The Cities Where African Americans are Doing the Best Economically 2018

This article originally appeared at Forbes.

The 2007 housing crisis was particularly tough on African-Americans, as well as Hispanics, extinguishing much of their already miniscule wealth. Industrial layoffs, particularly in the Midwest, made things worse.

However the rising economic tide of the past few years has started to lift more boats. The African-American unemployment rate fell to 6.8% in December, the lowest level since the government started keeping tabs in 1972. Although that’s 3.1 percentage points worse than whites, the gap is the slimmest on record. A tightening labor market since 2015 has also driven up wages of black workers, many of whom are employed in manufacturing and other historically middle and lower-wage service industries.

There’s still much room for economic improvement for the nation’s black community — the income gap with whites remains considerably higher than it was in 2000, with the median black household earning 35.5% less — but as we pay homage to Martin Luther King this week, the record low unemployment rate is a cause for celebration.

President Trump has predictably taken credit for the good news, but kudos more likely should go to those states and metropolitan areas that have created the conditions for black progress.

The gains have not been evenly spread. To determine where African-Americans are faring the best economically, we evaluated America’s 53 largest metropolitan statistical areas based on three critical factors that we believe are indicators of middle-class success: the home ownership rate as of 2016; entrepreneurship, as measured by the self-employment rate in 2017; and 2016 median household income. In addition, we added a fourth category, demographic trends, measuring the change in the African-American population from 2010 to 2016 in these metro areas, to judge how the community is “voting with its feet.” Each factor was given equal weight.

The South Also Rises

One of the great ironies of our time is that the best opportunities for African-Americans now lie in the South, from which so many fled throughout much of the 20th century. In the past few decades, many good jobs have moved South and blacks, like many whites and Hispanics, have followed.

The South dominated the previous version of this ranking, developed through the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, three years ago, and still does. All of the top 10 metro areas are in the South, led in a tie for the No. 1 spot by Washington, DC-VA-MD-WV and Atlanta, which was our previous leader.

Washington, with its ample supply of well-paid federal jobs, is the metro area where blacks have the highest median household income in the nation: $69,246. Amid rising home prices, the black home ownership rate has dipped to 48.3% from 49.2%, but that’s still fourth highest among the largest metro areas.

Atlanta, with its historically black universities and strong middle class, has long been described as the black capital of America, and its thriving entertainment scene has given rise to claims that it’s become a cultural capital as well. Entrepreneurship is strong, with some 20% of the metro area’s black working population self-employed, the highest proportion in the nation, and though median black household income is quite a bit lower than in the D.C. area at $48,161, costs are lower too. In-migration has slowed since the financial crisis, but the black population is still up 14.7% since 2010.

Atlanta and Washington are followed in our ranking by Austin, Texas, Baltimore and Raleigh, N.C., with the rest of the top 20 rounded out exclusively by Southern cities, except for Boston in 19th place.

Two key determinants seem to be driving these rankings: homeownership and self-employment, traditional benchmarks of entering the middle class. All of the top 10 boast homeownership rates that match or well exceed the black national average of 41 percent. (It should be noted that the national average is a full third lower than the national average for all ethnicities.)

These patterns hold up as well for income. Black incomes have been rising most rapidly since 2010 in largely fast-growing Sun Belt locales, as analyst and Forbes contributor Pete Saunders has found, such as Nashville, Raleigh and Austin. It appears as if the fastest income gains are generally being made in the places where other ethnic groups are advancing as well. After Washington, the metro areas where blacks have the highest annual household incomes are San Jose ($65,400), the capital of Silicon Valley, and No. 4 Baltimore ($53,200), which like Washington has a huge federal employment base.

The New Great Migration

Perhaps the most persuasive indicator of African-American trends lies in population growth. During the period of the Great Migration out of the south in the early 20th century, an estimated 6 million blacks headed north and west to cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and St. Louis. But now the tide is reversing, with the African-American population dropping in the latter three over the past six years, as well as in San Francisco and cities with fading industrial cores like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee.

In contrast the metro areas whose African-American populations have expanded the most since 2010 are the South and Sun Belt: Las Vegas, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, Phoenix.

In some cases it’s clear that blacks are leaving for better economic opportunities. In others, high housing prices may play a role: In Los Angeles and San Francisco the black homeownership rate is about 9 percentage points lower than the major metro average.

In San Francisco the black community seems headed toward irrelevance and extinction as tech workers have driven up home prices to unprecedented levels; the metropolitan area’s African-American population has dropped 6.3% from 2010.

The situation is particularly dire in California where strict land-use and housing regulations have been associated with increases in home prices relative to income of 3.5 times the rest of the nation since 1995. In coastal California, African-Americans face prices from more than two to nine times their annual incomes than non-Hispanic whites. African-American homeownership rates in California are down 17% in the Golden State compared to a decline of 11% for Hispanics and 6% for non-Hispanic whites. Asian homeownership rates have stayed the same.

Blacks, like many other Americans, are likely to continue to move, as Pete Saunders notes, to cities that are both high growth and relatively low cost. In these cities, housing and land use policies generally allow the market to function, resulting in lower home prices and greater housing choice. Business investment and job creation are also strongly backed. Blacks, like others, are moving to these places for opportunity.

