This is an image of the Texas Medical Center, a staggeringly large stand-alone suburban medical complex in Houston. I haven’t been to Houston and wasn’t aware of this amazing ‘city within a city’ until someone I follow mentioned it on Twitter this week (More images here).
According to Wiki it contains: 50 medicine-related institutions, including 15 hospitals and two specialty institutions, three medical schools, four nursing schools, as well as schools of dentistry, public health, pharmacy, and other health-related practices. It’s next door to Rice University.
It gets 160,000 visitors per day, performs more heart surgery than any other centre in the world and employs 93,500 workers. As a point of comparison, Sydney’s Barangaroo is expected to accommodate 15,000 jobs when built out.
It looks like a compelling example of the benefits organisations see in agglomeration. Workers can change jobs without changing carparks, employers can find skilled workers relatively easily, there’s an immense array of basic and highly specialised medical services within the same 1,000 acres, and the scope for face-to-face contact, joint projects and serendipitous meetings must be enormous.
It also seems to demonstrate the benefits of specialisation. Rather than bear the cost of high rents and congestion in a CBD location where unrelated sectors compete for the same space, the Texas Medical Center is a constellation of organisations in closely-related industries.
The social and economic benefits of complete strangers sharing the same streets, corridors and cafes is often over-stated, but in a place like this arguing the benefits of chance encounters and knowledge spillovers makes more sense.
There’s a greater liklihood workers will run into someone they’ve met previously or with whom they at least have the basis for an introduction. They’ll be people in the same industry and so more likely to have a shared interest and the potential for economically productive exchanges. (fn 1)
One of the basic urban questions is whether there’s a bigger economic pay-off from diversity of activities or from specialisation. This is an example of the latter (and is consistent with the increasing specialisation of activity centres in Australian cities).
The second exhibit is from Google Maps (click to look around in Streetview). This is doubtless a heavily car-based suburban centre, so it’s interesting to see there’s a light rail route through the complex that also connects it to downtown Houston.
Houston seems to have a thing for institutional concentration. The Texas Medical Center is next door to the Houston Museum District, which has 19 museums within a radius of 1.5 km.
______________________________________________(Fn 1) Density promotes social interaction too. I’d like to see an enterprising researcher compare the level of social connection among health workers (e.g marriages) at a place like this compared with other health establishments.