Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Intro from the land-use regulation forum

Just got back from the land-use forum at the GRB downtown. Overall I think it went pretty well. Good turnout too. Maybe 500+? I have a lot of notes I'll try to boil down into my next post, along with links to the presentations when they put them up (should be videos at some point too). But I'm tired and it's late tonight, so I'll just post the core of my intro speech, subtracting out all the "thank yous" and sponsor details. Sorry if it reads a little odd in written form - I wrote it for speech, with my own pauses and emphasis.


Now they asked me to “set the tone” for the evening. If I understood correctly, I think what they’re looking for is something like the “Jerry Springer” TV show… maybe we can even get a little chair-throwing going… Just kidding folks. More seriously, what we’re hoping for is not so much a debate as a civilized dialogue on different approaches to dealing with the tremendous growth happening in our city.

That civilized tone includes laying off the “good-guy/bad-guy” characterizations of either planners or developers. I’ve met a lot of planners, and they’re generally good people with good intentions trying to create good outcomes in the face of conflicting demands and incredible complexity. And let’s not forget that developers are not only building what people want – and that increased supply in the face of rising demand helps keep our city affordable – but also that the enhanced tax base they generate contributes millions of dollars towards schools, parks, police, libraries, roads, flood control, and other city services and desperately-needed infrastructure renewal. Every dollar they create is a dollar the rest of us don’t have to pay for those amenities.

To set the context of tonight’s discussion, when you hear the term “planning” thrown around, what we’re talking about here is land-use planning – what owners can and cannot do with their land – not infrastructure planning like sewers, water, roads, or flood control – which everybody agrees is absolutely necessary. In most cities, land-use planning is accomplished through government-controlled zoning, which Houston voters have rejected several times in our history. Instead, we’ve used voluntary deed restrictions to protect neighborhoods. Both systems have had mixed results of pros and cons. One issue we face is: can deed restrictions be streamlined and improved to address neighborhood concerns, or do we need to pull some or all of that power out of the neighborhoods to some sort of city-wide governing entity?

Other terms you’ll probably hear tossed around tonight include “quality of life,” “quality of place,” and “livability”. Unfortunately, they’re slippery terms. Ask a 100 people what quality of life means to them, and you’ll probably get a 100 different answers. Usually they’re referring to things like parks, open space, clean air, walkable neighborhoods, and aesthetics like trees, landscaping, and attractive development. All good stuff.

Affordability is not usually part of the definition, but in our Opportunity Urbanism study, we pointed out that affordability not only enables the American Dream of home ownership for the middle class, but also frees up discretionary income for urban vibrancy and amenities like restaurants, charities, shopping, sports, entertainment, higher education, small business entrepreneurship, museums, arts and culture – all of which not only constitute good “quality of life” for a lot people, but also help attract jobs and talent to our city. A good city has a diverse range of neighborhoods and environments – at all price ranges – so people can find the one that best matches their personal definition of “quality of life.” One-size, in this case, does not fit all.

My final point and we’ll move on to the panel. The Center for Houston’s Future recently brought a panel of national experts from the Urban Land Institute to Houston for several days to study our city and make recommendations. It may or may not surprise you to hear they were impressed – impressed to the point of asserting that we’re well on our way towards becoming the fourth great global city in America, after New York, Chicago, and LA. They noted we were achieving that critical mass due to several factors, including our incredible affordability (especially housing), the opportunities of our job growth, our limited constraints on development (they were not in favor of traditional zoning), and our strong core with people moving in as well as a growing tax base (as opposed to “donut cities” found elsewhere, with a stagnant or weakening core relative to their suburbs).

They even noted the importance of our optimistic spirit and generally positive attitude towards growth, an attitude not found in many other major cities. That attitude makes us more tolerant of the dynamic, eclectic, ever-changing development and density necessary for that growth. Careful preservation and cultivation of that positive attitude will be critical to achieving our potential among the world’s great cities.

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At 7:36 AM, February 27, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

I was there as well.

I was a little surprised how ineffective Arthur C. Nelson was. His time was abridged which may have dulled his punchline at the end. He seemed to be building a case for the need for planning by allowing us to extrapolate the enormous growth and complications that will bring, but he never seemed to get there.

