A Pragmatic Approach to Houston’s Future (part 1 of 2)Local PBS has asked me to participate in a panel exploring Houston's future - specifically regarding traffic, livability, and regional growth (more here, including a participant list). The panel will be broadcast live at 7pm Thursday evening on local channel 8 PBS. They asked me to write an essay for their web site in advance of the event, and I want to also post it here for posterity. Since it's sort of long, I'll break it into two parts. The content mirrors much of what I said at the Emerging Green Builders event last week. Part one:
Don’t panic. That would be my first advice to Houston. All through its relatively short history, people have agonized in the face of tremendous growth from one to two to four and now six million people in the metro area. We’ve adjusted quite well – thank you – consistently ranking near the top in economic, job, and population growth. Clearly we’re doing something very right to attract and keep all these people. That’s not to say we haven’t had growing pains, but “continuous improvement” should be our guiding philosophy, not “radical change.” When it comes to new strategies, here are some realities we need to recognize:
- Growth is good. Studies of cities show that a doubling of population is accompanied by more than a doubling of creative and economic output. The larger the population of a metro, the greater the innovation and wealth creation per person.
- People want space. Sprawl is not evil. Throughout history, even going back to the medieval nobles and their country estates, people have always desired more personal space as they have grown more affluent. Make this space unavailable by forcing density through regulation or inadequate transportation, as in Europe or Japan, and not only does housing become unaffordable, but fertility rates will drop below replacement levels as families shrink. If they can’t increase the size of their home, they will shrink the size of their household, which creates a financially destabilizing demographic implosion.
- Density has limited appeal. As young people push marriage later, we have a new twenty-something stage of life where people want to live in a dense, vibrant, urban core. But, inevitably, as they marry and start families, space, cost, and school concerns draw them to the suburbs. Houston should absolutely offer good urban lifestyle options to those who desire it, but it will always be a relatively small part of our population.
- People cannot be forced into the dense core or on long commuter transit rides against their will. If people can’t access nice, affordable homes and good schools within a reasonable commute, employers will move out to suburbs, leading people to move even further out, expanding sprawl, and draining the core’s tax base.
- Houston has a pedestrian-hostile tropical climate five months of the year. While northern transit-based cities benefit from a personal warming technology – the coat – the only personal cooling technology that exists for southern cities is an air-conditioned vehicle.
- Cities that are hostile to the car will stagnate. The car is now a permanent part of our culture. Busy lifestyles require its comfort, speed, and convenience – but the propulsion technology will change to be greener and more energy efficient. This represents the future for the vast majority – not dense, transit-oriented living.
- Planned density almost always fails. Planners try to protect low-density areas and designate high-density ones, but, inevitably, NIMBYs protest and shoot down the high-density development if there is a regulatory mechanism for them to do so – like a zoning board they can influence. Recent data shows that Houston’s free market approach builds one-third more density per capita than Portland’s highly prescriptive, planned approach. And a recent ULI advisory panel was emphatic in recommending that Houston not adopt zoning.
- Commuter rail rarely works in a post-WW2 car-based city. Old cities in Europe and America were built with dense cores for the primary mobility mode of the time: walking. Rail allowed people to move to the suburbs and still commute to the single dense core of jobs (like Manhattan or downtown Chicago). Newer, mostly post-WW2, car-based, Sunbelt cities like Houston have decentralized jobs spread over many different centers, like downtown, uptown, the medical center, Greenway Plaza, the Energy Corridor, Westchase, Greenspoint, Clear Lake, and more. Less than 7% of our jobs are downtown. Trying to connect commuters to these job centers with rail would not only be astronomically expensive, but would lead to impractically long commute times with multiple transfers and long walks for people to reach their final destination buildings.
Part two on Thursday night will cover my recommended strategies.