Rice Sociologist: Improving Quality Of Life Crucial For Houston's Economic Future

Last year’s Houston Area Survey by Rice University professor Stephen Klineberg revealed that a growing number of Harris County residents would like to live in the city as opposed to the suburbs, and a majority wants an improved mass transit system.

Klineberg says this sentiment is an indicator of the importance of urban development if Houston wants to continue to attract skilled professionals from other parts of the world.

“How do you attract the talent of the 21st century? Houston has to turn itself into a destination of choice, a place where people who can live anywhere will say, I want to live in Houston, Texas. And so suddenly quality of life issues that were never important for Houston when our location of the East Texas oil fields was a basis for our wealth is now essential the economic prosperity for Houston in the 21st century.”

He says up until 1982, Houston attracted millions of people who worked in oil and gas. But after the city’s recovery from the recession of the early ‘80s, the energy industry no longer made up more than 80 percent of jobs as it did before. Today that number stands at 45 percent.

Still very, very important, but so is the Medical Center and so is the port and so are a whole range of different technological developments. Applied technology is really the engine for economic development in Houston.”

Klineberg says during the oil boom, people didn’t care if the city was ugly, smelly and dirty as long as there were jobs. But now, he says, the best and brightest won’t come to Houston if the city’s beautification is neglected.

“This city has no prayer of making it as a major city in the 21st century economy if it is perceived by people outside Houston to be not only flat and hot for much of the year but also ugly and dangerously polluted. Forget it. And the business community knows that. We all know that.”

Klineberg says while there’s still a lot of resistance to changes to the city like the light rail expansion, recent developments indicate that we’re on the right track.

“Green spaces and parks and downtown vitalization and this remarkable vote in the last election to raise $100 million in public moneys to be matched by $150 million in private moneys to take the bayous that in typical Houston fashion that had been concretized in the cheapest possible way by the Army Corps of Engineers to serve as drainage ditches for our flooding problems — that was their function — and turning them into linear parks.”

Another example of ongoing vitalization is the development of the East End. Last year, the Houston Dynamo soccer stadium opened there, Metro is nearing completion of its East End light rail line, and several beautification projects are underway.

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