Wendell Cox did a better job. He hammered home the points that are typically made by the libertarian side of this issue. He had several good visuals that seemed to work well with the audience. Although one slide about the contribution of the car to economic growth I thought was a little specious.

David Crossley had the best visual presentation. He opened with a bucolic presentation of the Houston-area countryside. I think he also got the most laughs. However, the meat of his presentation was tofu. Apparently his group did a bunch of surveys that showed that people want clean air, highly educated workforce, lots of parks, etc... Wow, people want to be healthy and wealthy? Who'd have thunk it? Sorry, but stated preferences are virtually worthless, David, it's revealed preferences that matter. He also obfuscated the idea of planning. He grouped any planning at all with the more draconian and arcane forms of the most myopic urban dreamers.

Sadly, Bob Lanier's age seems to have eroded some of his eloquence, but I think he made some of the most powerful statements of the evening. His folksy working man perspective waxed nostalgic for an earlier era of civic simplicity. He argued that the average Joe wants less crime, his streets repaired, the street lights to work, and so forth. He made the other three look like they were making this whole argument way too complicated.

At 3:55 PM, February 27, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I wanted to engage in some minor threadjacking and share this link
http://sugarland.tamu.edu with other readers from Ft. Bend.

According to the press I saw "Sugar Land officials and Fort Bend County Public Transportation are working with the Texas Transportation Institute to determine the community's interest in transportation services for the city. The focus of the study is the area in a one mile radius from the US-59/Hwy. 6 intersection."

I imagine that the transportation savvy readers of "Houston Strategies" will have plenty of valuable input.

At 4:07 PM, February 27, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

No problem, John. I will also add it to my next misc items post.

At 10:19 PM, February 27, 2008, Blogger Jeremy said...

Brian, you're going to have to help me out here--I'm really troubled and confused by some of your comments here, particularly in relation to "revealed preferences."

As per some of the characteristics those surveyed people stated they wanted--clean air, educated citizenry, green space, etc.--one's preferences in Houston likely wouldn't reveal too much. You don't want bad pollution? Move to a more expensive part of town away from the refineries. Can't afford it? Oops. Want more parks and green space? Same deal--you'll generally have to pay more for such amenities. If I, a poor student, decide to stay in a more polluted, grayer, less educated part of the city because I can afford it, then my market decision is revealing that I don't actually value cleanliness, healthiness, green space, etc.? Am I not entitled to the view that I want a clean, green, and educated city too? Does limited market availability of a particular commodity (healthy air, green space, etc.) somehow limit one's idea of the good life? If we did, in fact, have more of those things, evenly and justly distributed throughout the city, don't you think as many people as possible would flock to them?

Or were you simply criticizing what, in your mind, was the validity of a survey with such results?

Interestingly, you do seem to value one's stated views in the case of Bob Lanier's "average Joe," who apparently just wants "less crime, his streets repaired, the street lights to work." How is that an altogether different conception of a "good city" than one that is greener and healthier? I'm not seeing too much difference.

At 10:33 PM, February 27, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem is that of course we all want all these good things, but what do we do when they conflict with each other. Clean air vs. jobs, good schools vs. low property taxes, etc.

At 10:43 PM, February 27, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My impressions,

Cox let us know that sprawl is a universal phenomenon. Also, Zoning and regulation increase housing prices by directly limiting supply or adding costs. He tells us that we should have hardly any planning.

Nelson let us know that we are growing fast. He said we should have zoning without calling it zoning.

Crossley put together probably the most entertaing powerpoint presentation i have ever seen telling us that we have always had planning.

Lanier got the closest to what I was hoping for I think, I had a hard time understanding him. He is the only one who seemed to have a stated position on planning and an argument for his position. He seemed to be for minimal land use planning because when he was mayor the people were asking for the city to get its core services (police, infrastructure) right, they weren't asking for planning.

I guess I was hoping for more of a debate format.

At 11:21 PM, February 27, 2008, Blogger Jeremy said...

