Review – Triumph of the City

Triumph of the City
How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier
Edward Glaeser, PhD

In his widely acclaimed book, Dr. Glaeser extolls the virtues of large cities, in fact the bigger the better.  He explores how residents of the largest cities are healthier, wealthier, smarter, more productive, and greener than folks living in smaller places.

In his 270-page book, the author takes us on a tour of several of the world’s largest and most important cities to tell their story and help us understand what makes some cities thrive, while others (like Detroit) fail.

However, Dr. Glaeser is an economist, not an urbanist, and his examples and arguments seem simplistic and naïve when one is familiar with the forces influencing urban development.  He falls back on the popular practice of cherry-picking certain examples which illustrate his point.

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Drive 95 miles per hour – Save 12 minutes

a highway sign in Texas showing the 85 mph speed limit

Texas will soon have the highest posted speed limit in the United States (heck, in the Western Hemisphere. Take that, Honduras.) – 85 miles per hour.

In November, Texas will open a new toll road on a heavily-used corridor between Austin and San Antonio, where the current highway (I-35) has a speed limit of 65 miles per hour. The higher speed limit is expected to appeal to drivers looking to shave some time off their drive. The new toll road will look especially attractive since the old highway’s speed limit will be reduced to 55 miles per hour. Pretty clever.

But how much time will drivers of the new toll road actually save? Not as much as you might think.

First, the new road is pretty short, only 41 miles long. Let’s assume that people will travel 10 miles per hour over each posted limit, not uncommon in Texas, and maybe even a bit conservative.

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America’s Coolest Cities

rock and roll musician Lou Reed

This July was the hottest on record in the U.S. and 2012 is on track to be our hottest year ever. You better believe Americans are cranking the A/C and heading for the swimming holes.

But when it comes to my “cool cities” study, I’m talking about the other kind of cool.  The sunglasses, Levi’s and t-shirt James Dean cool.

I worked with Forbes with their article to find where the youth of America are headed, where it’s “happening.”  Would you believe Houston comes out on top?  Last year H-town sported a vigorous 2.6% job growth while welcoming over 50,000 new residents to the area, many of them young professionals.

We looked at recreational opportunities, such as amount of green space, golfing and skiing, and pro and college sports teams.

We also used my Diversity Index, which measures the likelihood that someone you meet will be of different race or ethnicity.  Higher diversity translates to a greater number of cool stores, events, and eateries.

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A Cost of Growth

In the study of cities, getting bigger is usually seen as desirable if not inevitible.  So interesting issues are raised when growth starts to bring with it some questionable effects.

image: http://williamlitchfield.wordpress.com/

Austin, Texas has been a sanctuary for pickers, singers and painters for generations.  The problem is, the creative class is starting to get squeezed out.

People move to Austin because it’s so cool and hip, but the influx has pushed the cost of living UP and the artists OUT.

Now Austin is the priciest place to live in Texas.  The fancy $500,000 condos must be the target of the famous “Keep Austin Weird” slogan on the back of every VW van down there.

It’s a tricky chicken-and-egg situation when prosperity rides into town with unaffordability as its sidekick.  Austin is stepping up admirably, though – the city has spent $55 million on affordable housing in the past five years.

There’s an article all about it on the NPR site:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2011/12/23/143725019/austin-the-brooklyn-of-the-south?ps=mh_frhdl1

Two more reasons I’m proud to be an American

Here are two headlines on today’s NPR home page.
Be sure to click on the links and read the complete stories.

Muslims Rescue Bagel Shop, Keep It Kosher
Coney Island Bialys and Bagels claims to be the oldest bialy bakery in New York City. Founded in 1920, it’s faced hard economic times and changing neighborhood demographics.
Now, the shop has been rescued by two Pakistani Muslims — and they’re keeping it kosher.

 Texas Town Embraces New Refugee Residents
Though some states have cracked down hard on illegal immigration, one small Texas town has rolled out the welcome mat for hundreds of foreigners and wouldn’t mind seeing more move in.
It started about a year ago when a chicken processing plant in Nacogdoches, Texas, announced it would hire a couple hundred new workers, all of them refugees from Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Talking about El Paso

I recently had a great phone conference with members of the Paso del Norte Group, which “promotes the economic, social and cultural vitality of the El Paso region.”

I spoke with Richard Behrenhausen (Gen. US Army, ret.) and David Buchmueller (COO of the PDN Group), who spoke with enthusiasm about the many assets of their city, and even discussed the regions challenges and misconceptions.

For example, most people are aware of El Paso’s large Mexican sister to the south – Cuidad Juarez.  Wracked by drug wars and corruption, Juarez recorded over 3,000 homicides in 2010, which is easily the highest murder rate in the world.

Yet just across the Rio Grande river, El Paso remains a world apart.  El Paso has the lowest violent crime rate in the United States for cities over 500,000 population, with only five homicides in 2010.

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