Monday, September 19, 2005

Envision Houston, part 2 - The Planning Exercise

Continuing 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:

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.

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:
  • 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
Placing these lines and stickers all over very nice metro maps is a huge power trip, and very fun until you realize that someday politicians with real power might do similar things in your neighborhood - then you suddenly get a cold chill down your spine. Where are free markets? Where are property rights?

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.
Overall, I had fun, I enjoyed meeting and talking to my tablemates, and I learned a few things. You should go to one of the other four events around the suburbs if you can. I'm glad H-GAC and others are doing these exercises and am looking forward to seeing some of the results and composite maps next spring. But maybe next time they do this exercise, it can include some play money that takes into account cost-benefit tradeoffs to be made, property rights, and market forces.

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.


At 9:18 PM, September 19, 2005, Blogger Max Concrete said...

This sounds a little like the Imagine Houston excercise in the 1990s, except this time they're looking to get the input in one session. (good idea)

I agree that these events are biased in favor high density and transit, since the proponents of those alternatives show up to the meetings.

It sounds like the process doesn't put any price tag on anything - for example, accounting for the fact that high-rise housing costs about two times as much as lower density housing.

In general, I think these exercises may be politically useful but also dangerous since they are not the product of market forces or real-world economic realities.

At 10:31 PM, September 19, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bah. I'll take vision and daring over neurotic empiricism any day.

At 12:47 PM, September 20, 2005, Blogger kjb434 said...

I much rather like market forces that Houston has stood by than an oligarchy of a few people dictating the future of the region.

At 12:53 PM, September 20, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

kjb434 -

Without giving preference to one side or the other, I should point out that letting market forces shape the city is also an oligarchy of a few people dictating the future of a region. And several categories of decisions, such as highway and tollway planning, will be made by an oligarchy regardless.

At 2:34 PM, September 20, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

RJ, I kinda disagree on that. I think the powers that be can make sure the market is providing all varieties of housing options, monitor what's selling and what's not, and then just stay a few years ahead of demand with infrastructure. Highway and tollway plans can be conditional on demand/development reaching a certain level. The same could be applied to upgrading core infrastructure if dense options are selling well. Plan for upgrading all infrastructure, but leave timing to the market: "just-in-time delivery" from the manufacturing world applied to capital improvements.

At 3:36 PM, September 20, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But does it really work that way? Will it ever?

Capital improvements historically have created demand, not anticipated it. Freeways through empty land first, then comes the development. Build it, and they will come.

At 8:30 AM, September 21, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Actually, I do think it tends to work that way, or even the opposite, where infrastructure lags development. Ask anybody who has lived out a while in the far suburbs: they start out with little two-lane roads that usually aren't upgraded until they are substantially overloaded. I've seen it in Sugar Land, Pearland, and where I grew up out in Klein/1960 area. Look at the DC area, where no new freeways get built but developments keep popping up all over rural Maryland and Virginia.

Where the model is harder to do is high-density residential areas in the core, which need a certain critical mass and the coordination and cooperation of many fragmented landowners. It's a lot easier to do a greenfield town center in places like Sugar Land and The Woodlands.

At 9:53 PM, September 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I do'nt know about the DC situation as I have not been there in some time, but i have a feeling that these rural developments popping up are still conditional on highways preexisting. An easy way to test this is to see if any of the people living in those rural developments take a freeway to get to work. I would guess most of them do.


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