The deal is, Houston has in many ways moved beyond concern for basic amenities (not to say they're fine as they are, or that they don't need to updated--not making a normative claim here). It's beginning to envision itself, as Opportunity Urbanism reports, as an international city.

No planning and basic amenities were good and well as focuses before we'd realized some of the pernicious affects of air pollution, before discussions of environmental injustice came into the fore, before our sense of urgency regarding energy use had set it.

Now, in 2008, we live in a different city, in terms of our understanding of the place. With an expected influx of millions of more people in the area by 2035, these issues will only continue to come up. Companies will eventually have to question whether their employees truly can have a healthy quality of life here. People will worry for their children's health. Money and opportunity will still attract many, but others will have to weigh the benefits against the costs. The international city, with its focus always outward, will ultimately have to become more concerned with the so-called softer quality of life issues of its citizens, if not for their sake, then for the sake of continuing to attract business.

This is to say, I imagine there is a limit to the degree that Houston can continue to function as a hands-off business-friendly town. As Stephen Klineberg's studies have shown over the past few years, Houston's residents already want better air quality, better land-use planning, more light-rail and bus service, etc. Will the kinds of opportunities Houston is so proud of still exist in a degraded, polluted, educationally and racially-divided city? If the last two characteristics are becoming less-so now, they will worsen as the first two increase.

My overall point is: Must an opportunity city turn a blind eye to the actual, on-the-ground physical experience of living in that city?

At 12:01 AM, February 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I understand your point but there is something no one for planning, beyond infrastructure, has ever been able to satisfactorily explain to me. Why do you believe zoning or other types of government guided land use planning would lead to a better solution.

The market is building the types of neighborhoods that most planning people seem to want, and that I want too. Without the types of subsidies Cox said Portland had to use in it's Pearld district. We are getting dense walkable neighborhoods along washington, in the montrose neighborhood, in midtown and in other areas.

As for most of the other quality of life issues.

Air Quality is really a State and Federal matter. Until they put more stringent controls on industrial pollution or raise gas taxes, there is not much the city can do. We can invest more in Metro, but that is an infrastructure issue. The market is helping reduce the need to increase gas taxes to reduce auto air pollution.

Parks are also an infrastructure issue.

So, since the market is building the types of density we would want to zone for, and most other QOL issues are infrastructure related or out of the hands of local governments, Why do we need land use planning?

At 1:05 AM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Jeremy said...

In some ways, I'm not personally advocating zoning, per se (first of all, I lack the particular knowledge of city government processes to be able to evaluate the effects). I'm generally lamenting the state the city seems to be heading toward, which, regardless of some current efforts in Montrose, Midtown, and others, seems to be still outward, in new subdivisions, in suburbs without character. We can see the continuing expansion of the Grand Parkway as evidence of growth all around the city, and it will only allow for more.

Yet on the other end, building more densely, closer to the center of the city isn't quite working as we'd hoped either. Developers are looking to fit nice generic concepts into areas they don't fit (such as those multi-million dollar mixed residential and retail complexes planned for the Heights and other places), which doesn't help anything. Neighbors don't want them. People concerned about the look and character of the city have apt reason to complain. There certainly has been renewed effort, it seems, to begin to try to meet the demands for this kind of living, but so far, these proposals have left much wanting. Sticking horribly mis-fit feaux-historical lofts in Midtown is getting more young people interested in the neighborhoods, but what's happening to history there? Can't there be some middle ground in which neighborhoods and their residents have conversations with prospective developers before they begin changing the face of the city? Must business interests always be the arbiters of taste?

If anything, I've probably made you more frustrated. I certainly haven't answered the question. I've just had a nagging feeling that if some kind of centralized planning process does not take place, we'll end up with a city in which history, aesthetics, and quality urban design are all matters left in the hands of those who stand to gain the most money from these buildings. I don't know if the answer is in zoning, but there are other less strict options. Check out some of the suggestions in this article, to which Tory had alluded earlier:


I'm just frustrated because it doesn't seem those developers who are jumping on the new living options bandwagon are really thinking about the places, the physical, environmental, cultural, historical places where they're proposing/putting some of these more densely populated buildings. We can see this in the fierce resistance to the Ashby high rise (which, on principle, I think is a good idea, something that's needed). The sense is, if the market isn't satisfying us (though it seems to think it is) with options, how else can we achieve the kind of urban space we value? City government? Neighborhood groups? I'm just not sure.

