Monday, February 11, 2013

Planning's biggest problem, Houston's growing popularity, and more

A followup to my post from a couple weeks ago opposing comprehensive planning: My biggest problem with comprehensive planning (among several) is that, in theory, it's a balanced and enlightened approach that works out appropriate density by neighborhood and that the infrastructure can support, but what seems to happen in reality in cities all over the country is that it becomes a cudgel for NIMBYs to oppose any and all development. All comprehensive planning includes extensive public input.  Ultimately, it changes land use from a market process to a political process (the bosses of the planners), and politicians will always respond to vocal neighborhoods.  And the neighborhoods get more vocal the more they realize they can kill anything they don't like, especially any density.  Far from leading to vibrancy, it leads to stagnation.

People inherently fear change, especially in their neighborhoods.  In fact, I'd be willing to bet that if you took the central Houston of today, which most people acknowledge has evolved to be wonderfully more dense and vibrant over the last couple of decades, and took it back in time to the 1980s to be the "official comprehensive plan", the residents of the time would have come out in mass protest to kill it.  Ironic.

For an example of the chaos and bitter conflict that can come out of comprehensive planning, check out this month's Texas Monthly story on El Paso's plan.

Moving on to some smaller misc items this week:
"The program works like this: real-time data pertaining to state-owned freeways, city-owned arterials and public transportation systems is gathered and entered into a centralized computer system. This information could drive one of hundreds of diversion strategies designed to keep travelers moving in the event of an incident or congestion."
  • British Airway's High Life magazine profile of Houston.  I really like the creative writing which goes beyond the typical regurgitation of the usual sights, with clever lines like "Houston is to be approached with caution, and respected on impact."  My favorite excerpts:
Houston's profoundly non-Texan Texas is startling. It gets so acute I kind of miss my more caricatured movie-Texas — where Jeff Bridges pulls up his huge-buckled jeans in The Last Picture Show — and start to feel a little cheated, although tell any Houstonian this and they give you a look of triumph: they like to be different. 
Houston has just been placed by at the top of the list of cool places to live. Houston is unique in the United States. It's the only city with no ethnic majority, just an even spread of large populations from Nigeria, Vietnam, Korea, Mexico, India and so many others that 83 languages are regularly being spoken in Houston's schools. Where first-time buyers might have thought of California as a clement place to settle and prosper, three years ago they started moving to Houston, drawn to the sun, cheap housing and new jobs in clean energy (the convention centre here is run entirely by wind), all of which started a shift in the city's decades-long reputation as the middle-aged hub of oil and pharmaceutical (huh???) companies. The average age of a Houstonian is now just 34. And yet, it's a very nascent scene. Seven eighths of the people living in Houston don't know it's cool. In fact most people will keep flooring it along Highway 59 arguing the opposite — and it's easy to see why.  ... 
Why are people moving here? He looks at me: 'Why Houston? It's relaxing, it's warm, it has that Southern feel, it's not Dallas, it's cheaper than Austin, it's....'   ... 
I ask him if he thinks Austin is cooler. 'Depends on what you mean by cool,' he says, witheringly, 'but I guess it's definitely hip.'
           "I like Houston very much; it’s very different from Austin where I live part-time. It’s crazy in a way, but I liked that Houston has so much art and no zoning. Houston looks different from other cities. It’s very visual. I loved shooting there and could take pictures all day."
          Finally, I want to end with this amazing cityscape video (watch in full screen HD).  Will somebody do one of these for Houston already?  Or bring Eric Hines here to do it?

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          At 6:48 PM, February 11, 2013, Anonymous Rich Robins said...

          Yes, may the South rise again...and may Texas once again stand among the nations :-)

          At 11:48 AM, February 12, 2013, Blogger googlegrants said...

          Well, a comprehensive planning process MIGHT wind up increasing density in some way, but way before that it would lay down a vision, set some goals. One of the first things to be decided would be whether to go with the market, which Houston has never done, or do the sort of social engineering to restrict urbanism that the City has done for decades. I'm a little surprised you wouldn't support that.

          At 1:29 PM, February 12, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

          I'm all for loosening up city restrictions, including parking minimums, and allowing more of a free market.

          At 2:14 PM, February 12, 2013, Anonymous awp said...


          In practice comprehensive planning will not allow more density than we already do. The anti-density regulations and policies the City of Houston has are common to all other cities. The additional land-use planning other cities have above and beyond COH's are even more restrictive of density. With the possible exception of growth boundaries like in Portland, which I do not believe is even within the realm of possibilities here.

          The examples everyone arguing for comprehensive planning uses are almost always against too much density.


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