Director’s Address – August 2015

Bill Fulton | @BillFultonVTA | August 25, 2015

I’m trained as a city planner, so I tend to look at cities in geographical terms. Where are the neighborhoods? Where are the business districts? Where are the jobs? Can people get to the jobs from where they live? Does tax revenue flow between jurisdictions in a manner that is equitable or inequitable? Is there a severe – maybe even unbridgeable – geographical chasm between the poor and the middle class? These are the kinds of questions that have always engaged me in both my professional career and in my life as a politician.

So one of the fascinating things about coming to the Kinder Institute has been to immerse myself in the non-geographical aspects of urban issues. The Kinder Houston Area Survey teaches us that people of similar incomes or a similar background tend to hold similar views no matter where they live. And the Houston Education Research Consortium is focused on helping Houston Independent School District students improve their academic performance – again, no matter where they live. So much of what happens in a city depends on the people, and not necessarily on the place.

And yet people and place are so intertwined, especially in an urban area. People of similar backgrounds may hold similar views – but they also tend to segregate themselves into homogenous neighborhoods. Some children may have difficulty learning no matter where they live – but the character of their neighborhood can play a huge role in shaping an environment that either helps them learn or harms those efforts. Even if people who live in modest neighborhoods have the skills to get a good job, they may not be able to take advantage of those opportunities if they live too far away or can’t get to the employment center.

That’s why Kinder’s expanded program areas will focus on both people and place –and often on the interplay between the two. Our new Urban Development, Transportation, and Placemaking program will focus on what we planners call the “built environment” and how a city is shaped by its buildings and its infrastructure. The Urban & Metropolitan Governance program will examine how the Houston region is governed. Governance, after all, is all about boundaries – which city or county do you live in.

Places and governance exist, of course, to serve people – and that’s why our final new program, Urban Disparity and Opportunity, will focus on the disparity and inequality among people in Houston and elsewhere. This area too has a geographical aspect. After all, rich and poor neighborhoods are geographically distinct from one another. But even if we wind up talking about the geography of inequality – and that’s a topic you can’t easily get away from when discussing cities – the nature of the Urban Disparity program will help us remember the people. Because ultimately, as the urbanist Jan Gehl once said, cities are for people – and the Kinder Institute exists to help make cities better for people to live in.

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