Sunday, March 24, 2013

Transforming Houston With Bayou Greenways

This week we have a guest post by Jen Powis, Advocacy Director for the Houston Parks Board.
Houston is a sprawling, cosmopolitan city of over 650 square miles and 2.3 million people.  But thanks to the $166 million Parks Bond citizens passed last November, by 2020 Houston will also have over 150 miles of connected biking and walking paths along nearly 1,500 acres of new connected parkland, completely separated from cars.

The bond dollars will go toward completing a system of connected parks throughout Houston — a project known as Bayou Greenways 2020.  In general, Bayou Greenways are linear public parks along the major bayous flowing towards the Gulf of Mexico that connect many of Houston’s signature parks like Hermann Park or Eleanor Tinsley Park.  Much of the land along our bayous are either in the floodway or the floodplain, and thus not ripe for major development.  By leveraging this otherwise natural land for the development of a connected park system, we accomplish multiple goals for less than half the cost.  These parks are first and foremost parks: places to walk and bike, exercise or sit under a tree.  But they also provide wildlife habitat, help our water quality and flood control, and unite our communities with safe, off-street paths for both recreation and transportation alternatives.

Houston currently has 75 miles of shared use paths and nearly 40,000 acres of parkland. With the addition of another 1,500 acres of greenspace directly along the bayous, however, Houston is poised to have a one-of-a-kind, off-street trail system that re-envisions transportation while at the same time completing an urban park system like no other.

100 Years Later

In 1912, one of Houston’s first visionary architects, recommended to the city that it should take advantage of its natural ecology — the bayous, creeks and ditches that make Houston the swampy, wetland, port city that it is today.  Since that time, countless individuals and stakeholders have slowly been crafting a system of parks that are connected along the major bayous that flow directly through city center, making their way to the Gulf of Mexico and the Houston Ship Channel.

There are 7 major bayous in the city of Houston.  Many of those bayous currently have sections of trails, linear parks and other larger parks sprinkled throughout each corridor. Because these linear parks and trails are not connected or continuous, the greenways lack the transformative impact they could have on the area.

So far, the investment in existing trails and parks along our bayous conservatively exceeds $2.4 billion. The only remaining task is to connect them all.  The cost to complete the greenways, trails and new parks within the city limits is $205 million.  And with the bond this past November, Houston is approximately half way there.  Now it’s up to us, the community and many leading non-profits like the Houston Parks Board to match the public dollars — one for one — to complete the job.

Transformative and Beneficial 

Parks play an anchor role in an urban environment, and with Bayou Greenways 2020, Houston will have one of the best systems around. The health, environmental and economic benefits associated with a project like this are all aspects of a citizen’s quality of life.  They feed into whether a city can attract new talent, and keep its retirees.  It also feeds into larger business relocation decisions, as a company often wants to be associated with a city — like Houston — that was recently named the “coolest city” in America.

We were so sure that the Bayou Greenways would have positive economic, environmental, and physical and mental health benefits, that we commissioned a study by a well-known professor at Texas A&M University. Conservatively, the benefits that were assessed a dollar value demonstrate a returning annual benefit of $117 million a year for the entire initiative.  That’s a pretty amazing return on your investment and another example of why urban parks are so important in today’s fast paced world. For Houston, there is unlikely to be any other investment that will transform Houston’s image from a “cement city” to one that embraces green.

For years, the City, the County, non-profits, and community organizations have been working on different segments of the Bayou Greenways, completing segment by segment and connecting park to park. It’s time to finish the job of uniting the bayous with greenways, trails and parks.

This spring, Houston Parks Board is bringing together community members, college students from Rice and UH, neighborhoods, businesses, organizations, biking groups and more to get involved and speak up about what this project means to them. And we’re just getting started.  If you’re in the area and want to get involved, or would like more information about the project, check out our website to learn more. The power rests in your hands to put a world-class park system at your fingertips.