At 7:50 AM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


Stated preferences have little importance because they are not bound by limited resources. A survey could ask "Do you support a 20-hr work week for all Americans if you got paid the same amount?" Many people would say yes, but in reality that would destroy the economy.

So, when you live in a poor part of town because you are a student, your revealed preferences are those bound by the reality of your budget.

My other problem with Crossley's survey questions is that they are terribly vague and nothing can be gleaned from the answers. The questions were not, "Do you think that the city should control the design of buildings, limit parking and limit vehicle access to force development to be pedestrian?" The question was more like, "Do you support walkable neighborhoods?" It's a dishonest approach.

Similarly, I support the concept of religion, but this does not imply that I would then also support a theocracy.

The other problem with surveys is that people are influenced by what they are "supposed" to say. In college I heard lots of conservatives express prejudiced comments behind closed doors. I also heard lots of liberals express strong support for eugenics (specifically the forced sterilization and abortion of low intelligence persons). You ask them in public, and there's no way that they would admit to either vice. When you have people on TV railing on about us killing the planet with our sprawl and SUVs, it will influence what they publicly profess.

It's all very similar to Tory's oft repeated line from TheOnion about 99% of people support other people riding mass transit.

At 10:30 AM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Jeremy said...

Thanks for clarifying your claim. I understand what you're saying. However I strongly disagree with it. Sure, revealed preferences say a lot more about the reality of the market, the trade-offs people must consider, the options the market has, etc. But Houston, any place for that matter, is far more than a market, populated by economic vectors, curves, etc.

Much of the dialogue going on here, throughout the city, is about imagining ways that the city can be different, that the market can be expanded, improved by public input. We're not just talking about the city of right now, we are talking about re-conceptualizing the way people behave in the city (i.e. providing more rail access will fundamentally change the way more people interact with their environment, get to work, etc.). Your market-centered perspective seems to offer little room for such ideas, or only insofar as they pop into the very minds of those developers, city officials, etc. who are in a place to change the city.

We could argue all day about surveys, the social narratives they tap into, the way they may or may not prime certain responses and all.

But I suppose I fundamentally disagree that people's stated preferences aren't meaningful. Simply because they aren't bound by limited resources, as most of our decisions are concerning housing, transportation, etc. does not altogether invalidate them. I worry here that you've allowed your economics training to obscure your vision. Simply making a choice among alternatives in a market context does not mean I am always attempting to maximize utility. Such a theory can't account for culture, for a sense of history, for all the individual idiosyncrasies that shape our decisions outside of market considerations, or for discrimination, for that matter, that would seem to limit people in their decisions.

So I respect your views, but I can't conscientiously support them.

At 11:21 AM, February 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But Houston, any place for that matter, is far more than a market, populated by economic vectors, curves, etc. "

You sir, I guess don't under the free market. The market is living breathing entity where supply and demand of the people is yielded to. This is something that government is very incapable of doing. I guess you can say the free market is organic and the government is similar to pesticide laden fruit.

New ideas and ways of doing things originate in the market place and not in a bureaucracy. For a bureaucracy to innovate new ideas, it needs to admit its old ideas are wrong. This is something no public official (elected or not) is capable of doing.

At 11:49 AM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Michael said...


>>"Do you support a 20-hr work week for all Americans if you got paid the same amount?" Many people would say yes, but in reality that would destroy the economy.

I think stated preferences are still important, especially when you can gauge the difference over a period of years or decades. My impression is that Klineberg's studies have only recently begun to show more concern for environmental issues, public transportation, and more people interested in the idea of moving into the city rather than into the suburbs.

