Facebook > Email > More Pinterest Print Twitter Play

Cities, Slicker

As our urban cores grow, local government is becoming more crucial—if also more strained—than ever before. Our next governor should take note.

By May 2014Comments

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

State of the County speeches and Greater Houston Partnership orations are not usually the kinds of events that occasion much chatter. They tend to be exercises in self-congratulation—for both the speaker and the organization—or mind-numbing litanies of pie-in-the-sky goals. Which is why two speeches in Houston recently generated so much talk among local bigwigs at their favorite tables at the Coronado Club downtown and on the azalea-accessorized green at the River Oaks Country Club.

The first was by Paul Hobby, in February, when he took the helm as chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership, the city’s souped-up version of a chamber of commerce. As a scion of one of the state’s most influential political families—for starters, Hobby is the son of former lieutenant governor Bill Hobby—he has both a patrician manner and the common touch, but he has also inherited his father’s bracing pragmatism. All three traits were on display in the speech that day, before an overflowing civic-minded crowd in the vast ballroom of the Hilton Americas. After congratulating the crowd for being lucky enough to live “in a special time in a special place,” Hobby invoked the dawning Age of Cities, “a time where we no longer think about international trade from a country-to-country perspective but rather as a metro-to-metro affair, with each megacity competing and collaborating in the global marketplace.” That was the good news: in taking its place on the world stage as a megacity—the current buzzword for a municipality with more than 10 million people—Houston will and will not be a part of Texas, or the United States, for that matter. It will morph into something more like a modern version of a Renaissance city-state, one that could do its own bidding in Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi, which are undergoing comparable transformations. 

But what followed was more nuanced and less traditionally optimistic. “Sociologists and historians agree on this concept I’ll call metrolocity, because sovereign governments have simply forfeited their leadership position,” Hobby said. “This is, of course, a sad story you know well, so I will not dwell on it . . . but cities in general, and Houston specifically, must confront the urgency of the day’s events and fashion solutions in real time. Shutdowns and political spin cycles just aren’t a luxury cities can afford.”

A similar sentiment was expressed a few weeks later by Harris County judge Ed Emmett in his annual State of the County address, delivered at the same Hilton Americas ballroom before another crowd of local boosters. Emmett is a pragmatist too, a Republican who knows how to reach across the aisle; he did so particularly well when working with former mayor (and Democrat) Bill White to meet the needs of the region during Hurricane Ike. In his speech, Emmett declared that while the county’s responsibilities to its citizens are expanding exponentially, “it is not at all clear that we can count on the same level of federal and state support that we have enjoyed in the past.” He added, “Harris County—as the largest player in the region—needs to work with all partners, public and private, to make sure that the services and infrastructure necessary for continued regional vitality are developed in a timely fashion. I realize that some will engage in so-called turf battles. Others will try to strangle government growth by imposing arbitrary limits on revenue, not realizing their shortsightedness. And still others will focus only on the short-term politics involved. We must resist all hindrances.”

This kind of talk was not exactly typical fare in Houston. Dark clouds seemed to be gathering on Harris County’s usually sunny horizon—and, by extension, over other places in Texas with megacity potential, like the Dallas–Fort Worth area and the San Antonio–Austin corridor. With contemporary federal and state governments increasingly paralyzed by partisanship or locked into poll-driven economic policies—Governor Rick Perry’s decision last year to turn down Washington’s Medicaid expansion is a glaring example—local governments are finding themselves, increasingly often, with fewer dollars and lots more to do. As Mayor Annise Parker put it, “We have made choices that impact the city, and the city has to take up the slack.” 

The timing of this leadership and funding vacuum could not be worse. By 2050, seven out of ten people on the planet will supposedly live in urban areas, and half the population will occupy a mere 2 percent of the landmass. That will certainly be true in Texas, which over the past forty years has become an undeniably urban state, one where most of the population lives in the triangle formed between Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. The population of the Dallas–Fort Worth–Arlington area grew more than any other metropolitan region in the country between July 2010 and July 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while Harris County grew faster than any other county in the nation. Austin and San Antonio and even Midland-Odessa also showed strong or steady growth. And Houston, of course, is big and rich and still expanding; 365,000 people have moved there since 2010 alone, and the metro population is now more than six million. These urban centers may lack the population to qualify as megacities, but in Houston’s case, said Parker, its wealth already puts it in that category: if the Houston metropolitan region were a country, its economy, worth a robust $449 billion, would rank as the twenty-eighth-largest in the world. 

