What Should Be The Guiding Purpose of a City?
Much of urban thinking today centers on the physical form of the city: its resources, infrastructure, and built space. Cities are told how to become “more sustainable” by expanding transit, reducing dependence on fossil fuels, and adopting restrictions and planning approaches that mandate higher densities, and, increasingly, bar the expansion of single-family home-dominated areas.
This mindset creates a narrow and distorting view of a city, one that ignores or oversimplifies the role and agency of a city’s most important component: its middle class, especially families.
Urban Reform Institute Is a Counterpoint
To us, cities emerge because they provide opportunity to people, and are sustainable only so long as they continue to do so.
For a city to sustain itself, it must provide a wide range of opportunities – not just for the affluent. And the city, better seen as a metropolitan area, needs to address the diverse interests and preferences of its residents. And given that those interests and preferences are constantly evolving, the “overplanning” mindset is untenable, even dangerous, to the future of cities that embrace it.
Another paradigm is needed; one that concentrates more on human capital than physical capital. Such a paradigm would stress issues of upward mobility, human capital development, small business expansion, governance, and middle-wage job growth. It would not ignore the physical environment, but acknowledge that physical assets should adapt to serve human beings, not the other way around. It would also change the way we think about physical assets, giving higher priority to those that actually boost opportunity, particularly for working and middle-class residents.
Given the current concern about economic inequality, this alternative perspective is desperately needed. In many cities, notably New York, there is already a growing focus among the political class away from economic growth, and towards a redistribution of income to the poorer members of society. But in many cases the focus is not only on the poor, but also in servicing the needs of well-organized rent-seekers, from speculators and some developers to public employee unions. Although these interests often express an admirable concern for social welfare, we believe that sparking broader-based economic growth represents the best way to achieve upward mobility for metropolitan area residents. Houston and other growing cities, we maintain, best represent this more people-oriented approach.
The Institute will closely examine these issues, with particular interest in how planning and zoning decisions can hamper or spark economic growth. It will also highlight key demographic concerns, notably around the critical issue of families, who generally seek out housing that is both affordable and spacious enough to raise children. And governance – the question of who makes decisions about the commons – will also be a key area of exploration. An approach that focuses on good schools, good parks, decent jobs and strong neighborhoods may not thrill many architects, pundits and planners – who almost invariably favor ever-denser development – but they do matter to most people who live in urban areas.
Urban Reform Institute will promulgate a perspective on urban development that is applicable to most American cities, and indeed to cities around the world. Initially the Institute will be seeking to define this new model with comparative studies of different regions in terms of how they most efficiently address issues ranging from promoting upward mobility and reducing poverty, including among minorities, and spark broad-based economic growth. This involves such things as comparing regions based on their actual costs, relative to others, and how they create family-sustaining jobs across a broad spectrum of workers.
Opportunity For Citizens
It will be the primary task of the Institute to spell out how cities can drive opportunity for the bulk of their citizens. Initially, at least, this will be primarily a virtual, media-centered effort. This is necessary given the very weak profile of key opportunity cities, including Houston, particularly in comparison with the key media centers located either in the Northeast or coastal California. A major reason why the current planning mindset so dominates policy discussion, in part, reflects that there is no coherent alternative vision. Our intention is through conferences, articles and studies to provide an alternative “pole” in the now very stilted and predictable trajectory of urban studies. It will help rediscover the essence of great cities, what Descartes called “an inventory of the possible.”
Principles of Urban Reform Institute
- The primary organizing principle of cities should be the creation of opportunity and social mobility.
- People should have a range of neighborhood choices (including suburban), rather than being socially engineered into high-density, transit-oriented developments beloved by overly prescriptive planners.
- Restricting housing supply unreasonably through regulation drives up costs and harms the middle class.
- Education impacts housing choices, forcing parents to overpay in the few good school districts or move further out of the core city. Making educational alternatives available for working and middle class families is essential to upward mobility and long-term urban growth.
- Supporting the needs of middle-class families should be just as important, if not more, than the needs of the childless creative class. Children, after all, represent the future of society.
- Successful economies need a broad spectrum of industries. Solid middle-class and blue-collar jobs are just as important as the much celebrated high-tech industries aimed at white-collar professionals. Educational choices should be made to address these varied needs.
- Concentrations of power – whether through political or economic structures – undermine social mobility and the creation and pursuit of new opportunities. Decision-making power, therefore, should be as widely dispersed as practical.
- Transit investments should be based in large part on serving cost-effectively those who most need it, to provide a reasonable alternative for those (the disabled, elderly, students) for whom auto transit is difficult. It should not be primarily a vehicle for real estate speculation or indirect land use control. The use of bus transport, including rapid bus lanes, as well as new technologies, including firms like Uber and driverless cars, need to be considered as potential answers to the issue of urban mobility.
- In general, cities are better off with more market-oriented land-use policies than prescriptive central planning.
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Urban Reform Institute
3900 Essex Lane, Suite 1200
Houston, Texas 77027
Urban Reform Institute is a 501c3 Non-Profit organization that exists to promote approaches that enable cities to drive opportunity for the bulk of their citizens.