Friday, June 15, 2007

Musings on "Opportunity Urbanism"

I love Fort Worth. I am passionate about this city and I probably tend to overthink it. However, I really believe that the city is on the precipice of a significant change, but most people don't seem aware of it or don't want to talk about it.

The Trinity River Vision and Trinity Uptown, the new TCC campus downtown, Museum Place and on and on. We're in the middle of a building boom. But is this good for Fort Worth and will it change the character of the city?

To help wrestle with these questions, I want to refer to this long and wonky paper about "opportunity urbanism" by Joel Kotkin that I found. The concept of “opportunity urbanism” is that a region’s ability to create jobs, offer affordable housing, and present entrepreneurial openings to a growing and highly diverse population are the surest signs of urban vibrancy.

Kotkin makes an interesting argument. “Superstar cities” like New York and San Francisco have become too expensive for middle class people and in the future will cater largely to the upper classes and to those who serve them. Instead, the model for America's future are the so-called "opportunity cities” like Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, Charlotte, Atlanta and Phoenix. Why?

It's all about the “creative class.” Skilled workers are the brass ring and you get them with urban amenities, social attitudes, and cultural offerings. The emphasis here is on the so-called “war for talent.” Cities that win this battle, Kotkin says, will emerge as the avant-garde in technology, culture, and the expanding global economy.

Sez Kotkin: "These cities are also showing marked gains in attracting high-wage employers and educated migrants, including members of the ballyhooed creative class. These are, of course, the very jobs and workers that are widely thought to be concentrating in more elite places." Yeah, hipsters love all the cool stuff that a New York has to offer, but people are now even being priced out of Brooklyn. As he points out to put it in perspective, $42,000 a year in salary in Houston buys you what $100,000 a year will get you in NYC.

Because of this widening differences in housing and other costs, there has been a decisive demographic tilt towards cities like Fort Worth. Increasingly, this shift has included a movement of large corporate headquarters and of higher-end jobs to these opportunity cities. Firms that need to compete globally generally expand in business-friendly places that possess decent infrastructure and amenities, and that can accommodate a broad range of employees.

I'm just happy Fort Worth is even in the mix. People often say, "Fort Worth is a great place to raise a family." That's sort of a backhanded compliment. What's left unsaid is it's not exactly Coolsville. Can Fort Worth loosen up a little? Pete at Cowtown Chronicles was musing along these lines the other day. Basically, is Fort Worth too square to be a player with the creative class? I don't think we're there yet, but I think we're moving in that direction.

Kotkin also talks about what USA Today recently called the “Be Hip and They May Come” approach. He says this has exerted a strong influence on economic developers. "Often, this has taken the form of promoting the growth of arts districts, entertainment centers, and condominium housing—all believed to be critical in making a city more attractive to the 'creative class.'” We're loading up on museums and condos here in Cowtown, but there's more to it than that. There's an attitude shift needed. Fort Worth will have to do what George Mason University professor Richard Florida calls taking the guy with the tattoos seriously. Are we there yet? Uh, no. But we are working on it? Case in point, Todd Camp told my wife that Fort Worth's Gay and Lesbian Film Festival just had one of its best years ever. People were walking up to him and handing him checks. Progress? Yeah, a little.

Kotkin lays out some basic things that opportunity cities need to flourish. How are we doing?

  • A good educational system: There's room for improvement, but I'm generally bullish on Fort Worth public schools. For those so inclined, there are a mess of good private schools. But don't give up on public schools. It takes a village, people.

  • An educated and skilled workforce: I think we need more of these people. But so does everyone else. That's what's at stake. The creative class.

  • Affordable housing: I think Fort Worth is a very affordable housing market compared to anywhere, even Dallas and Austin.

  • Parks: I love Trinity Park and the Trinity Trails, but it's not enough. Besides, it wasn't that long ago that Mayor Mikey wanted to run the Southwest Expressway though Trinity Park.

  • Recreation opportunities: There's a lot of great stuff going on around here, but we're not in danger with being confused with Austin anytime soon.

  • Good transportation: Whither light rail? As Kotkin sez: "Physical mobility, as well as the class mobility stressed earlier, constitutes a critical factor in overall growth and as a means to expand individual opportunity."

  • Access to high-speed communications: Whither city-wide wi-fi?

  • Visionary leadership that recognizes what it takes to sustain economic growth: I think that we (Mayor Mikey, City Council, the Basses, etc.) get good marks on this. I don't agree with everything the poobahs do around here, but just look at the trainwreck that is Dallas city government to see how bad things could be.

  • A community spirit for getting things done: I think that is the heart of what makes Fort Worth great. Basically, we're resourceful, we have moxie and we kick ass.

  • So, let me ask the question again: is this development good for Fort Worth? If you believe Kotkin's thesis, yes it is. If we want to be an opportunity city, we need to continue to grow. "It is crucial that cities identify their priorities," Kotkin sez. "We agree that arts, culture, style, and impressive architecture can all reflect a city’s greatness. But we think history shows that great cultural centers—from Athens to New York City—must first work as economic engines for entrepreneurial ventures and for ordinary citizens."

    And if building that engine means a Trinity River Vision, a Museum Place and a Vespa store, then OK. Maybe that makes me yuppie scum, but, you know, I think this is good for Fort Worth. There are things I miss about the old Fort Worth, the way it used to be. But I think we have a chance to see Fort Worth really flourish right now. I want to see that. But I also want to see us ask hard questions about whether we're doing this the right way.

    Will this change the character of Fort Worth? Certainly it will. I'm just optimistic that those things we like about people in Fort Worth -- that spark that puts the funk in Funkytown -- I'm optimistic that won't change.

    Maybe it's the Lone Star. Or the Zoloft. Or maybe you just caught me on a good day. But there you have it.


    Anonymous said...

    Really enjoy your blog. I lived in Fort Worth for over 50 years. There was some loss over that time of the sense of neighborhood and community but some improvement. I think that is found almost everywhere now. Financially, it is difficult for the middle class and the poor everywhere. Specifically, Fort Worth and Texas are difficult because of the reliance on property taxes and the refusal to except income taxes. Also, high insurance rates, utility costs, too much dependence on long drives in cars and a lack of state supported health care. Whether Fort Worth gets more populated or not, I think those are the important things. Portland, Oregon seems to have some good ideas. I wish you all the best.

    From Out West

    Anonymous said...

    Should read: "accept" income taxes.

    From Out West

    Steve-O said...

    Thanks for your kind words. Health care is a huge problem across the nation and we in Texas are at the end of the list in almost every category. Traditionally, Texans haven't put a high priority on health care, education or other government programs that don't put money in the pockets of big companies or land owners. If you follow what's going on in Austin, even a little bit, it's pretty frightening.

    Just today, I had lunch with a friend of mine and we were discussing this very point. "The right-wingers and the preachers ran me off in the Sixties," he said. "And they are about to do it again." Certainly, the general antagonism to government financing of education, health care and welfare programs is something that MUST change. We can't continue paying for everything out of property taxes. And we can't just blame illegal aliens for all of our health care woes. You're right -- it's hard for the poor and middle class everywhere. But it's a little bit harder in Texas. That can't continue if we want to continue to grow economically.