In many cases this means a reversal of the Great Migration and a return trip to parts of the country now far more accommodating to black aspirations than those places which once provided the greatest opportunities.

Homepage photo credit: Ryan Quick via Flickr under CC 2.0 License

The Cities Where a Paycheck Stretches the Furthest 2017

This article first appeared at Forbes.

We often conflate high salaries with prosperity, but that can be deceptive. Someone who lives in New York or San Francisco might make more money than a counterpart in the same profession in Houston or Dallas-Fort Worth, but when the cost of living is factored in, their Southern colleagues may actually come out ahead.

At the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, we developed a Standard of Living Index to get a better sense of where workers are getting the most for their paychecks. We began with the Bureau of Economic Analysis regional price parities for the 107 metropolitan statistical areas with more than 500,000 residents, added the costs for purchasing the average house and weighted the index based on the national distribution of renting and owning (63 percent owning, 37 percent renting). Housing plays a disproportionate role in the difference in costs between the most and least expensive metro areas, as we will detail later.

The picture that emerges is one of a very varied set of regional economies, all seeking to boost pay and the standard of living faster than costs. Some do this well, while others are getting left behind.

The Top 10

As the world capital of technological innovation, the San Jose metropolitan area, which includes much of Silicon Valley, has by far the highest average salary — $116,000 — among the 107 largest metropolitan areas. That‘s more than twice the national average, and $31,000 more than the metro area with the second-highest average pay, Bridgeport-Stamford, Conn.

The cost of living in the San Jose area is also impressively high, nearly 60% above the national average, driven by outrageous real estate prices. Factoring that in, the average paycheck there is worth $67,485– much lower than nominal pay, but still high enough to rank first in the nation.

Three other tech-oriented metro areas rank in the top 10: Boston (seventh) and Seattle (ninth), where high salaries compensate for prohibitive costs, and Durham, N.C., in third place, where costs are slightly above average. In all three, the cost of living adjusted pay varies from around 10% to 18% above the national average.

Houston retains its second-place rank from last year, with a cost of living 9% above the national average, but with pay that’s nearly 20% above. The nominal average pay there of $64,000 pencils out to $58,400 when adjusted for cost of living.

Fourth place Atlanta has a cost of living 2% above the national average but with pay 14% above. The rest of the top 10 is rounded out by Detroit (eighth), Hartford (ninth) and Dallas-Ft. Worth (10th), which are not on the minds of most venture capitalists, but offer relatively higher salaries and reasonable costs that benefit residents.

The metro area where a paycheck buys the least: Honolulu, where the high costs of all the necessities shipped in from the mainland, not to mention high housing costs, erodes the value of the average $50,200 wage to $32,500.

California’s Conundrum

One thing that screams out to anyone looking at the numbers: the preponderance of California metro areas that inhabit the bottom rungs of the survey.

California’s recovery has been driven largely by the Bay Area, which includes San Francisco and San Jose.

Yet the rest of state, whose growth rate has now slowed to the national average after several years playing above par, is not keeping up as well. The clear culprit: housing costs so high that San Francisco’s wages are not nearly high enough to cover the costs. San Francisco, ranks 19th, second best among California metropolitan areas. It shares prohibitive costs that are almost as high as San Jose — some 50% above average — but with pay nearly $16,000 lower, barely 6% above the national average.

A remarkable five of the bottom 10 metro areas on our rankings are from the Golden State. These include both interior metropolitan areas — No. 101 Fresno and No. 104 San Bernardino-Riverside — that suffer from rising house prices and California’s draconian regulatory and tax regime but without the benefit of above average salaries. Other interior areas hurting include Modesto, ranked 91st, and Stockton,95th. Both have seen home prices rise as newcomers, fleeing the Bay Area’s insane costs, have settled in for long commutes but still working there. Indeed, Stockton has now been included in the Bay Area combined statistical area by the Office of Management and Budget.

Yet the coast is not in the clear either, as No. 102 Oxnard’s ranking suggests. But perhaps more surprising is the poor showing by No. 92 San Diego, which has a strong technology economy, and even worse the massive Los Angeles area, home to Hollywood, which ranks 100th, by far the worst among the 10 largest metropolitan areas on our list. The reason? An average salary that is barely above the national average but with a cost of living, driven by high housing prices that drops the value of the paycheck to 20% below the national average.

Full List: The Cities Where A Paycheck Stretches The Most And Least

What The Future Holds

The widening divergence in housing costs — an issue which has occupied much of the recent tax reform debate — is becoming an increasingly determinative factor in the evolution of metropolitan economies. The largest cost difference in goods and services other than rents among the 107 metropolitan areas is 35%. The spread from lowest to highest in rents is 255%. The biggest gap, however, is in the cost differences for purchasing the average-priced house – a whopping 624%, nearly 2.5 times the differences in rents. This drives the overall cost of living difference up to 124% between the least and most expensive metropolitan areas.

