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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

MORNING EDITION is reporting this week from Houston, Texas, a swiftly growing city that's added a million residents in this decade. No doubt, some of those newcomers have taken Interstate 10, which roars in front of this spot, which means they've seen this giant sculpture beside me.

It's Houston's own version of Mount Rushmore. You see giant, white busts of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and two founders of modern Texas, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin. Because it overlooks the freeway, it is known as Mount Rush Hour.

This spot reminds you of a couple of things about Houston: one, that it's a little quirkier than you might realize; the other is that Houston is huge.

These highways radiate out to a giant seaport, to oil companies, skyscrapers, and of course, to miles and miles and miles of suburban neighborhoods.

We took a ride outside the central city with Stephen Klineberg of Rice University, who has studied Houston for decades.

Professor STEPHEN KLINEBERG (Rice University): What is striking about Houston is almost wherever you are, you think you're at the edge of town. Right? I mean, just - this must be the end here, I just was now, suddenly - and then there's that stuff again. You get this leapfrogging of developments and big, empty spaces.

INSKEEP: Klineberg drove us through this spread-out city forever under construction, our first stop on the Urban Frontier. That's our occasional look at how city's change and grow.

Prof. KLINEBERG: The city of Houston covers 620 square miles. You could put, inside the city limits of Houston, simultaneously — I kid you not — the cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit.

INSKEEP: Now, I see a highway overpass, it looks like we're going to cross under.

Prof. KLINEBERG: That's the Loop 610. That is the inner loop that defines for us what the, quote, inner city of Houston is, which is a gigantic space.

INSKEEP: When I look at a map, it looks like Houston has a beltway and beyond that is a second beltway, and you're working on a third beltway.

Prof. KLINEBERG: Right. There are many of us who feel that's not a good idea. But it's hard to resist.

INSKEEP: Roadside stores and malls seem to go on for as far as Klineberg can drive. One consequence shows up in a study of American cities. It was co-authored by Edward Glaeser of Harvard University. The study shows that Houstonians use far more energy than people in other cities, like New York or Los Angeles. Glaeser has to admit this, even though there's a lot about Houston he likes.

Would you just describe what Houston is in your mind, and how it compares to any other generic city you might pick? What distinguishes Houston as a metropolitan area?

Professor EDWARD GLAESER (Harvard University): Well, it's in some sense, you know, the great growing region of the Sunbelt on steroids, right? I mean, it's a place which has remarkably few limitations on what and where to build. It's a place that is - whose economy started off being strongly wrapped around natural resources and energy, but at this point in time is much more diversified.

It's a place that succeeds in attracting a million new people since the last census by providing middle-income Americans with a really astonishingly high quality of life. That quality of life is, of course, defined around the automobile. It's a place that is, you know, has a remarkably high level of population decentralization.

People are not living in any sort of an urban core, but it still is, you know, managing to give people an average commute of 27.4 minutes. You've just got enough highways that people are driving fairly quickly from one place to another.

INSKEEP: What other advantages do you see?

Prof. GLAESER: Well, certainly the low housing prices are huge. The census puts the average housing price in Houston at $120,000 right now. The National Association of Realtors pegs it a little bit higher because they're more oriented toward recent home sales. But that's at 150.

For many places - both in the Northeast and in the West - that experienced this vast roller coaster ride, Houston and Dallas sat this thing out. Houston and Dallas have a perfectly well-functioning housing market where housing prices are basically pegged by the price of supplying a new home. And, you know, in a place which has no rules on new construction that would make things really difficult for developers, that ends up being a low number.

INSKEEP: OK. So, you've got a good drive to work, you've got a nice house - you didn't pay very much for the house - you've got a low mortgage payment. What else?

Prof. GLAESER: That's right. No state income taxes. And not all the schools in the Houston area are terrific, but some of them are, certainly. And on top of that, you have all the things that car-based living makes relatively easier. You have an abundance of big-box stores; you have, you know, lots of relatively inexpensive and fun restaurants.

There are lots of attractive things about Houston. Those million people who went there are not, obviously, making a mistake. I mean, it shows the dynamism that can often come from a relatively unregulated market, both in the housing sector and in lots of areas of the economy.

INSKEEP: And yet this is a city that, I think, that some people who think about the environment, think about urban development, think about suburban sprawl would find - is dismaying too strong a word?

Prof. GLAESER: I think horrendous wouldn't be too strong a word, certainly. I got a tremendous amount of heat every time I've said anything positive about Houston. And in some sense, they're right to be worried about the environmental impact of Houston.

Houston is among the five worst American metropolitan areas, in terms of its carbon emissions. All those car miles and even more, the tremendous use of electricity in order to create an artificial environment in a very hot and humid place - all that requires a very large carbon footprint.

INSKEEP: You have worked through what makes Houston attractive to the average guy and said it competes better against, say, New York. What makes New York not so attractive by comparison?

Prof. GLAESER: Well, the most difficult thing about New York or Boston or coastal California is just the housing prices. In Manhattan, that's always going to be tough. I mean, the cost of building up are going to be high.

INSKEEP: It's an island. You're not going to get any more buildings.

Prof. GLAESER: It's not. There's limited land. And that's not true - certainly not true in the Boston suburbs, which, you know, the county in which I live, Middlesex County, is less dense than Harris County, Texas - that includes Houston, right? I mean, there's more land and…

INSKEEP: And yet the home prices are two or three times…

Prof. GLAESER: They are much, much higher. And that's, you know, I believe the evidence suggests that's overwhelmingly the result of government regulations that actually make it difficult to build.

It's a funny chronicle, where often, you know, well-meaning people in the coastal states of this country, often thinking that they're doing environmental good, have actually, you know, enacted a set of rules that have made it enormously difficult for middle-income people to live in their areas and as a result, have pushed people toward less environmentally attractive places like Texas.

INSKEEP: Edward Glaeser of Harvard co-authored a study that helps us to understand Houston, a city we're visiting this week.

Tomorrow, we'll meet Bill White, the mayor who says he wants to make Houston greener.

Mayor BILL WHITE (Houston, Texas): And if we did that, then this whole debate about whether we should, you know, have more from coal or more from nuclear or rising utility bills would all be moot.

INSKEEP: And you can join the discussion at NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: From southern California and Houston, Texas, it's NPR.org.

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