So, even on questions like
"Do you support walkable neighborhoods?"
"Do you support investment in better public transportation?", I think we notice that the public is now more supportive than ever before. I don't think most people care exactly how those means are achieved - they leave that up to their elected officials and professionals. If anything, it is somewhat of an "art" to try to balance those preferences with other preferences for jobs, affordability, etc. But to state that stated preferences and trends are meaningless also completely misses the point, IMHO anyway.


At 12:23 PM, February 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I've been reading this thread and another way in which to express what Brian Shelley wrote earlier when he said

"Sorry, but stated preferences are virtually worthless, David, it's revealed preferences that matter."

is to think of matters this way.

Example #1:

Stated preference: "I think Houston should have perhaps a few more parks."

Revealed preference: I actually rarely go visit or spend time in a park in Houston because I have other hobbies and do other things that occupy my spare time.

Example #2:

Stated preference: "The Houston area needs to work to further clean up our local environment whether by emissions trading, regulation, or some other device."

Revealed preference: I work in a good paying job in downtown, only 5-10 miles away from the Port, Highway 225, and some of the petrochemical refineries, but not out in Sugarland, Katy, or Greenspoint. It rarely occurs to me in my ordinary everyday life that I have done this.

Don't laugh, because those are in fact my stated preferences, but those are also in fact my own revealed preferences.

One of the best moments of last night's forum, and yes I was there, was when Wendell Cox asked the audience how many people got to the GRB forum via public transportation? Out of the very large audience, somewhere between 500 - 1000 people, 2 or 3 people raised their hands. Remember, downtown also happens to be the area of town that has the largest concentration of public transportation available to it. Visit Metro's area map online to see for yourself.

Now ask yourself a very hard question: If Houston were to spend more monies to produce these amenities, and a proper way of thinking of amenities from an urban economics perspective is to think of them as another production cost of living in an urban area, would you really notice or use them?

I liked Mayor Lanier's observation that Houston makes its infrastrucutre - all of it - including roads, transit, water, sewer, work harder and puts it to better use than any other city in Texas. Those are things that are good to know.

More later.


At 12:29 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


My adherence to free market economics has two primary concerns for civic matters. I dislike force and I dislike subsidies.

I have many of the same romantic notions of what I want Houston to be like. My notions, however, are bound by those two concerns.

I want Houston to be more dense, so I look for rules and subsidies that guide decisions towards sprawl and voice my displeasure with those subsidies. (i.e. setback requirements, "free"ways, and excessive parking requirements).

I also see plans like form zoning and mass transit and I simply do not believe that they will have the desired results.

From yours and Michael's comments I will lift my sentiment of stated preferences from worthless, to mostly worthless.

At 1:11 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Michael said...


>>My adherence to free market economics has two primary concerns for civic matters. I dislike force and I dislike subsidies.

I don't think Jeremy and I necessarily "like" force or subsidies. But we also don't necessarily like a completely unregulated free market. Again, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely". That can just as easily be the power of big business as big government. This is a basic philosophical principle that the free market folks don't seem to understand.

>>I also see plans like form zoning and mass transit and I simply do not believe that they will have the desired results.

Well, we can look at Dallas 20 years from now and see if they are in better shape than us. We can also look at Europe, which in one of your previous posts you mention is far behind the US, but if anything seems far ahead of us by my vantage point.


>>I liked Mayor Lanier's observation that Houston makes its infrastrucutre - all of it - including roads, transit, water, sewer, work harder and puts it to better use than any other city in Texas. Those are things that are good to know.

I really have to agree with Jeremy here. Why should we distinguish between things like roads, sewer, and parks and mass transit? Do you "notice" an investment in sewers any more than you notice an investment in parks? These are all *subjective* questions that have no concrete answer. When the majority of the citizens agree with Jeremy, Mike, and me that yes we should invest in these things, because yes, we do use them, then your side has lost, hasn't it?

I think we are at the tipping point of this debate right now, with the side that doesn't see the need for those things gradually losing out. After all, sewer systems must have once been considered a "luxury", right? Can you imagine anyone arguing that we should not build sewer systems now?


At 1:27 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

"This is a basic philosophical principle that the free market folks don't seem to understand."

Then illuminate me.

If you think that this is too off topic, follow my name and send me an e-mail.

