Think tank envisions 2 futures for Houston

Houston

A Houston think tank has seen the city’s future. Make that two futures.

One version shows the Houston metropolitan area in 2040 as beginning to grow after decades of economic stagnation, focused on improving the environment, education and quality of life, paid for through higher taxes.

The second hypothetical Houston is a hard-charging economic power, doubling in size over the previous 30 years but also split by stark disparities between rich and poor.

The two scenarios from the Center for Houston’s Future are intended to inform the debate over decisions the region faces in coming decades.

“We’re not saying one is good or bad,” said James Calaway, the center’s chairman. “We’re giving leadership things to think about.”

Both scenarios see Houston as a global player, driven by energy, health care and the port.

“In both, Houston does well,” Calaway said. “We didn’t think there was a case where Houston falls apart by 2040. Nobody thought oil and gas companies were going to be gone by 2040. Nobody believed Houston will become Detroit.”

Education a constant

The center, affiliated with the Greater Houston Partnership, recruited volunteers to comb through the research and develop the scenarios.

“We talked about oil, health care, crime,” said Irma Diaz-Gonzales, president and CEO of Employment & Training Centers. “But we always came back to education.”

In the first scenario, “Learning to Live,” the eight-county region has had two decades of slow growth and political instability, buffeted by businesses moving away and declining educational levels.

By 2040, the population had reached 7 million – up just 1 million from current estimates – and residents had agreed to higher taxes and other efforts to improve education. The result was a better quality of life, with cleaner air, more green spaces and better public transportation.

The second scenario, “Playing to Win,” describes a region of 12 million people, boosted by a pro-business climate and an economy based on energy, health care, the port and water reclamation and desalination efforts along the coast.

Companies recruit from around the world while the home-grown workforce suffers from a lack of education and training. The wealthy live in gated enclaves, the poor in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

“For some the region represents boundless opportunity and a quality of life beyond what they could find elsewhere,” this scenario concludes. “For others … access to opportunity is limited and the future is unclear.”

‘A broader picture’

Officials and faculty leaders at Baylor College of Medicine used the scenarios at a strategic planning retreat in January.

“It helps you get out of a narrow window and think of a broader picture,” said Dr. Paul Klotman, Baylor’s president and CEO.

Sister Damien Marie Savino, chairwoman of environmental science at the University of St. Thomas and a member of the volunteer committee, predicts a mix of the two scenarios as most likely.

“I ended up feeling quite positive about the potential here,” she said.

And really, Calaway said, that’s the point.

He and Catherine Mosbacher, president and CEO of the center, hope to present the findings to civic and community groups over the next year, culminating in a regional summit in January.

“We’re not projecting the future,” he said. “But if you get thousands of people and organizations reflecting on these matters, you probably have a better chance of navigating the future.”

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