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Shaping The Blob That Ate East Texas: Houston's New Adventure in Urban Planning

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Texas often gets a rap for doing things the Texas way. It boils down to stubborn independence, one might say, a trait that can be seen in a positive or negative light. With that in mind, Houston, especially as far as urban planning goes, may be the most Texan city of them all. Currently the country's fourth largest city—watch your back, Chicago—it doesn't just have a loose zoning code, it doesn't have one at all. Which, for the better or worse, has made it a bit of a Wild West as far as building and development goes. Called "the blob that ate East Texas" due to the speed at which it annexed neighboring towns, spreading and sprawling ever outward, the city has no real overarching direction, resulting in some very unique market-driven self-organization. Instead of just a single downtown, multiple business districts have grown up around the 627-square-mile city (the 64-story Williams Tower, the largest skyscraper outside a central business district, is ten miles from downtown). But that free-for-all, or flexibility, has some surprising advantages.

Developers elsewhere, accustomed to jumping through obstacle courses of approvals and red tape to break ground, would salivate as the speed with which things happen here. And demand and growth is actually making the city denser and bringing in light rail (the city's Red Line is second in ridership per square mile countrywide). In fact, contrary to its past reputation, Houston is in the midst of drafting a General Plan to help guide future development. The effort begs the question: will the plan maintain Houston's distinct independent streak, and does the Houston way have something to teach cities elsewhere?

"There's a lifecycle to neighborhoods in any city, demographics change, but we can respond to those changes really rapidly in Houston," says Mayor Annise Parker. "A warehouse district can become loft apartments literally in a matter of months."

A matter of months is also all that Mayor Parker has left as the city's chief executive. With her limit of three two-year terms ending this fall, Parker is in legacy mode, and part of that includes making city planning a key part of the election for her successor. That's why she's pushing to get the General Plan, currently in draft form, in front of the city's assembly this fall to make it a key campaign issue. There are a whole lot of seeds she's planted that she wants to see grow.

"We're more organic, and the market has more impact," she says about her city's growth patterns over the last few decades. "We've talked about having a general plan for decades, and I'm trying to finally help bring one to the table."

The way Parker sees it, the city's remarkable growth—26% rise in population from 2000 to 2010, and robust, post-recession job growth—suggests something is right. A lack of zoning helps keep property values closer to reality, she says, and it fosters innovation and startup culture in garages.

But the city's outward growth, fueled by highway expansion and cheap, flat, land miles beyond the Inner Loop that makes up the city's core, may have reached its limits. Trends toward dense developments and walkable urbanism threaten to make Houston less attractive to newcomers, especially with parking requirements for construction that directly conflict with efforts to densify neighborhoods, and a legacy of auto-dependent living has left the pressing issue of increased time spent lingering on congested roadways unsolved and eventually untenable.

"What I'd like to get to is see us incentivizing things we want to see, and discourage other things that continue the outward growth pattern," she says. "We always want the carrot over the stick. There are tons of urban planners and architects who want us to talk about building heights and looks, and that's really not the Houston way."

In particular, Parker wants to push more transit-oriented developments, and invest money in transportation and bike infrastructure (the city is in the midst of a $200 million plan to add more hiking and biking trails, and will reroute the entire bus system in August to improve service). She spoke of developers building mid-rises, and then years later, coming back and complaining about the traffic that's sprung up around the area. It's a classic "tragedy of the commons" outcome when the city as a whole isn't taking the kind of big picture, 40,000-foot view that can help to better coordinate development.

Jay Crossley, who works at the Houston Tomorrow institute, an urban think tank, sees a lot of issues with Houston's current development process. The system, or lack thereof, has blown money on freeways and hasn't developed enough affordable housing.

"This plan is historic," he says. "A lot of people think planning means zoning and telling us what to do. But a lot of it is having citizen vision, having departments working together, having the city say this is what we want."

Crossley sees Houston becoming a lovely urban place, but only with a code that encourages the right thing without forcing zoning rules ("it's silly for a commission to argue about if this should be a school or a home"). He proposes code that supports walkable urbanism, that doesn't require builders set aside as much space for parking, that allows for more building density outside the city core.

"Overwhelmingly, residents of the city of Houston want to live in a place where they can walk to restaurants, overwhelmingly, people think we need transit as opposed to new roads," says Crossley. "We're headed in the right direction while the state is headed in the wrong direction. Politicians are still following the sprawl machine."

Crossley believes that the next decade is going to be interesting. What can happen in a city that doesn't have zoning? Houston, he believes, will find out by doing it the Houston way.

"We can just leap ahead and do things in an amazing way," says Crossley. "I hope we'll help the rest of the nation move forward without zoning."

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