At 1:39 PM, February 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


"These are all *subjective* questions that have no concrete answer."

Just so that you are aware of this and to let you think about it, the City of Houston passed an ordinance this past year decreeing that in the future, developers must set aside and provide a certain amount of square footage of park space for every residential unit (home, apartment, etc) that they build. The amount is greater outside 610 Loop than inside 610. Previously, the City relied on voluntary contributions of land for park space. For example, the Hogg family donated Memorial Park to Houston.

Alternately, the developer can opt out of this buy paying money into a fund which is supposed to go to acquiring park space. I say "supposed to" because money of course is fungible and money in government budgets can come from anywhere and often be spent on anything.

Now then, what was the rationale for giving up a voluntary policy towards this issue and making it compulsory? The Houston Chronicle stated in a story that "experts" were consulted by the City who stated that an "optimal" amount of park space for an urban area was a certain amount of acreage, but that Houston did not quite have the optimal amount of land devoted towards the provision of parks.

Some people, whose opinions seem to matter to the point where they were paid money for them, do think they know these answers.

At 1:49 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Michael said...


Thanks - I am well aware of the parks issue. If anything I think it did not go far enough in making developers pay enough money for the city to acquire noticeable amounts of parkland.

If you disagree, well, you can vote these people out of office. Good luck with that.


You want examples of the nefarious ways of unregulated business?

- Enron - took power offline in CA to raise temporary profits
- Microsoft - monopolostic practices, for which they were just fined $1.4 billion
- BP - see refinery blast in Texas city
- Shoddy building because of lack of proper building standards
- Texas Real Estate arbitration process is made up of builders interests groups

These are just a few examples, and may not entirely be "on-topic", but I believe these examples would be applicable to transportation or whatever topic you want to apply them to. If anything, more regulation and "fairer" regulation is needed in these cases, not less.


At 2:10 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


I just had to point out one amusing use of quotes.

'Again, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely"...This is a basic philosophical principle that the free market folks don't seem to understand.'

Your quote is from Lord Acton, who ironically was an ardent supporter of laissez-faire economics. :)

At 2:22 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Michael said...


>>Your quote is from Lord Acton, who ironically was an ardent supporter of laissez-faire economics. :)

That is ironic, but it does not change the point. According to wikipedia, his quote was not even about government, but the papacy. I think his quote illustrates a basic principle which can be applied to any system - government, religious, business, or otherwise, where you have multiple parties competing for influence. It seems almost a truism to me - and one reason why our system of "checks and balances" in government has survived so long.


At 2:24 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


Let me make a definition here and tell me if you agree or disagree. Torts are punishments for immoral behavior after the fact, and regulations are to prevent them.
While torts act as a deterant, but regulation is prevention.

So your perspective is to prevent bad development not just deter it. Is this correct?

At 2:42 PM, February 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Firms in the market do not have much power, they have to provide products that people want to buy at prices they are willing to pay.

Government regulations sometimes tend to increase large firms market power since smaller and/or newer companies have less resources and knowledge that becomes needed to satisfy the regulations.

And again, road, sewers, parks, and transit are all infrastructure issues, that the government does have a legitmate purpose in building. If, that is, they convince the cititzens they are worth paying for.

As to the examples of the failures of the market.

-Enron and California the problem here was the messed up market that the Californian GOVERNMENT set up, that was a government failure that was exploited.

-BP my friends in the refinery business tell me that BP pays a premium to get people to work in their refinery, because it does tend to blow up. If you don't want to take that risk don't work there.

-Shoddy building = cheap housing, if you don't want a cheap house hire a good inspector and be ready to pay more for the better built house.

-- Texas Real Estate arbitration process this is called regulatory capture, and how is it any less likely to happen to the zoning commission.

At 2:44 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Michael said...


>>So your perspective is to prevent bad development not just deter it. Is this correct?

