The top four urban stories of late '08 (and my response on Houston's freedom)So I've been backlogged on my Planetizen emails since October. That's over 35+ emails with links to 700+ stories related to cities and urban planning. But I caught up last week and have selected what I think are the four most interesting stories I came across:
- The benefits of a light touch in planning - or what might be called the "Houston model", IMHO. Excerpts:
"'The areas we now admire,' explains Toronto architect and co-author John van Nostrand, 'are pre-planning areas. But older areas didn't always offer access to parks and open space. Then, when planning hit in the 1960s, we rejected the unplanned city for the fully planned community. I think now we're way overregulated. There are so many rules. What we need is an approach that allows for changes.'
In other words, planning may be the problem, but it's also the solution.
Or is it? Van Nostrand argues that when it comes to planning, less is more. The trick, he insists, is not to be overly proscriptive, but to allow for maximum flexibility.
'Real life is always right,' he says. 'It's planning that's wrong.'"
- A Brookings study says comprehensive congestion pricing of freeways would reduce housing costs and sprawl. It eliminates the subsidy for living farther out, which drives up demand and density in the core. "Moving to tolls or other direct road use charges will significantly improve overall welfare, economic efficiency and standards of living, the study says."
- A UC professor agrees with my belief that, for the vast majority of people, the clean future of transportation is new technology for cars, not transit.
- We don't allow our townhomes to be small enough or dense enough. He's referring to the compromise inside-vs.-outside the loop density regulations of 1998. I agree I'd like to see this restriction gone. But clearly we are addressing the lower end of the market (he says we don't), because there are plenty of very affordable townhomes north and east of downtown. I also question whether there's any real demand for smaller townhomes here, even if they were allowed. And, finally, I've heard a lot about the new density overloading our infrastructure in the core - especially sewers - so there may be practical density limits in any case.
- We have minimum parking requirements. Again, I would like to see this restriction gone and let the market sort it out, but I suspect it would make little difference. Developers in Houston know the market demands parking, and they'd be committing suicide without it. What I'd really like to see, if someone has it, is data on approved apartment projects of the last few years, and how their built parking compares to the legally required minimums. If many of them are right at the minimum, then relaxing the regs could have an impact. But if most projects have more than them minimum required, as I suspect they do, then relaxing the minimums may have little practical impact. It's also worth noting that the Urban Corridors plan is expected to relax parking requirements near rail stops.
- Minimum setbacks force parking in front of buildings. True, and they will fix this in the urban corridors. Outside of them, I suspect the free market would still choose to put parking in front, for convenience, even without the required setbacks.
- The city enforces deed restrictions. I don't really understand the problem here. Clearly deed restrictions would be a lot less reliable if they required homeowners to pay attorney's fees every time there was a violation. The real benefit of deed restrictions is their voluntary nature, and that they have mechanisms for local neighborhood control. Also, unlike zoning, they have to be market-oriented and realistic. Developers and homeowners lose out if their deed restrictions reduce their value, so they're naturally careful about what they do. Zoning - or any other land use restrictions - created by government bureaucrats have no such restraint. Value can be destroyed arbitrarily with no impact on those officials.