven by three ideologies—“smart growth,” which encourages urban density and mass transit on behalf of environmental goals; “new urbanism,” an aesthetic concept that aims to retrofit automobile-oriented U.S. cities into traditional, pedestrian-oriented, European-style ones; and “creative class theory,” which posits that cities, in order to prosper, must foster amenities that attract elites, such as boutiques and art galleries. These three ideologies have caused officials to heavily subsidize certain behaviors in cities, while regulating others, often forcing severe lifestyle changes and crimping growth.

Opportunity Urbanism, by contrast, favors a more organic, less-regulated model. The center believes that officials should simply allow cities to grow based on consumer desire, even if this means they become dominated by roads and sprawl, rather than condos and rail. This sprawling pattern, in fact, might be preferable, if it leads to fast housing construction near large suburban employment centers. That way, housing will remain cheap and commutes short, creating better mobility and quality-of-life. The center celebrates Houston, where minimal regulation has created a prosperous, affordable, and relatively less-crowded city, as a model worth spreading.

Joining Kotkin at the center are senior fellows Wendell Cox, a St. Louis-based demographer, and private schooling entrepreneur Tory Gattis. So far, it has published two working papers. The first, called “Best Cities for Minorities,” documented the economic conditions for Asians, Latinos and African-Americans in 52 metros between 2000-2013. It judged their prospects based on housing affordability, median household incomes, self-employment rates and population growth. It found that cities with pro-growth political climates—namely in Texas and Florida—favored these minority groups, while the more politically-progressive, over-regulated ones in the Northeast and Rust Belt generally consumed the list’s bottom half. (Washington, D.C. and Baltimore were outliers, although it should be noted that their economic “success” has largely resulted from federal government growth, something I explored last year for the American Enterprise Institute).

The second report, called “Maximizing Opportunity Urbanism With Robin Hood Planning,” was published last week by Gattis, and chastised the planning profession for ignoring lower- and middle-class interests in favor of aesthetic ones.

“Planners see their world through the perspective of an architect—an architect of the physical form of cities,” Gattis wrote. “But what if they tried the perspective of an economist—an architect of opportunities for people to have a better life?”

He then described policies that would fit this pragmatic standpoint, such as more road construction and less zoning.

As someone who identifies as a “Market Urbanist,” I’m intrigued by the organic, less-regulated, and generally contrarian views promoted by this center. I’ll be staying in Houston this fall, and will look forward to learning more about Opportunity Urbanism’s preferred policies, and the real-life effects they have had on Clutch City.

Scott Beyer is traveling the U.S. to write a book about reviving U.S. cities through Market Urbanism. His work is found at BigCitySparkplug.com.

Article originally posted on Forbes.com 8/01/2015.