That's a very vague question. I don't think regulation necessarily "prevents" bad development, it just serves to "guide" development such that it is better than it would have been otherwise. It may increase costs, but I tend to think that at a certain stage in a city's lifecycle, most people agree that some degree of guidance, even if it increases costs, and even if it ends up "preventing" some projects because a developer is unwilling or unable to comply with the regulations in place, is a good thing. I also think that increased costs of individual projects is potentially a very myopic view of the subject, when there are so many other issues at play - including costs (such as societal costs, and the opportunity cost of building something else) over the lifetime of the project's existence.


At 3:04 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Michael said...


>>-BP my friends in the refinery business tell me that BP pays a premium to get people to work in their refinery, because it does tend to blow up. If you don't want to take that risk don't work there.

Hehe - And so I suppose your answer to Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" would have been - "Hey, don't work in the meat-packing industry!" Nevermind that "the product", or in this case the "pollution" and "explosions" affect not only the workers (who die, get mauled, etc) but the community at large. Fortunately, most people agree with me, that if the work is sufficiently dangerous, the company better be trying, or be forced to try, to make conditions better. You would rather just not have things like the FDA and OSHA? I agree there are things wrong with both, but far be it from me to say, "Hey, if people are dying from taking the medicine, just don't take it!"

>>-Enron and California the problem here was the messed up market that the Californian GOVERNMENT set up, that was a government failure that was exploited.

And who exploited that failure of regulation? Big business. Why didn't they just find it in the goodness of their hearts not to exploit the system and provide power at reasonable rates?

>>-- Texas Real Estate arbitration process this is called regulatory capture, and how is it any less likely to happen to the zoning commission.

The point here was to have citizens better-represented on the TRCC or whatever it is called.

I could go on. Basically, I disagree with you on all points. And, my point is that at the local level, in terms of building, transportation policy, or what have you, the same types of abuses can and do occur by business interests. Their motive is profitability, not the well-being of the community.


At 3:25 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> Their motive is profitability, not the well-being of the community.

Profits simply mean that items of less total value to people (i.e. the community) have been transformed into items with more total value to people.

Inputs + work = Outputs
Output value - input value = profit
Profit = Value of that work

If a community has more things they value more highly, that implies higher well-being.

The converse also seems to be true: poorer neighborhoods of low value with few or no profits generally aren't considered high on the "community well-being" scale.

At 3:27 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Michael said...


>>Profits simply mean that items of less total value to people (i.e. the community) have been transformed into items with more total value to people.

For the time it takes to complete the transaction, anyway.


At 3:45 PM, February 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Actually yes. Why should I be in the position to tell people they are not allowed to accept higher risks for higher pay.

At 3:52 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Michael said...


>>Actually yes. Why should I be in the position to tell people they are not allowed to accept higher risks for higher pay.

I think that if the cost to society is less from preventing some of the more egregious forms of workplace injury than not, then it is in the best interests of society to favor some regulation. This is ultimately also "an art" as it would be very difficult to prove either way. Unfortunately, on your side of the argument, you have dead bodies piling up... which is not a very attractive point to your argument.

I think most people agree that some basic prevention is better than just letting the *&!t hit the fan and "see what happens" approach.

Again, good luck trying to eliminate OSHA and the FDA.


At 5:08 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Jeremy said...

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At 5:14 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Jeremy said...

Thanks, Mike, for taking up and advancing my argument (arguably better than I could have).

I see here that in the discussion several of us are rubbing up against competing conceptions to the question: How do we look at the city? Well, really, we seem to have competing camps about just how we look at the world.

Admittedly, and I don't mean to implicate myself here, but I have been in academia for the past few years (at Rice in Houston), so I necessarily have access to people, often professors, who have studied the city in many dimensions and see a lot lacking.

I've seen how whole neighborhoods near the ship channel, and increasingly more in the wealthier sections of town too, are being polluted by hazardous, sometimes carcinogenic, air pollutants from the refineries. We're beginning to see that allowing industry to get away with little regulation is seriously jeopardizing city health, even as far out as Conroe.

This is just one example of how hands-off business-as-usual thinking is slowly making Houston a place where people aren't going to want to live. This is not to say they will not live here--we all know how powerful the lure of jobs and of reasonable housing prices are. Will air itself ultimately be added to the list of commodities for which we pay more, in order to live in the neighborhoods where monitors tell us the quality is better? Or isn't air, like the city's public spaces themselves, a kind of common good? Is it okay, then, to allow the refineries to continue on with their wasteful and harmful practices that jeopardize this common space, of sorts?