As we have seen some areas — notably San Jose, Boston and Seattle — have been able to cope with higher costs because industries there are able to offer relatively fat paychecks. But even these storied areas may face challenges as the cost gaps rise. Already growth has slowed, and even gone into reverse in the Bay Area, a downturn at least somewhat tied to bloated housing costs. A 2015 survey found some 74 percent of millennials in the area were contemplating leaving, largely due to high rents and home prices.

These issues will become larger as millennials begin to look to buy houses for their young families. We have calculated the difficulty of transitioning from renting to purchasing, by comparing annual average housing costs for renters to average housing costs for a newly purchased house. The gaps tend to be much wider in places like the Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York, than for example, in Chattanooga, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Indianapolis, Orlando, San Antonio, Atlanta or Birmingham.

Some people are moving in large numbers from the more expensive areas to areas where costs are lower.. The 10 most expensive metropolitan areas (including San Jose), where the cost of living is 25% or higher than average, exported 1.4 million domestic migrants to other parts of the country from 2010 to 2016. In contrast, the 77 metropolitan areas with costs of living below average attracted more than 2,000,000 net domestic migrants. This could also accelerate the flow of business investment to these places, as skilled labor becomes more constrained, or the demands for compensation more extreme, as people struggle to meet costs.

The Urban Revival is an Urban Myth, and the Suburbs are Surging

This article first appeared on The Daily Beast.

The past decade has seen a gusher of books arguing for and detailing the supposed ascendancy of dense urban cores, like the inimitable Edward Glaeser’s influential Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, and about the ‘burbs as the slums of the future, abandoned by businesses and young people, like Leigh Gallagher’s The Death of Suburbia: Where the American Dream Is Moving.

But as we show in Infinite Suburbia, the new book we co-edited, the vast majority of American economic and demographic growth continues to take place there.
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The Future of America’s Suburbs Looks Infinite

This article first appeared at The Orange County Register.

Just a decade ago, in the midst of the financial crisis, suburbia’s future seemed perilous, with experts claiming that many suburban tracks were about to become “the next slums.” The head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development proclaimed that “sprawl” was now doomed, and people were “headed back to the city.”

This story reflected strong revivals of many core cities, and deep-seated pain in many suburban markets. Yet today, less than a decade later, as we argue in the new book that we co-edited, “Infinite Suburbia,” the periphery remains the dominant, and fastest growing, part of the American landscape.

This is not just occurring in the United States. In many other countries, as NYU’s Solly Angel has pointed out, growth inevitably means “spreading out” toward the periphery, with lower densities, where housing is often cheaper, and, in many cases, families find a better option than those presented by even the most dynamic core cities.

Reality check: What the numbers say

Less than a decade since the housing crisis, notes demographer Wendell Cox, barely 1.3 percent of metropolitan regions live in the urban cores we associate with places like New York City, Boston, Washington or San Francisco.

Counting the inner ring communities built largely before 1950, the urban total rises to some 15 percent, leaving the vast majority of the population out in the periphery. More important still, the suburban areas have continued to grow faster than the more inner-city areas. Since 2010, the urban core has accounted for .8 percent of all population growth and the entire inner ring roughly 10 percent; all other growth has occurred in suburban and exurban areas.

Much of this has been driven by migration patterns. In 2016, core counties lost roughly over 300,000 net domestic migrants while outlying areas gained roughly 250,000. Increasingly, millennials seek out single-family homes; rather than the predicted glut of such homes, there’s a severe shortage. Geographer Ali Modarres notes that minorities, the primary drivers of American population growth in the new century, now live in suburbs. The immigrant-rich San Gabriel Valley, the Inland Empire, Orange County and their analogues elsewhere, Modarres suggests, now represents “the quintessential urban form” for the 21st century.

Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA.

Alan Berger is Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he teaches courses open to the entire student body. He is founding director of P-REX lab, at MIT, a research lab focused on environmental problems caused by urbanization, including the design, remediation, and reuse of waste landscapes worldwide. He is also Co-Director of Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism at MIT (LCAU).

Photo: Laurie Avocado, via Flickr, using CC License.

Is There a Civilization War Going On?

This article first appeared at The Orange County Register.

“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” — Arnold J. Toynbee

From the heart of Europe to North America, nativism, sometimes tinged by white nationalist extremism, is on the rise. In recent elections, parties identified, sometimes correctly, as alt-right have made serious gains in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, pushing even centrist parties in their direction. The election of Donald Trump can also be part of this movement.

Why is this occurring? There are economic causes to be sure, but perhaps the best explanation is cultural, reflecting a sense, not totally incorrect, that western civilization is on the decline, a movement as much self-inflicted as put upon.

French intellectuals First to See the Trend

In 1973 a cranky French intellectual, Jean Raspail, published a speculative novel, “The Camp of the Saints,” which depicted a Europe overrun by refugees from the developing world. In 2015 another cranky Frenchman, Michael Houellenbecq, wrote a bestseller, “Submission,” which predicted much the same thing, ending with the installation of an Islamist government in France.

Both novels place the blame for the collapse of the Western liberal state not on the immigrants but on cultural, political and business leaders all too reluctant to stand up for their own civilization. This is reflected in such things as declining respect for free speech, the importance of citizenship, and even the weakening of the family, an institution now rejected as bad for the environment and even less enlightened than singlehood.

