Intro from the land-use regulation forumJust got back from the land-use forum at the GRB downtown. Overall I think it went pretty well. Good turnout too. Maybe 500+? I have a lot of notes I'll try to boil down into my next post, along with links to the presentations when they put them up (should be videos at some point too). But I'm tired and it's late tonight, so I'll just post the core of my intro speech, subtracting out all the "thank yous" and sponsor details. Sorry if it reads a little odd in written form - I wrote it for speech, with my own pauses and emphasis.
Now they asked me to “set the tone” for the evening. If I understood correctly, I think what they’re looking for is something like the “Jerry Springer” TV show… maybe we can even get a little chair-throwing going… Just kidding folks. More seriously, what we’re hoping for is not so much a debate as a civilized dialogue on different approaches to dealing with the tremendous growth happening in our city.
That civilized tone includes laying off the “good-guy/bad-guy” characterizations of either planners or developers. I’ve met a lot of planners, and they’re generally good people with good intentions trying to create good outcomes in the face of conflicting demands and incredible complexity. And let’s not forget that developers are not only building what people want – and that increased supply in the face of rising demand helps keep our city affordable – but also that the enhanced tax base they generate contributes millions of dollars towards schools, parks, police, libraries, roads, flood control, and other city services and desperately-needed infrastructure renewal. Every dollar they create is a dollar the rest of us don’t have to pay for those amenities.
To set the context of tonight’s discussion, when you hear the term “planning” thrown around, what we’re talking about here is land-use planning – what owners can and cannot do with their land – not infrastructure planning like sewers, water, roads, or flood control – which everybody agrees is absolutely necessary. In most cities, land-use planning is accomplished through government-controlled zoning, which Houston voters have rejected several times in our history. Instead, we’ve used voluntary deed restrictions to protect neighborhoods. Both systems have had mixed results of pros and cons. One issue we face is: can deed restrictions be streamlined and improved to address neighborhood concerns, or do we need to pull some or all of that power out of the neighborhoods to some sort of city-wide governing entity?
Other terms you’ll probably hear tossed around tonight include “quality of life,” “quality of place,” and “livability”. Unfortunately, they’re slippery terms. Ask a 100 people what quality of life means to them, and you’ll probably get a 100 different answers. Usually they’re referring to things like parks, open space, clean air, walkable neighborhoods, and aesthetics like trees, landscaping, and attractive development. All good stuff.
Affordability is not usually part of the definition, but in our Opportunity Urbanism study, we pointed out that affordability not only enables the American Dream of home ownership for the middle class, but also frees up discretionary income for urban vibrancy and amenities like restaurants, charities, shopping, sports, entertainment, higher education, small business entrepreneurship, museums, arts and culture – all of which not only constitute good “quality of life” for a lot people, but also help attract jobs and talent to our city. A good city has a diverse range of neighborhoods and environments – at all price ranges – so people can find the one that best matches their personal definition of “quality of life.” One-size, in this case, does not fit all.
My final point and we’ll move on to the panel. The Center for Houston’s Future recently brought a panel of national experts from the Urban Land Institute to Houston for several days to study our city and make recommendations. It may or may not surprise you to hear they were impressed – impressed to the point of asserting that we’re well on our way towards becoming the fourth great global city in America, after New York, Chicago, and LA. They noted we were achieving that critical mass due to several factors, including our incredible affordability (especially housing), the opportunities of our job growth, our limited constraints on development (they were not in favor of traditional zoning), and our strong core with people moving in as well as a growing tax base (as opposed to “donut cities” found elsewhere, with a stagnant or weakening core relative to their suburbs).
They even noted the importance of our optimistic spirit and generally positive attitude towards growth, an attitude not found in many other major cities. That attitude makes us more tolerant of the dynamic, eclectic, ever-changing development and density necessary for that growth. Careful preservation and cultivation of that positive attitude will be critical to achieving our potential among the world’s great cities.