Envision Houston, part 2 - The Planning ExerciseContinuing yesterday's post on the Envision Houston event last Saturday, today I'd like to talk about the actual planning exercise we did. Fortunately, Rad Sallee covered the basics in his Move It! column today, so I can excerpt him and then move on to my thoughts about the exercise:
The column goes on to discuss concerns about all this leading to zoning, which I certainly hope is not the case. As a matter of fact, if zoning commissions in other cities operate anything remotely like this exercise, I now have a much deeper understanding of why they get so screwed up. This exercise was certainly interesting, but you can easily see how it could run amok if people had the actual power to force what they wanted (like zoning commissions have, and we, very fortunately, did not have). Granted, we were told to articulate our "ideal vision", but people with very good motivations can quickly make unrealistic decisions that have huge implications like:
On Saturday, more than 300 local residents took part in a big board game for grown-ups at the University of Houston. The players used military-size maps and chips representing residential neighborhoods, town centers, transportation and various amenities to create visions of the area's future.
The results, along with those gleaned from four other Envision Houston Region workshops in coming weeks, will be presented next spring in community meetings. The players' ideas also will be considered by the Houston-Galveston Area Council in its planning for transportation and other public services.
- Drawing tens of billions of dollars of rail lines on the map without considering how they would be paid for and whether ridership would justify costs
- Marking off huge swaths of land for preservation without considering compensation to existing landowners who just lost their development rights
- Designating large areas for high-density residential development without knowing whether there is sufficient demand for that housing choice or school district, or how those existing neighborhoods would feel about the new density and traffic
Without getting into the detailed specifics, basically we had a certain number of chips we had to place somewhere on the map representing the next 30 years of population growth. Different chips could be traded for each other in certain proportions, but you still had to put everybody somewhere. I don't think you'd be surprised at the consensus of most tables: let's pack all these newcomers in high-density developments away from my neighborhood and make them ride transit so they stay off my roads. Yeah, good luck with that plan.
I do think some good and valuable items came out of this experience though:
- Clear consensus that the worst flood plains around the bayous should become linear parks and not get developed.
- The sheer volume of stickers that had to be placed really drives home the growth we're going to be dealing with and the huge task facing H-GAC, the counties, and the cities to plan for it. I think everybody who participated left with a deeper feel for the challenge involved than when they came in.
- H-GAC will combine everybody's maps into a digital composite which they will use to guide their plans. While I find many of the individual maps scary, I think the "Wisdom of Crowds" theory implies that a composite of all of them could have some useful insights, although I would be more comfortable if the maps were done by a truly random sample of citizens instead of the biased sample of people who attend these events. There's a reason we pick juries at random instead of just letting volunteers show up.
- I think the dialogues around the tables were healthy, where small groups had to debate to consensus. People definitely had to face different perspectives from their own.
- Citizens feel like they're being listened to, which is valuable in itself. When the next H-GAC 2030 plan comes out, they're more likely to buy-in because they know their input was incorporated in at least some small way.
Tomorrow, I want to talk about the pros and cons of some of the philosophies I saw in the different maps, with dispersed vs. concentrated models of households and jobs.