Critically, the assault on traditional liberalism has come mostly not from the reactionary bestiary, but elements of the often-cossetted left. It is not rightist fascism that threatens most but its pre-condition, the systematic undermining of liberal society from within…

Read the rest of the article at The Orange County Register.

Photo: JÄNNICK Jérémy [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Rising Rents are Stressing Out Tenants and Heightening America’s Housing Crisis

This article first appeared at Forbes.

The home-buying struggles of Americans, particularly millennials, have been well documented. Yet a recent study by Hunt.com found that the often-proposed “solution” of renting is not much of a panacea. Rents as a percentage of income, according to Zillow, are now at a historic high of 29.1%, compared with the 25.8% rate that prevailed from 1985 to 2000.

No surprise, then, that 58% of the 1,300 renters in the Hunt survey said they felt “stressed” about their rent, or that many respondents said they couldn’t save for future purchases like homes. Rather than the sunny freedom promised by those who promote a “rentership society,” most of those surveyed said that finding a convenient place with the amenities they required – for example, fitness rooms, places for pets and adequate space – was very difficult. Some renters have been forced to euthanize their pets, spend upwards of 50 days looking for a place or move farther from family and friends.

All of this is taking place at a time when the national vacancy rate has fallen to 7.3% (in the second quarter of 2017), from 11.1% in the third quarter of 2009. That trend has continued even with apartment construction in many areas, notably core cities, because the new buildings tend to be too expensive for most renters.

Fuel For A Housing Crisis

There is a strong relationship between high rents and high house prices. Although rents have not risen as much as house prices generally, they tend to attract people who in the past might have become homeowners but instead have been crowded out by the high prices. This essentially brings into the rental market more affluent tenants who directly compete with those with lower incomes.

The result in many places, such as Southern California, is overcrowding. Two-thirds of the places in the United States (municipalities and census-designated places) with more than 5,000 residences and with more than 10% of housing units being overcrowded are in California, according to the American Community Survey.

The rent-related stress also points to a bigger crisis: the decline in the purchase of homes. One of the most prominent reasons for not buying a house directly relates to higher rents: It becomes all but impossible to save enough for a down payment. This also reflects changes in the labor market; service and blue-collar workers, whose incomes have been down in relation to rents, are the most burdened by rising rents. In San Francisco, even a teacher has been driven into the ranks of the homeless.

The situation is worst in the most expensive markets. In New York City, incomes for millennials (ages 18–29) have dropped in real terms compared with the same age cohort in 2000, despite considerably higher education levels, while rents have increased 75%. New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco have three of the nation’s four lowest homeownership rates for young people and among the lowest birthrates.

According to Zillow, for workers ages 22-34, rent costs claim up to 45% of income in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Miami metropolitan areas, compared with closer to 30% of income in metros like Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. Home prices provide an even starker contrast. Dallas-Fort Worth, the nation’s fastest-growing housing market, as well as Houston, San Antonio and Charlotte have prices that are more like one-third those of the superstars.

That helps explain why, according to the Hunt survey, the highest percentage of people who cannot save for future purchases (almost 60%) live on the pricey West Coast. The West Coast also had the largest percentage of people stressed about their rent, followed, not surprisingly, by the East Coast.

High rents may also help explain recent shifts in migration to lower-rent areas. A recent survey by Apartmentalist.com found that the best prospects for renters becoming homeowners are in metropolitan areas like Pittsburgh, Provo, Madison, San Antonio, Columbus, Oklahoma City and Houston; the worst are, not surprisingly, in California, New York, Boston and Miami.

Profound Implications

What emerges from the Hunt study, and other research, is a renting population that may never achieve home ownership. This represents a sort of social evolution from the culture of self-assertion and independence that once so clearly characterized America after World War II and was so important to the unprecedented spread of middle-income affluence. Rather than striking out on their own, many millennials are simply failing to launch, with record numbers living with their parents or forced to shell out much of their income rent.

The implications of high rent, and declining home ownership, could be profound over time. In survey after survey, a clear majority of millennials — roughly 80%, including the vast majority of renters — express interest in acquiring a home of their own. A Fannie Mae survey of people under 40 found that nearly 80% of renters thought that owning made more financial sense, a sentiment shared by an even larger number of owners. They cited such things as asset appreciation, control over the living environment and a hedge against rent increases.

But it won’t just be renters impacted by rising rents. Jason Furman, who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Obama, calculated that a single-family home contributed two and a half times as much to the national GDP as an apartment unit.

The decline in investment in residential properties has dropped to levels not seen since World War II. By some estimates, if we had that kind of housing investment again, we would return to 4% growth, as opposed to our all-too-familiar 2% and below.

America’s housing crisis, long tied to ownership, is now extending into rising rents. But the stress that renters are feeling impacts all of us.

Photo credit: Omar Bárcena, via Flickr, using CC License. (Minor brightening of image)

What Does the Future Hold for the Automobile?

This piece first appeared at The Orange County Register.

For a generation, the car has been reviled by city planners, greens and not too few commuters. In the past decade, some boldly predicted the onset of “peak car” and an auto-free future which would be dominated by new developments built around transit.