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Surprisingly simple congestion solution, Houston dominates web hosting (?!), H-town accolades, low taxes, and more

It's been a while since the last post with smaller misc items, and they've been stacking up so much I'll need to spread them over at least two posts and possibly more.  Here we go with the first round:
  • Event announcement: Jeb Brugmann will be speaking on "Can India’s Cities Be Made to Work?" this Wednesday night at Asia Society Texas.  Details here.
  • Great Chronicle op-ed today by a Rice student on how they came to love Houston over their four years here.
Excerpt: "Where I had once seen a homogenized concrete blanket, I now see a diverse quilt with intricate and innumerable connections. Each section of Houston, from Chinatown to Midtown, not only forms a distinct and unique town unto itself but adds to the color and character of the rest of the city. Taken together, they form the most dynamic city in America. My hometown of Albuquerque might cherish its past and tradition, but Houston constantly evolves toward the future. To outsiders, this makes Houston look like an unplanned mess, but those who live here know to embrace the lack of predestined plan. It is why the city eschews zoning laws with pride."
Finally, let me end with this great TED talk on reducing traffic congestion based on the congestion charge experiment in Stockholm (hat tip to Jay).  A token 1-2 euro congestion fee in the core reduced cars by 20% and nearly eliminated congestion.  Because traffic congestion is nonlinear, just a small reduction in cars can lead to a large reduction in congestion.  It incentivized a lot of people with schedule flexibility to shift their trips outside of rush hour.  Also, even though it was very unpopular at first, it quickly became overwhelmingly popular with 70+% support.  I suspect it's politically impossible, but I think something similar for freeways coming inside the loop or getting on the loop at rush hour could have a similar impact here.  Something to ponder...

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Attracting more educated talent to Houston

As the Greater Houston Partnership develops Opportunity Houston v2.0, I hear more and more that Houston needs to not just attract jobs, but also well-educated talent to fill all those jobs.  Don't get me wrong - as Joel Kotkin has pointed out, plenty of college grads are moving to Houston - but even that flow is having trouble keeping up with the massive numbers of jobs we're creating.  Although Houston's image has been improving with more and more national accolades, we're still not an obvious "go-to" destination for talent (like, say, Austin), especially recent college grads outside of Texas.  I'm not sure any general image/advertising campaign can fix that, but I do think a targeted approach with a modest budget has a lot of potential.

Step 1: Identify target universities with graduates and alums we want.  It's really hard to pry people out of the coasts, but I think Midwestern and Southern graduates are more likely to consider Houston.  I'd guess the best yield will be mostly from Big 10, Big 12, and SEC schools with strong engineering programs, plus a few high-quality extras like Tulane, Duke, Emory, Georgia Tech, U.Va, and Washington University in St. Louis.

Step 2: Help organize/support/sponsor alumni groups from those schools in Houston.  Help them create social media communities and networking events, especially around sports bar meetups for their school's games.

Step 3: Sponsor a big Houston tent at the annual homecoming football games for those schools.  In addition to the usual food, beer, and marketing materials, make sure it has plenty of Houston-based alums at it to talk up both the city and their alumni community here.  The message is "Your school has a vibrant alumni community in Houston that you will be welcomed into, and they love living in Houston."  This is a double win because the message gets out to both alums and students.  Also consider ads and articles in alumni magazines.

Step 4: Here's the clincher.  The idea came from a story my Dad told me about northern college students driving down here for spring break mixing service at Habitat with Humanity with some fun.  Evidently they really enjoyed Houston.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized Houston has to offer for college students on spring break: reasonable driving distance (at least for a groups trading off driving shifts), great weather, beaches/Kemah/Pleasure Pier/Schlitterbahn, the Rodeo, NASA, arts/theater/museums, and of course tons of restaurants, bars, shopping, and nightlife.  I've heard and read multiple anecdotes that today's college students are looking for more than just "get drunk on a beach for a week."  They like the excitement and sophistication of a big city.  They'd like to do a service project.  Houston could offer an amazing spring break experience, and we can certainly handle the crowds far better than the small beach communities of Florida and with fewer drug violence concerns than Mexico.  And if they want to mix in a little SXSW time in Austin or South Padre beach time during their week, that's fine too.  The goal is to get them at least some exposure to all Houston has to offer, so when they're interviewing for jobs their senior year, we're an attractive option... "Man, I had a blast on spring break in Houston - I could definitely see myself taking a job and living there."

Of course we'd want to try and schedule a slate of events, including concerts and festivals, during these spring break weeks.  And offer an array of service projects like Habitat for Humanity and others.  We'd also want to have private events where the students can meet their local alumni group - for example, Houston-based Purdue alumni hosting Purdue students on spring break for an event at the Natural Science or Fine Arts museums.  Finally, of course, we have to promote Spring Break Houston on their campuses.