I don't mean to take a fully environmental tack here, but such issues often come up in discussing business, which many in Houston have found a way to pit against environmentalism, creating a kind of either/or scenario that we're supposed to buy into. I think what we're trying to imagine here is a city in which public goods (now and in the future) aren't shortchanged because our system allows myopic businessmen to determine the course of the city.

At 5:38 PM, February 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Most of the growth in Houston develops post refinery construction. Many of the homes that were built near the refineries were built after the refineries.

Attacking them after the fact is kind of a low blow.

Lets go build a school right downwind and then say the horrible industry is killing our kids. If the location was so bad, the school shouldn't have been built.

The reality is that these refineries are a necessity to life. Every aspect of our lives are tied to products they produce. And they produce more than just gasoline.

At 8:51 PM, February 28, 2008, Blogger Jeremy said...

If it were only so simple. I sat in on a presentation today by the director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention. He showed us monitor data about how air pollution is no longer, nor has it ever really been centralized near the refineries. Sure, it tends to be worse there, but even parts of southwest Houston and more so west Houston are now showing really high ozone levels readings.

But regardless of that fact, to say that the refineries don't have an obligation not to endanger the citizens of the city, ANY citizens of the city, is dangerous and just plain wrong. To acknowledge such an obligation and to be aware of their impact on the city's economic landscape are very different things. It's meaningless to discuss when homes or refineries were built. That they coexist is enough to compel awareness and regulation.

At 8:02 AM, February 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did he also happen to mention that the primary cause for the concentration of ozone is our climate. If Houston was located a couple of lines of latitude north, our ozone concentrations would plummet. Our mixture of humidity and heat aid greatly in creation ozone.

I can show you ozone monitoring of my home town of only 20,000 people located far from polluting industries and heavy vehicular concentrations that match the levels often found in Houston during the worst time (summer months).

My home town is in southern Louisiana with the same climate as Houston. Luckily the EPA stays out because the population is so small.

The monitoring was performed at Nichols State University as part of a comparison of rural to urban ozone concentrations. When climate is the variable changed, ozone levels are greatly affected.

At 1:39 PM, February 29, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

This article is pretty relevant to the present discussion of the environment in Texas, planning efforts, and the powerful business lobbies here:


At 3:56 PM, February 29, 2008, Blogger Jeremy said...

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At 4:05 PM, February 29, 2008, Blogger Jeremy said...


You're on the right track. Houston's particular location and climate are major factors in our ozone problem, as is L.A.'s particular location. These features exacerbate what would already be a big deal, with our millions of vehicles, petrochemical complex, and other sources of volatile organic compounds that precipitate ozone formation.

Precisely because of the combination of Houston's location and climate and our industry and vehicle emissions do we need to worry about ozone and other air pollutants. I'm not trying to foster some kind of smear campaign against the companies whose facilities are here. I'm simply saying that we can no longer afford to act like there isn't a problem of huge proportions that will take cooperation from many sides, including the industry and local government. You're right--if Houston were, say, in the Midwest or even further north in Texas, things would be different. But needless to say...

At 4:06 PM, February 29, 2008, Blogger Jeremy said...

The last paragraph of the newsweek article is great:

"As state legislators gear up for next year's session, a Republican-led coalition is forming with the hope of finally pushing through carbon-related legislation. West Texas cattle rancher and staunch GOP state Rep. Warren Chisum has gained the support of 55 members of the state House and Senate as part of the House Carbon Caucus he formed after last year's session. "It's disappointing to me that Texas doesn't have a state plan right now," says Chisum, who says he wants to approach the issue not from an ideological standpoint but from a practical one. "We've wasted a lot of time debating this issue. I simply see this as an issue of good state government. Rather than wait for something to come down the pike from the federal government, we should go ahead and enact something for ourselves, and not let a bunch of federal bureaucrats stuff something down our throats." Spoken like a true Texan."


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