Yet “peak car,” like the linked concept of “peak oil” has failed to materialize. Once the economy began to recover from the Great Recession, vehicle miles traveled, sales of cars, and particularly trucks, began to rise again, reaching a sales peak the last two year. Instead, it has been transit ridership that has stagnated, and even fallen in some places like Southern California.

Demographics — notably the rise of the millennial generation — were once seen as the key to unlocking a post-car future. Yes, younger people have been slower to buy cars than their predecessors, much as they have been slow to get full-time jobs, marry or buy homes, but more are now driving, so to speak, the car market, representing the largest share of new automobile buyers.

Convenience can’t be banned

The persistence of personal transportation has little to do with the much hyped “love affair” with the automobile but convenience and access to work. Simply put, with a few notable exceptions, Americans live in increasingly “dispersed regions.” Transit works brilliantly, as Wendell Cox and I demonstrated recently in a paper for Chapman’s Center for Demographics, to downtown San Francisco and a few other “legacy” urban centers, notably New York which accounts for a remarkable 40 percent of all transit commuting in the United States.

Yet, overall, 90 percent of Americans get to work in cars. Access to jobs represents a key factor. University of Minnesota research shows that the average employee in 49 of the nation’s 52 major metropolitan areas can reach barely 1 percent of the jobs in the area by transit within 30 minutes while cars offer upwards of 70 times more access. This practical concern does much to explain why up to 76 percent of all work trips remain people driving alone.

Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

Photo credit: evgonetwork (eVgo Network). Original image was trimmed and retouched (lighting and color tones) by User: Mariordoderivative work: Mariordo [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How to Deal With an Age of Disasters

This article first appeared in The Orange County Register.

When Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston, followed by a strong hurricane in Florida, much of the media response indicated that the severe weather was a sign of catastrophic climate change, payback for mass suburbanization — and even a backlash by Mother Nature against the election of President Donald Trump.

Yet, these assumptions are often exaggerated. Although climate change could well worsen these incidents, this recent surge of hurricanes followed a decade of relative quiescence. Hurricanes, like droughts and heavy rains, are part of the reality along the Gulf Coast and the South Atlantic, just as droughts and earthquakes plague those of us who live in Southern California.

The best response to disasters is not to advance hysterical claims about impending doom, but rather resilience. This means placing primary attention on bolstering our defenses against catastrophic events, whether in protecting against floods, ice storms, earthquakes or droughts.

The limits of original sin

Days after Hurricane Harvey hit, Quartz opined that “Houston’s flooding shows what happens when you ignore science and let developers run rampant.” The Guardian’s climate columnist, George Monbiot, even portrayed the event as a kind of payback for being the world capital of planet-destroying climate change.

In ascribing every disaster — even the Syrian civil war — to human-caused warming, we may be venturing into something more akin to the religious notion of original sin than to rational science. We should want to reduce greenhouse gases, but, as both rational skeptics like Bjorn Lomborg and true believers like NASA’s James Hansen agree, such things as the Paris climate accord are unlikely to make much of an impact on the actual climate in the near term — or even in the medium term.

In the short run, then, who sits in the White House is pretty irrelevant. Having Barack Obama, or even Bill Nye, the “Science Guy,” in the White House would not make an appreciable difference in addressing nature’s fury.

Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

Photo credit: Jill Carlson (jillcarlson.org) from Roman Forest, Texas, USA (Hurricane Harvey Flooding and Damage) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hurricanes Don’t Kill Cities — People Do

This piece originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Cities that believe in themselves are hard to kill. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey many pundits have urged Houston to abandon many of the traits that have made it a dynamic, growing metropolis, including key elements of its light-handed, pro-business regulatory regime.

Houston, we are told, should retrench and reduce its sprawl; Slate recommends New Orleans’ post-Katrina shrinkage as a model. This goes against the best of urban tradition. Great cities generally do not shrink themselves.

Many cities have rebounded and even improved after far more lethal devastation, including London, Berlin, Tokyo and New York. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the city ultimately constructed a downtown that may well be the world’s most beautiful. San Francisco famously rebuilt itself after the 1906 earthquake and fire into “a new and improved city” that has evolved into an integral part of the world’s dominant tech hub.

In contrast cities that destroy themselves from within, like Detroit after the 1968 riots, and New Orleans before Katrina, can decline for decades.

Urban resiliency requires two things: an ability to learn from experience and, per Northeastern University’s resiliency expert Daniel Aldrich, a commitment on the part of its residents to improve their city.

Should Houston downsize?

Unlike New York or New Orleans, Houston is not celebrated by the mainstream press or intellectuals; its residents have been portrayed as hypocritical religious fanatics and even neo-Nazis, despite living in what may well be America’s most diverse city.

To many pundits, Houston’s problems are due to a lack of zoning and too much unregulated growth. Days after Hurricane Harvey hit, Quartz opined that “Houston’s flooding shows what happens when you ignore science and let developers run rampant.” The Guardian’s climate columnist George Monbiot even portrayed the event as a kind of payback for being the world capital of planet-destroying climate change.