Again, another double win, attracting both talent and tourism dollars.  And when you consider the secondary value of all those college students talking up their Spring Break Houston trip on their social media accounts, it's really a triple win.

So that's my 4-step plan for attracting more college-educated talent to Houston with a modest marketing budget.  I'm looking forward to your thoughts in the comments...

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Sunday, March 03, 2013

Dissecting Rice's sustainability report on Houston

Last week the Shell Center for Sustainability at Rice released their report on Houston, and some breathless "quality of life is falling!" headlines ensued.  While I'm all for data and analysis like this, I do have some issues with some of the findings and recommended strategies.  Broadly speaking, it follows a typical pattern I find worrisome:
  1. Selectively pick stats and trends that look bad
  2. Comprehensive planning and government intervention are required!
  3. All will be solved, utopia will ensue, there are no downsides or tradeoffs
OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but I do feel like this is the unspoken message under a lot of the material. Getting to some of my specific issues:
  • Holding up NYC, LA, and Chicago as models: I'm not saying we're perfect and they have nothing to teach us, but Houston has been performing better than those cities on a lot of indicators for a very long time, so I'd be really careful what lessons we learn from them.
  • Combining percentage of income spent on housing and transportation to argue Houston is an expensive city to live in and get around. I'm really not a fan of that stat. When people save on taxes with no income taxes, they splurge on houses. When people save on housing, they splurge on their cars. That's a personal choice and it doesn't mean Houston is expensive to get around. Look around at all the fancy cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs you see around Houston. Those high-depreciation, low mileage vehicles are discretionary, not a cost of basic transportation. They are certainly not required to get around town. You can dramatically cut your cost of getting around - both gas and depreciation - with a nice used Prius or Civic, just as you can in any other city.   Cost of living indexes, like I mentioned last week, equalize for that - and show that Houston has the highest cost-of-living adjusted average incomes among the country's major metros.  Another issue I have with that stat is that it ignores taxes that go to transit, esp. in the heavy transit cities like Philly and NYC. Using the farebox as the only cost of transportation is inaccurate, since it covers only a small portion of the cost of the transit system.
  • Subsidizing housing near job centers: There are plenty of apartment complexes and other housing near each of Houston's job centers.  If people want to live close to their job, they almost certainly have plenty of options.  But most people choose not to do this for a host of varied reasons, including home, school, and neighborhood preferences - not to mention dual-income households (whose job do you live next to?).  Commute time is not the deciding factor for most people.  If we're somehow restricting or discouraging new housing supply near job centers, then by all means let's fix that - but pouring tax dollars into programs to incentivize apartment development near job centers just doesn't seem like a wise use of limited government resources.  The market will provide housing where there is demand.
  • Comparing our rail unfavorably to Chicago: See the middle of my TEDx talk and slides explaining why commuter rail makes sense for centralized, older, pre-WW2/pre-automotive cities like Chicago but not for decentralized, newer, post-WW2 cities like Houston.  Express bus HOT lane networks are the right solution for multi-centric Houston.
  • Limited health insurance coverage: Isn't this more of a federal (Affordable Care Act) and state (Perry accepting additional federal Medicaid dollars, as requested by County Judge Emmett) issue?
  • That a loss of anglos inside the city limits implies an unattractive quality of life: what has happened over the last 30+ years is that middle-ring anglos (610 to BW8) have moved out to newer nicer suburbs in unincorporated Harris County, Sugar Land, Katy, The Woodlands, Pearland, etc. and aspiring minorities and immigrants have moved in as mortgage rates dropped and home ownership hit record levels (this happened to cities all over the country).  Yet nobody can argue that the inner loop and westside of Houston isn't attracting plenty of anglos with a strong quality of life, including mass gentrification of previously blighted areas.  Houston's core is definitely healthy and has plenty of quality of life - not perfect, but healthier than most cities - and a great balance of diverse demographics.
Houston is not perfect, but it's doing a lot of things right and embarking on some great new initiatives like expanded parks and bike trails, single-bin recycling+trash, the Uptown BRT line, dedicated revenue for drainage+roads, rethinking the METRO bus network from the ground-up, and revamping Chapter 42 development codes to enable more densification and keep housing affordable.  Let's keep up the thoughtful continuous improvement, but be careful to not forget our great strengths or compromise them because of misleading stats or incomplete analysis.

UPDATE: link to the complete report.

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