Civic Vitality – The Challenge Ahead
The Houston region, like most American metropolitan areas, is at a crossroads, poised to continue and expand unprecedented prosperity, yet potentially threatened by such issues as changing demographics, unfunded retirement liabilities, environmental issues affecting our air and water, education/workforce misalignment, and even the potential of catastrophic weather events. We as a region have an opportunity to take charge of our future so that we will continue to become more competitive and sustainable. To do so, we need a clear and shared understanding of exactly where we stand as a community in terms of economic, social and environmental issues. Systematic collection, tracking and analysis of Indicator data informs leadership and can be used to improve governance with evidence-based policymaking and promote overall civic engagement.
Civic Vitality is a somewhat elusive concept. Essentially it encompasses all the various ways that people connect with their communities – throughout the Greater Houston region. That would include everything from talking with neighbors to running for office, having dinner with the family to participating in the local civic association, gestures of simple kindness to expressions of major philanthropy.
But for all our efforts to describe and quantify Civic Vitality, for the most part we can only measure approximations of outcomes in a vital community. And in much the same way, it is difficult to identify specific policies that create a more vital community. Voter behavior can be, and is, addressed directly, but many of the factors that contribute to voter apathy are structural and slow to change. Neighborhood associations and civic organizations can begin to create bonds and trust, and in some cases, strong communities, but the connective tissue to bind us more regionally is weak or non-existent. The recent strong economy in the region actually bucked the long-term trend toward greater income inequality, but an extended period of low oil prices could erase those gains.
The data show that the population segments least likely to vote, volunteer, and join organizations are also the fastest growing groups and younger residents. We must find ways to engage our Hispanic population, our growing immigrant population, our millennials and other youth, or we will be increasingly fractured, factionalized, and at odds with each other.
The Houston region has been much touted recently as a good place to live. If we are to remain so, we must find ways to ensure that more of our people realize that promise. We all deserve a stake in the future.