Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Report on the Preserving the American Dream conference

First, my apologies for the late post this week. I'm recently back from traveling to Austin and San Antonio and have been overwhelmed with catching up. This will probably be the only post this week.

Second, the title of this post is a bit overreaching, as I was only able to attend Friday evening of the three-day conference. Gonzalo Camacho was able to attend more, and posted his summary/thoughts here. An excerpt:
One speaker mentioned the most sustainable city in the world, Halle-Neustadt which was located in East Germany. If able to read German can read about the city at Wikipedia. The point made by the speaker that under the socialist regime Halle-Neustadt was considered very sustainable because it was designed for high density population and transit oriented. It reached a population of 90 thousand; however, after the (communist) wall was taken out and Germany reunited the population dropped to about 40 thousand. Point was made that this transit oriented city worked well under a tyrant government that forced people to live under provided conditions (multi family, high rise, densely populated buildings) but once people were able to make their own choices moved out.
I moderated a dialogue on land-use regulations and rail transit in Houston. I think it went pretty well, and stayed pretty civil, despite a few monologuing and haranguing questioners during Q&A. Peter Brown and David Crossley both took a lot of heat. Both had PowerPoint slides, and I found myself agreeing with them more than I expected to. David Crossley in particular had good arguments for the synergies of combining a core light rail network with our excellent HOV commuter system, which could be carrying a combined 250,000+ boardings a day when the core rail network opens in 2012. Both he and I believe it will be a superior system to the suburban commuter light rail networks being built in places like Dallas and Denver. Unfortunately, Paul Magaziner pointed out that cost estimates for that rail network have exploded from $50 million to $70m to $120+ million a mile, which raises the question of whether we need to go back to a BRT plan? (debate)

Peter Brown certainly said some things I disagree with, like that Houston's transportation costs are too high (debunked here), as well as characterizing Houston in a far more negative light than I would (crime-ridden, polluted, development anarchy, not getting our "fair share" of growth vs. outside the city, etc.). He surprisingly called for Houston to aspire to LA-level density (about 3x Houston's), despite the obvious problems that's caused for LA (overwhelmed infrastructure, esp. traffic). And I'm skeptical of Peter's "pro-everything" self-characterization throughout his presentation and on his last slide: pro-business, pro-growth, pro-transit, pro-neighborhoods, pro-environment, pro-planning, pro-form-based-codes, etc. I think there are more hard tradeoffs, negative side effects, and unintended consequences here than he acknowledges. He clearly has an architect's perspective that planning leads to perfection (i.e. utopia), rather than looking at cities from a more biological/economic systems perspective of organic evolution (more on this topic here).

That's it from my notes. If you attended any part of the conference, I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Update: From a post-conference email:

The Preserving the American Dream conference in Houston may have been our best yet. Steven Greenhut, of the Orange County Register, wrote an excellent summary of the conference that you can read at

If you missed the conference, you can still watch the many presentations on DVD. We have a complete set of about a dozen two-hour DVDs for sale for $5 each plus shipping. For a list, see

The tour of Houston was a major highlight of the conference. For a tour description, photos, and other conference highlights, see
(specifically here, here, and here)
(and here's Neal's take on the bus tour)

Update 2: Some YouTube videos from the debate:
Part 1 - Intro by Wendell and Tory
Part 2 - Kendall Miller (pro current Houston development approach)
Part 3 - Peter Brown (con current Houston development approach)
Part 4 - Brown/Miller
Part 5 - Q&A

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At 2:23 PM, May 22, 2008, Blogger Unknown said...

One thing that came up in the questions but I didn't feel I should take time for was this idea that "sustainable development" is some United Nations conspiracy to force people to live a certain way.

The Brundtland report from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 proposed sustainable development as the appropriate response to many global challenges. It said there must be three goals: economic and environmental priorities must be balanced, short-term and longer-term costs and benefits must be considered, and differences in income and access to resources between rich and poor countries must be diminished.

The report proposed the definition of "development that meeds the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."

But "sustainable development" was born some 15 years before that - right here in Houston. Apparently the first person to use the term "sustainability" in the US in relation to the human settlement and activity was Dennis Meadows. (1974)He was one of the authors of the Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits. The story I've heard is that he and George Mitchell began talking about sustainable growth and Mr. Mitchell challenged that term, thinking growth could not be sustainable, and the term should be sustainable societies, or sustainable development. I've heard both terms related to him. Mr. Mitchell's assistant confirmed this account.

Pretty amazing to imagine that sustainable development was invented in Houston.


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