Few Houstonians are likely to embrace this interpretation of natural forces, or their own culpability. Longtime residents know that the Bayou City always has been prone to serious hurricanes and flooding due to its location along the Gulf, and Houston has shown an ability to deal with it.

A 1935 flood caused proportionally much more severe damage on a much smaller city. Tropical storm Allison in 2001 led to significant hardening of infrastructure. Unlike New Orleans at the time of Katrina, many services in Houston, including police and fire, were ready for Harvey. Flood control, although clearly not up to the standards required by such a huge weather event, has been much improved. New developments are required to show how they can make up for the absorption lost, often with sophisticated drainage and storage techniques.

Much blame for Harvey has been linked to development on the fringe, a major component of the region’s growth. Over an 18-year period, Houston lost about 25,000 acres of wetlands, which took away about 4 billion gallons of storm water detention capacity. In contrast Harvey dumped about 1 trillion gallons, meaning those wetlands could have only absorbed about 0.4% of Harvey’s deluge. Many flooded roads were consciously designed to hold storm water temporarily when there is nowhere for it to drain.

To succeed, Houston, like any city, must adapt and bolster its defenses, particularly if such events become more common. This does not mean, as many suggest, that the region abandon its development-friendly policies. In contrast to claims of “wild west” regulation, many developments after Allison are required have better systems to handle downpours than older areas closer to the center. One friend notes that his 10 suburban shopping centers employed the most advanced methods for handling excess water and survived.

Most of his projects’ first line of defense is made up of catch basins and stormwater lines in the parking lot which flow to a retention pond. The second line of defense is the retention pond. In the event the pond reaches capacity, the third line of defense is storm water backing up into storm drainage lines and ultimately ponding in the parking lot. These three defenses are very typical in newer developments, and many withstood the biblical flooding intact.

Many others, either not up to code or built well before the new regulations, did not do so well. But on the whole, rather than prove the inadequacy of Houston model, as the New York Times Bret Stephens correctly noted, the region managed to survive a crisis with minimal, albeit tragic losses, that in other places would have cost thousands of lives.

In the coming years, Houston surely will have to find ways to grow with less peril. But as both MIT’s Alan Berger and Houston’s Mayor Sylvester Tuner have noted, Harvey did not “punish” Houston for lax development. Houston has a planning system that is not the “wild west” but simply less bureaucratic and politicized. Its suburbs, notes the planning blog Strong towns, “are largely indistinguishable from the suburbs of any American city.” As Mayor Sylvester rejoined, if Houston had zoning, he would be presiding instead over a “flooded zoned city.”

The zoning argument is, simply put, bogus. Cities in the area that were heavily zoned, like West University, or intensely planned like Sugarland, got hit as hard as more haphazard areas. Harvey, it turns out, was an equal opportunity devastator. Similarly, Sandy dropped barely one-third the rain from Harvey, yet overwhelmed a dense and very zoned area. New Orleans before Katrina was dense and zoned; a lot of good it did them.

Nor, as many commentators suggest, can Houston’s supposedly enormous “sprawl” be the prime culprit. As demographer Wendell Cox points out the Houston urban area density at 3,000 per square mile, is 20 percent above metropolitan Boston (2,200), and Philadelphia (2,700) and not much less dense than that mecca of smart growth, Portland. Overall Houston ranks 18th in urban population density among the 53 metropolitan areas with more than a million residents, according to Census date.

In contrast to its image as a paved over dystopia, Houston has more parkland and green space than most any other large city in America and ranks third overall to San Diego and Dallas in park acreage per capita. Rather than focus on urban form, Berger, himself a landscape architect who is co-director MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism, says this region really needs better and stricter building codes, such as the ones that saved my friend’s shopping centers. Others, like Rich Campanella at Tulane, suggests the best strategy for the Gulf cities should be to focus on building barrier islands along the coast, and improving often aged drainage systems.

In the end, it’s the civic culture

As we know from experience, storms, violent conquest and, in the case of Hiroshima, even nuclear weapons, cannot kill a city — only residents can do that. I saw this in Los Angeles, which in the early 1990s suffered a Pharaonic series of disasters — riots, fires, floods and a huge earthquake in 1994. The city rebuilt smartly after all of them, but only one, the 1992 riots, left a residual toll on the civic spirit, or led to an exodus of residents. Los Angeles may look spiffier than it did before the riots, but its enterprising spirit, and its allure to newcomers, never recovered fully.

Internal collapse, the lack of a civic spirit, occurs most often when a city’s elite and its population no longer see a common future. Detroit’s 1967 riots created a morass that devastated the city for the next half century. Earlier on conflict between Boston Brahmins and the Irish under Mayor James Curley ushered in a period of stagnation that went from the 1920s to the late 1950s.

More recently, Katrina revealed how a collapsed civic culture can make a disaster worse. Corrupt politicians, an ineffective business community and poor emergency services turned a Harvey-like natural disaster into a massive human one, with much greater loss of life. Some blame the city’s entrenched, often multi-generational lower-income population but perhaps more critical to failure was the city’s often elegantly appointed and comfortable upper echelon.

