Sunday, January 27, 2013

Better alternative to planning, Larry loves Houston, and more

If you caught the Sunday Chronicle op-ed this week on comprehensive planning, I would like you to direct you to my response when essentially the same op-ed was in the Chronicle in 2007.  I fully support the city planning its infrastructure - roads, sewers, etc - as it already does.  I don't support interfering with the free market with restrictive zoning or land use controls (the ultimate implementation of any comprehensive plan).  Houston is one of the most vibrant cities in the nation and is attracting waves of both domestic and international migrants - and a big part of that has to do with our free market in development and land use.  Top-down comprehensive planning is not the answer.  You cannot plan your way to utopia (show me a city that has).  The real world involves trade-offs between goals, and markets are the best at resolving those trade-offs.  What I do support are bottom-up, continuous, incremental improvements to our existing codes:
  • What do people desire that is not being provided by the free market?  Why?
  • What are we doing that is preventing the free market from providing those things?  
  • How can we reduce regulation or enable free market tools (like voluntary deed restrictions) to allow more of those things people desire?
The Texans NFL season may have come to a disappointingly early end, but in the competition among cities, Houston is winning the super bowl year after year.  Why restructure a winning team?  Why mess with success?

Moving on to some smaller misc items this week:
Finally, a very nice excerpt from Lonesome Dove author and Texas icon Larry McMurtry in Texas Monthly this month.  Take that, Dallas! ;-)
Houston was more or less my Paris, or such Paris as I had, and I still think of Rice University as my intellectual home. ... 
If I were to anatomize the six major cities more or less in order of urban merit, I would now put Houston first by a large margin: it’s a great city. Next would come Austin and Fort Worth. The latter has those three world-class museums, plus that glorious livestock exchange building over by the Stockyards, and Austin has a music scene that has nurtured both my son, James, and my grandson, Curtis, not to mention the ebullient Kinky Friedman and many another gifted bard. Dallas I haven’t enjoyed since the sixties, when I could still scout books at the Harper’s big bookshop in Deep Ellum, where my son now often performs. Dallas is a second-rate city that wishes it were first-rate.
I recognize that Austin has provided a welcoming environment for artists of many skill sets, but I still love Houston more: its flavors, its smells, its foods, its variety. It always had an abundance of blacks and Latinos, but in the eighties it added Asians and Middle Easterners, these last come here mainly to learn about the oil business.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, January 21, 2013