But growth and urbanization also mean that Houston—and other Texas cities—won’t just be kin to glamour spots like London and Paris and Tokyo but also to cities with emerging economies, like Karachi, Shenzhen, and Lagos. In other words, while the largesse that used to come from state and federal funds is shrinking, the demands on the city are skyrocketing at a pace that mirrors that of exploding urban centers in the Third World. “It’s been obvious here in recent years that the federal government has so much debt piling up, and they are having trouble paying for infrastructure,” Emmett explained to me several weeks after his speech. At the state level, he continued, the Texas Department of Transportation could be broke in two years if voters don’t approve a reallocation of reserves from the Rainy Day Fund, while deinstitutionalization and the accompanying cost-cutting in mental health care over the past several decades have turned the Harris County jail into Texas’s largest mental health facility. This style of governing does not exactly come under the heading “world-class.”

What will be required in this new era, then, is what Emmett described modestly as a change in “the fundamental nature of the governance of our region.” This means a reimagining of leadership and traditional boundaries, not just between the public and private sector but also between government entities. That Houston has become a laboratory for this kind of change is partly a matter of luck: its local government, as in other cities, tends to be far less partisan than state and national leadership, and conveniently, both the mayor and the county judge are nearing the end of their runs, with legacies on their minds. “At the end of my next term, I turn seventy, so I think this is the time for me to give it everything I’ve got to improve the way urban governments work in our area,” Emmett said. 

But addressing these concerns also has to do with the nature of Houston, which has long enjoyed a reputation for innovation in business while government stays out of the way. (A representative of the Brookings Institution, which is deeply enamored of the megacities concept, recently suggested that local elected officials create “innovation zones” in Houston; since the entrepreneurial community considers the entire city an innovation zone, its members ranked this game plan between dumb and dumber.) Still, as commerce and quality-of-life issues have become more closely linked, the city that was famous for creating individual wealth has finally committed to more community-minded concepts like better air quality and more park space. 

Next on the agenda—if Houston or any other Texas city hopes to nurture and expand a qualified workforce—will be finding solutions to the massive gaps in public health and education, where the bills have long been footed by federal and state agencies. Climate issues, especially coastal surge protection—more crucial now with the threat of increasingly violent storms—will have to be addressed too, along with transportation needs, not just between Texas’s major metro areas but within them as well. The question, of course, is how to find the money to even begin solving these problems, to make sure the Houston area becomes more like London and less like Mumbai. 

There are the usual answers: Parker pointed out that she managed to pass a three-part bond issue this term without so much as a hiccup. “People trust local government more than any other level of government,” she noted, adding, “Everyone thinks they are an expert on potholes.” In his speech to the Greater Houston Partnership, Hobby mentioned the shale dividend, or the vast wealth created by fracking, and how it should be spent more on “tomorrow things” than “today things,” meaning that the resources that support an aging population should shift toward investments like childhood education. Texas cities now look for answers around the world, not just around the state; a recent Houston initiative called Open City, which involved closing particular streets to traffic to encourage both exercise and shopping, originated in Bogotá. There’s also the recent example of Seattle’s city council, which is currently working on a plan to raise its city’s minimum wage, an idea that might strike terror in the hearts of Texas employers but would help with growing income inequality. 

But the most startling idea floating around local government today is to blur—or even undo—the demarcation between cities and counties. Emmett in particular stresses that such a move would put an end to numerous expensive redundancies. Instead of running separate hospitals and clinics in the metro area, Houston and Harris County could form a joint regional health-care-delivery district. The same could be true of law enforcement and transportation. Emmett points out that the planned bullet train between Houston and Dallas will be built without a lick of federal money, thanks to private funds and novel thinking on the part of county judges, local leaders, and mayors in the DFW and Houston regions. The city and county are combining forces to create a new inmate processing center, which will help identify the mentally ill before they are incarcerated; joint city and county ordinances have also been written to combat human trafficking (in the past, sexually oriented businesses have simply switched jurisdictions to avoid prosecution). A new public library in north Harris County will be built and staffed with funds from both the city and the county.

A loyal Texan can see where this is going, of course. All that bickering about Texas versus California could go the way of cowboy boots and lassos as cities and counties become increasingly powerful and—maybe—wind up with more-functional and more-innovative government than that at the state and federal level. Greg Abbott, among many others, may want to take note.

Related Content