In the decades before Katrina, as southern cities like Houston and Atlanta were burgeoning, New Orleans stagnated. Joel Garreau in his Nine Nations of North America described the Crescent City as a “marvelous collection of sleaziness and peeling paint.” The aristocracy enjoyed the city’s unparalleled culture while many ambitious people from its neighborhoods migrated elsewhere. Without a strong, engaged business community and middle class, there was little attempt to fix the infrastructure. This weak civic culture has left a city with huge economic challenges that a regenerated local business community is now gamely trying to address.

Houston performed very differently during Harvey. Mayor Turner and the Harris County Judge, Ed Emmett, epitomized level-headed leadership. Gov. Abbot, unlike Louisiana’s dithering Gov. Kathleen Blanco, swung immediately to action. Local volunteers pitched in, so much so, notes Houston-based analyst Tory Gattis, that many found themselves unable to participate because each Facebook call for help spurred more volunteers than could be accommodated. Houston can also count on something New Orleans lacked: a strong, and philanthropically inclined business establishment who are pouring millions into recovery efforts.

Houston will come back, albeit with some modifications, not because it’s a charity case, but because its people want to stay and rebuild their neighborhoods. They have been putting their shoulders to the wheel personally, with special emphasis on those most in need; rather than rugged individualists they are, in the words of one prominent Houston businessperson “rugged communitarians.”

In the coming months, Houstonians will seek aid from Washington, as all hard-hit areas do, but most understand that the challenge is basically for them to solve, whether through mutual self-help, or new infrastructure; their city is an engineering marvel that needs a new upgrade.

Ultimately, the power of human agency at the grassroots level remains the “secret sauce” overcoming almost any disaster, whether it’s London, New York or Houston. Great cities are not about buildings but great people. By that standard, Houston will likely come back better than before, a testament to the greatness of the urban ideal.

This piece originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Photo: Jill Carlson (jillcarlson.org) from Roman Forest, Texas, USA (Hurricane Harvey Flooding and Damage) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Spotlight on Infrastructure After Harvey

This article first appeared at Real Clear Politics

The recent tragic events in Houston and across the Gulf Coast once again demonstrated the woeful inadequacy of our infrastructure. Hopefully, some good will come of Hurricane Harvey. Hopefully, it will jump-start the long-awaited Trump initiative on infrastructure, which may be the one issue that could unite this country.

Northeastern University’s post-disaster resiliency expert Daniel Aldrich notes the need for better storm water drainage systems and for fortifying existing infrastructure — and not just in Houston. Helping promote such investments represents perhaps the last best chance for creating a significant Trump legacy.

Once a leader in world infrastructure, the United States now ranks 11th in the overall quality of its infrastructure, according to the latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index. This decline has consequences. In California, for example, the lack of investment in water storage both worsened the recent drought and reduced the state’s ability to take advantage of heavy rains when they arrived.

A concerted effort to restore our nation’s bridges, roads, harbors and other critical infrastructure would also mark a significant break from the Obama era stimulus which focused more on propping up renewable energy and often underused mass transit systems. Meanwhile, our overall infrastructure continued to deteriorate during the Great Recession, even with the stimulus, with spending in decline from over $300 billion in 2008 to under $250 billion in 2013.

Spending Smartly

“Efficiency is doing things right,” legendary management guru Peter F. Drucker once proclaimed. “Effectiveness is doing the right things.” In the context of infrastructure, being effective means placing our bets on things that are really needed, and could reward our society with greater productivity, wealth and new employment.

Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism recently published a report , and article “Doing the Right Things Right,” which lays out what an infrastructure strategy would look like given current budget constraints. The United States faces a national debt of $20 trillion, while the federal government deficit was projected to reach $693 billion for fiscal year 2017.

A strong U.S. transportation infrastructure system facilitates economic growth, job creation, a better standard of living and less poverty by minimizing travel times and improving labor market efficiency. Yet, as “Doing the Right Things Right” makes clear, not all investments are the same, or should receive federal subsidies, whether for direct expenditures or to issue infrastructure bonds to support private investment. There have been too many examples of spending on lower priority infrastructure because politicians were more interested in securing pork, or votes, than accelerating economic growth or reducing constituents’ travel times.

To be sure, America’s infrastructure has performed well enough to provide the highest standard of living for the largest number of people in the world. The legacy of earlier infrastructure decisions, such as the completion of the interstate highway system, is still evident. Overall, the amount of time America’s commuters spend in peak period traffic congestion is generally better than that of international competitors.

Yet traffic problems are increasing in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. A recent study found that traffic congestion imposed $132 billion in excess fuel and time costs for automobile drivers and $28 billion in freight costs annually — all ultimately absorbed by consumers.

The key question is how we meet these challenges. One proposed solution is to increase spending on traditional mass transit. This works well largely in “legacy cities” such as Washington, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York. The city of New York alone represents a remarkable 36 percent of all U.S. transit commuting, yet has only 3 percent of the jobs. Outside of these cities, the new transit projects, principally rail lines, have done little or nothing, as a recent report on transit from Chapman University demonstrates, to slow congestion or attract significant ridership.