What the Urbanophile and I believe about cities

Last month The Urbanophile posted his statement of beliefs about cities, and a lot of them resonated with me about Houston.  Here are some favorite excerpts along with my own thoughts.
* Great cities, like great wines, have to express their terroir. There is no one-size-fits-all model of urban success. Our cities are as diverse as their citizenry. To succeed, they need to express their own essential and unique character.  
 This is why you always have to be skeptical when somebody says something like "For Houston to be world class we have to do X like city Y."  I believe that especially applies to heavy rail commuter transit in our decentralized, car-based city, but it also applies to recent questions like "Why can't Houston have downtown retail like Chicago's Magnificent Mile or New York's Fifth Avenue?"  Because we're not like them, and we already have our pedestrian-oriented upscale shopping district: it's called The Galleria, one of the largest malls in the country, and with plenty of parking and climate control to boot!
* Don’t try to beat other cities at their game. Instead, make them beat you at yours. Cities are unique – yours included. Instead of fretting about measuring up to the planet’s elite metropoli or trying to emulate them, cities should figure out their unique strengths that other places can’t match.
Hear, hear! To quote an old post of mine: "Houston starts the 21st-century with a set of amenities 99% of the planet’s cities would kill for: a vibrant core with several hundred thousand jobs; a profitable and growing set of major industry clusters (Energy, the Texas Medical Center, the Port); the second-most Fortune 500 headquarters in the country (26); top-notch museums, festivals, theater, arts and cultural organizations; major league sports and stadiums; a revitalized downtown; astonishing affordability (especially housing); a culture of openness, friendliness, opportunity, and charity (reinforced by Katrina); global diversity; a young and growing population; progressiveness; entrepreneurial energy and optimism; efficient and business-friendly local government; regional unity; a smorgasbord of tasty and inexpensive international restaurants; and tremendous mobility infrastructure (including the freeway and transit networks, railroads, the port, and a set of truly world-class hub airports)."
* It says something powerful about a city when people vote with their feet to move there, to plant their flag, to seek their fortune. There is no more telling statistic about a place than in-migration. It’s important to know if people are moving into or out of a city–and why.
The most ignored statistic of the creative class city boosters, because their idols - NYC, Boston, Chicago, SF, LA - fail horribly on it.
* Moreover, new blood isn’t just nice to have, it’s essential. In an ever-more globalized, rapidly changing, competitive world, a city’s best interests are not served by being populated with people who’ve never lived anywhere else.
 Points for our global diversity.
* But it isn’t just about the best and brightest, either. Attracting the educated is important, but cities are also where the poor come to become middle class, where immigrants come to build a better future for themselves and their families. Their needs must be taken up, too–and equally.
Hallelujah for Opportunity Urbanism (and more here).
* A great city needs great suburbs. To pull our cities up, there’s no need to tear our suburbs down. To be successful in the modern era, its important for every part of a metropolitan region to thrive and bring its “A game”. 
* “Building on assets” is a trap. The only reason we have any man-made assets in the first place is that previous generations of leaders didn’t follow that strategy. Only building on assets is a strategy about defending the past, not embracing the future. It is the spending down of our urban inheritance. Yes, leverage assets, but also add totally new things to the pot for future generations.
* We need to look forward, not backward. There is no more corrosive force than nostalgia. We should know where we’ve come from and what we stand for. But we can’t become imprisoned by a yearning for an imagined past that never really was.
* We need to embrace a 21st century vision of urbanism. Urbanism – Yes, but trying to copy Greenwich Village 1950 is not the answer. To find it, we must boldly re-imagine the possibilities of what a city can be and bravely identify what works today-and what doesn’t.
Yep - time to rethink Jane Jacobs.
* We don’t know where this ride is taking us. We’re at a pivotal time in America’s urban history. So much is changing, and more change is yet to come. For our own sake, we should not assume that we’ve arrived where we’re headed, or that we have the answers. If there’s one thing we should take away from the urban planning failures of the past, it is a strong dose of humility.
"Planning for utopia" doesn't work.  Cities need the freedom to evolve organically.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Better 288 plan, top rankings, NASA JSC Gangnam Style, and more

We've got a big backlog of smaller misc items to kick off the new year with...
  • HGAC Mobility Now episode on the 288 corridor.  I was excited to hear about the two reversible HOT lanes being planned in the median, but disappointed to hear that the long-term plan is four lanes with two lanes each direction, the same as the Katy Freeway.  Bi-directional lanes make total sense along the Katy because there are many jobs on the west side in the Energy Corridor and Westchase, so the traffic demand goes both directions during each rush hour.  288, on the other hand, like 290, is very uni-directional: inbound in the mornings and outbound in the evenings.  There just aren't that many jobs in Brazoria County pulling people south in the morning and sending them back north in the evening (and the free lanes provide plenty of capacity for those people), so those toll lanes will just sit empty during those times.  What a waste of potential capacity.  Why not make it like 290, with 3-4 uni-directional reversible lanes?
  • Love this quote!  Integral to the Houston philosophy.
In a NYT profile, West describes what makes a city more resilient than a corporation, “Think about how powerless a mayor is. They can’t tell people where to live or what to do or who to talk to. Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.”
That's probably enough for this week.  And if you haven't already caught it, this NASA JSC parody of the Gangnam Style video is really well done and has gone viral.  They put some real effort into it.  I actually added it to my backlog of misc items for the blog before it went viral, but it took me a while to get it posted.  My bad.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,