How Houston Became A Global City

International airlines — and passengers — are increasingly flocking to Houston. Edward Russell reports on the makings of a globally connected, surprisingly diverse hub.

A Lufthansa flight departs over Houston. Flickr user Alexander Steffler

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On your next trip abroad be sure to check your ticket for a stop in Houston. It may come as a surprise, but this five-million-plus metro, best known as the energy capital of the world, is the eighth-largest international gateway to the US and climbing the ranks.

It is easy to shrug off Houston’s connections to the rest of the world. As the home of Continental Airlines’ largest hub, many expect the plethora of routes but it’s more than that. In addition to the hometown carrier, which offers nonstop flights to the likes of London and Tokyo, the city is served by airlines ranging from Air France to Emirates, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines. For the latter, Houston is its only US destination not on a coast.

According to the US Department of Transportation, Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport handled 7.3 million passengers during the year ending June 30, 2009. This is up 36% since 2000 and nearly three times higher than in 1990. The airport currently handles more international traffic than any other in the middle of the country with the exception of Chicago.

But look at its geographic location, nearly as far south as Miami and midway between each coast, and one has to ask – why Houston? The city is not at a national transportation crossroads like the Windy City nor does it have the historical precedent as a national entry point of New York or San Francisco. Besides its connections to Latin America, the those to the rest of the world would appear an outlier. They’re not.

“Houston ranks third in the nation in the number of consular corps,” said Jeff Moseley, president and chief executive of the Greater Houston Partnership. “That means that 92 different countries from all over the world see the value of establishing relations with our city.”

“Much of our economic growth is due to our international trade ties,” he concluded.

Between Houston’s numerous energy industry headquarters, burgeoning biomedical and technology research community, and port (one of the busiest in the US); the business case for the gateway starts to become apparent. But other comparable metro areas, for example Dallas/Ft. Worth or Minneapolis/St. Paul, are similarly sized, home to comparable business communities (and airline hubs) and, in the case of the latter, make more sense for long-range flights due to its northerly location, which shortens flights and reduces airline fuel costs. Still, annual international passenger traffic at airports in these cities is millions less than at Intercontinental. Houston’s demographics make up the difference.

“Houston is a microcosm of the world,” said Stephen Klineberg, a professor at Rice University and co-director of its Institute for Urban Research. He launched the annual Houston Area Survey at the university in 1982 and has been tracking the city’s demographic changes ever since. “The growth of Harris County [including the city of Houston] during the past quarter-century was primarily due to immigration from abroad as well as the birth of new babies.”

While he would not directly link the city’s international air services to its demographic make-up, he did say that it is one of the few metropolitan areas in America with strong immigrant communities from all over the world, not just one region.

“We have two Chinatowns,” said Klineberg. “[A typical] one downtown and a Houston one that spreads out for miles along the Bellaire Beltway.” According to the US census estimates, Harris County’s 3.98 million residents were split 36% anglo, 17.9% black, 39.3% hispanic and 6.7% Asian or other. This is markedly more diverse than in 1980, before Klineberg said immigration began driving population growth, when 62.7% of the county’s then 2.4 million residents were anglo, 19.7% black, 15.5% hispanic and 2.1% Asian or other.

A Singapore Airlines spokesperson said that, while its five weekly flights to Houston are mostly filled with corporate travellers, there is a significant amount of “visiting friends and relatives” traffic to southeast Asia, especially Cambodia and Vietnam. They said this was a “learning” experience for the carrier.

Of course no one would claim international air service was a catalyst to Houston’s growth as an international business center or its ethnically diverse population. What can be said is that the flights are a reflection of the city’s ability to reinvent itself as a diverse, 21st century metropolis from the oil town of old. One that includes a new $2.6 billion light rail network currently under construction, more than 250-miles of new linear parks to be built as part of Houston Bayou Greenway Initiative and a flourishing arts scene that are contributing to its transformation into one of America’s world cities.

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Tags: infrastructurehouston

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