Sunday, June 24, 2007

Joel Kotkin on Houston's unique 21st century development pattern

Double posting today because I wanted to cover both congestion pricing and Joel's op-ed in the Sunday Chronicle Outlook section today (sorry if you got a double email on congestion pricing - hit a snag with Blogger and had to repost it). I highly recommend taking the time to read the whole thing, but here are a few of my favorite excerpts:
Trust market to shape the new Houston
Planners' nightmare is a dream come true in creating an exuberant, workable hodgepodge

When speaking on urban issues, one reliable way to draw derisive comments is to mention Houston. Perhaps no major city in America has a worse reputation among planners, urban aesthetes and smart growth advocates.

Yet, to a remarkable extent, Houston may well defy its critics — not only by continuing to expand, but by constructing a new and dynamic model of American urbanism that transcends all the worn cliches about ''sprawl'' and the burgeoning city's inability to attract educated workers.
This new form of urbanism, like those before it, has been shaped by factors unique to American historical development — the vast availability of land, the burgeoning population growth, the affluence that has allowed so many to purchase cars and homes.

The modern multipolar city re-creates this dispersed urbanity, but at distances defined not by walking but by the time it takes to travel by car. This, along with the rise of the Internet, increasingly allows individuals, families and businesses to locate where they wish.

In the future, this new model will allow for the evolution of an unprecedented development of diverse metropolitan environments. They will include everything from the ''gritty downtown'' to lower and moderate density inner-ring communities, as well as new suburban ''villages'' on the outer ring.

Perhaps no place has been more adept at fashioning this last form of development than Houston. Rather than impositions by government fiat, Houston's myriad master-planned communities are largely creations of the planners' nightmare — the marketplace. They reflect a typically pragmatic, market-oriented, Houston-style approach: building the kinds of housing that people demand and providing the infrastructure, such as a vital town center, that binds them to the area.


Houston's tradition as a market-based urban innovator also extends to its rapidly recovering inner ring. As the city's population grows, it will inevitably become denser both in its periphery and closer to the central core. New urbanists and planners need not legislate this change. Demand will be created by many factors: the overall rise in population and immigration; energy-related concerns; desire for shorter commutes; and rising land costs.

The evidence shows that Houston's more pragmatic approach — essentially allowing development to follow market demand — has worked better to drive inner ring development than the models beloved by many planners. Since 2000, only 2.5 percent of all population growth in greater Portland, Ore., occurred in the city; in Houston, the city accounted for more than 10 percent. Other cities often praised by ''smart growth advocates,'' — cities such as Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis — all lost population.

(see here for more data on Houston's ability to build more density than more controlled and planned cities like Portland and Dallas)

In other words, Houston's inner-city boom, while less controlled and heralded, is doing the job of increasing density — the summum bonum of ''smart growth'' — over wider areas than most traditional cities. Places like Chicago, San Francisco or Boston may be gentrifying closer to their core, but they are also losing people, particularly families with children, in many neighborhoods.

By contrast, Houston's urban evolution appears to be attracting — if not families — then significant numbers of educated workers. In fact, despite local critics' constant carping about the city's landscape, Houston has been experiencing a net gain of such workers over the past few years while ''creative'' meccas, such as Boston, San Francisco and New York, have been suffering a net out-migration.

Lack of rigid land-use controls and the sheer expanse of available land also have opened the Houston inner ring's urbanization not only for big national players, but lots of local smaller developers.
Even at higher densities such districts will likely offend most urbanists and planners. For one thing, although transit may play a supporting role, the car — albeit a cleaner, more fuel efficient version — will remain king
Yet there are those like architect Tim Cisneros who exult at Houston's prospects for urban innovation. As he drives down Bellaire, Cisneros even finds good things to say about Houston's ubiquitous strip malls. These low-cost areas, he argues, provide opportunity for ethnic restaurateurs and business people who could never afford the places favored by most urban planners. They also provide sometimes unique close-by services, and sometimes the land, for new townhouse developments, which he sees filling up mostly with skilled workers in their 20s and 30s.
But this evolution can only take place if Houstonians resist the temptation, in some vain attempt at refashioning Houston into ''Boston on the Bayou,'' to tamp down on the city's innovative development culture. The relative freedom given to future developers — whether in the inner city or the outer ring — should not be regarded as inimical to creating a successful 21st century urbanism, but as its essential haidmaiden.

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