Among 19 metropolitan areas that added high-capacity transit systems since 1980, both bus and rail, transit’s market share has fallen from 4.7 to 4.6 percent compared to the last data before the systems opened. Transit has not, on balance, reduced solo driving, which increased from an average of 73.0 percent to 76.6 percent.

The cities with rail systems opening after the 1990 Census experienced a modest decline in transit work trip market share, from 3.8 percent in 1990 to 3.7 percent in 2013.

Take the absurd example of Los Angeles, which has spent over $15 billion trying to become what some mass transit enthusiasts call the “next great transit city.” Yet, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority system ridership stands at least 15 percent below 1985 levels, when there was only bus service, at a time when the population of Los Angeles County was 20 percent lower. Since 1990, transit’s work trip market share in the Los Angeles metropolitan area has dropped from 5.6 percent to 5.1 percent. No surprise, then, that according to a recent USC study, the new lines have done little or nothing to lessen congestion.

Doing Your Homework

The irony is that billions are being spent on these ineffective systems, when the places that depend on transit, like New York and Washington, are seeing their systems become less reliable and even dangerous. We are dumping money in some locations that don’t work all that well, but can’t find funds to fix systems that remain essential to “legacy cities” with large downtowns ideal for transit ridership.

With the expense and ineffectiveness of new rail systems, it seems that the time has arrived for transit services that focus on less expensive bus systems, including those run by private companies, which can carry so many more riders for so much less in taxpayer subsidies. There are also opportunities to make lightly used but highly subsidized services more cost-effective by adding ride-hailing systems, like Uber and Lyft, cited as a factor in recent ridership declines in Los Angeles and even New York. In suburban San Francisco, a local transit operator has established a pilot program to extend service through ride-hailing and cancelled a lightly patronized bus route, reducing costs while providing quicker door-to-door service.

One of the most promising alternatives, virtually ignored by transit advocates, is to encourage options for working at home. In many metropolitan areas, more people already telecommute than take transit. Since 1980, the number of people working at home has grown three times that of transit riders. All this, at virtually no cost to taxpayers.

In the future, rapidly evolving autonomous technologies could make our present transit systems archaic in most cities. Under any circumstance, these advances seem likely to further weaken conventional transit. Given these trends, why base our transit policy on 19th century technologies when we are about to enter the third decade of the 21st?

Back to the Gulf: Resiliency, not Hysteria

“Smart growth” advocates have been quick to argue that Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented damage can be traced to Houston’s freewheeling, free-market approach to real estate development. Sure, the area got 50 inches of rain, but it fell both on communities that eschew strict zoning and those which embrace it. They somehow forget that a lesser storm, Hurricane Sandy, devastated the highly planned communities of greater New York just a few years ago, causing $19 billion in damage in the city alone – and with far less rain.

Rather than imitate Portland or San Francisco, Houston and other Gulf communities need to maintain policies that have allowed it to avoid the kind of insane price hikes one sees on the West Coast and some Northeastern housing markets. To force Houston to act like San Francisco would kill its economy. If Texas real estate prices approach California’s, people will simply move elsewhere, where prices are lower.

Some changes may be necessary, including “coastal restoration” efforts that limit the impact of storms like Harvey. Major engineering challenges, like building more water storage facilities and improved drainage, need to be imposed, as well.

What Houston needs, and would naturally adopt, is a kind of enlightened free market approach. After the devastation of Galveston in 1900 hurricane, Houston famously built a ship channel while Galveston built an elaborate sea wall; Houston is no less a creation of private innovation and government than New York or Los Angeles. Like America itself, Houston thrives by combining good public investment with a maximum of economic flexibility.

The more these decisions are made locally, by people who are directly impacted, the better. My colleague Tory Gattis, based in Houston, suggests that new developments and older ones “should be required to have adequate rainwater retention, either with ponds, tanks, or permeable surfaces.” There are already examples of some of this kind of planning, particularly in exurban communities such as the Woodlands. This may mitigate the ill effects of such storms, but not likely to prevent disasters like Harvey from inflicting huge damage.

These policies could mean, over time, that Houston and other Gulf communities might build an infrastructure more reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, scattered communities with ample open land around them. But the vision must be a localized one, not drawn from example of generally slower-growing, older regions facing very different natural challenges. The benefits to customizing local infrastructure is go beyond economic reality and even disaster mitigation. With enough focus on local needs, we need not wait for natural disasters to witness the heartwarming sights of multi-cultural first responders – and ordinary citizens – all pulling together. “Social networks and cohesion are an important part of recovery and survival,” professor Aldrich suggests. “Houston should be investing in bringing neighborhoods together.”

This is the real secret sauce for resiliency, as Houston has been showing throughout this crisis. The more that people who are impacted control the till, whether repairing levees, imposing regulations or planning transit systems, the better. Rather than let Leviathan rule and impose conformity, we should let regions — whether in Texas or elsewhere — figure out how to meet infrastructure challenges that effect every community differently.

Joel Kotkin is a presidential fellow at Chapman University and the executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His latest book is “The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us.”

Wendell Cox is the principal of Demographia, a public-policy consultancy, and a senior fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, based in Houston.