A City Without a Plan

Houston should be wary of the perils of planning

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, as the saying goes. Though Robert Burns may have had the vagaries of life in mind when he penned this line over two centuries ago, he probably didn’t anticipate that this sentiment would hold equally true for cities and urban economies. However, modern urban planners have yet to realize this, and Houstonians could learn this lesson the hard way.

Houston has recently begun to take significant steps down the road of urban planning by embarking on two major projects. In the first, a committee has recently released a “plan to plan” for the Planning Commission and City Council. The plan outlines a process for creating a general plan for Houston’s future development. So far, the process seems wisely focused on Houston’s top two critical planning-related issues: mobility and drainage (education and crime falling outside of planners’ expertise). But additional committees on other issues may steer the effort in new directions in 2007.

Simultaneously, the city has embarked on an effort to reshape neighborhoods and commercial areas along Houston’s urban transit corridors, primarily those served by the expanding light rail system. This planning process will spur changes to city ordinances and regulations to promote “transit-oriented development” — high-density, pedestrian-friendly development around transit stops that blends commercial and residential uses. Think of Brooklyn, New York, and you have a good idea of what they want for the future.

According to local leaders and planning advocates, these efforts are not a backdoor attempt to introduce zoning, nor are they a smokescreen for the imposition of draconian government regulations. Rather, they explain, these efforts are simply aimed at setting priorities for the use of public resources to implement a shared vision of our city’s future. (Please see “Houstonians, we need a plan” by Councilmen Adrian Garcia and Peter Brown, Houston Chronicle, Dec. 24.)

It’s hard to fault proponents for these noble intentions. After all, they share the same civic spirit that infuses the entirety of the urban planning profession. However, it is important to dig beneath the rhetorical surface to understand the motivations behind these projects and place them in the broader national planning context.

First, it is an accepted mantra among planners that a plan without the tools to implement its vision is a document destined for the bookshelf of history. And all planners know that the major implementation tool is zoning.

In fact, legions of planning students in leading universities are introduced to Houston as the biggest American city without zoning, a fact that leads to no small amount of consternation, bewilderment and derision. Put simply, planners are taught that unzoned Houston is the antithesis of rational design and the triumph of excess, an urban free-for-all of boundless sprawl. They would likely be dumbfounded to find out that most Houstonians actually cherish this eclectic city, the economic opportunities it provides, and the quality of life it affords.

Planners also face a sort of cognitive dissonance when they discover that the types of urban characteristics the profession now promotes – such as the density of Manhattan or the compact, Southern charm of neighborhoods in New Orleans, Charleston, or Savannah – were largely the product of free-market forces in the days before municipal planning and zoning were introduced. Houston is a modern-day example that demonstrates that planning and zoning are not essential to the viability or the livability of a city.

Houstonians have wisely rejected zoning several times over the last century. In the process, it has established itself as one the most vibrant and dynamic cities of the 21st century. Research has shown that development patterns in Houston are not dissimilar to those in other more regulated cities like Dallas and Atlanta, but the lack of strong regulatory barriers to new development has kept housing costs low and allowed the real estate market to keep apace with the demands of a growing and diverse population.

Not surprisingly, Houston ranks among the most affordable major metros in the country. That, in turn, enables the American Dream of home ownership for hundreds of thousands of middle- and working-class families. It also gives all of us increased discretionary income that can be pumped back into the local economy to support other jobs, small businesses, charities, restaurants, culture, amenities, higher education and all-around vibrancy.

Contrast Houston with its polar opposite – Portland, Ore., held by planners as the Mecca of highly prescriptive and restrictive urban planning.

While Portland has succeeded in creating a handful of attractive neighborhoods for young, childless professionals, some of the side effects have been disturbing. Given broad latitude in shaping the city through policy and regulation, its planners have worked for decades to force people to adapt to the plan.

For example, the Portland region has intentionally disinvested in highways to make driving more difficult (i.e., forced congestion) in order to encourage transit usage. Yet this plan has backfired. Portland’s heavily subsidized light-rail system only accounts for a paltry 1 percent of the city’s total travel, and the city has seen one of the country’s largest increases in traffic congestion, a slowly tightening noose around the regional economy.

Even worse, planners have used zoning to reduce the range of consumer housing options by effectively outlawing new suburban and exurban development, forcing families into higher density living environments (i.e., smaller, tightly packed homes on smaller lots). By simultaneously preventing development on surrounding farm and forest land, the city’s 30 years of “smart growth” policies have created an artificial land shortage, constricting the supply of new housing, inflating home prices and reducing economic opportunities for working families. By the turn of the century, Portland had become one of the least affordable housing markets in the nation, and its homeownership rate lagged behind the national average. According to Coldwell Banker, a 2,200 square foot, four-bedroom home that costs $155,000 today in the Houston area would cost $357,000 in Portland.

None of this is to say that Houston’s current planning efforts are inherently misguided or that planning will take us down the Portland path. To the extent that the process could lead to a loosening of outdated and counterproductive city development regulations – such as minimum lot size requirements, building setback specifications and formulaic rules dictating the amount of parking spaces — the process could introduce more flexibility into urban design and allow the market to provide a wider range of development options to meet the increasingly varied housing preferences of consumers.

For example, some of us want to live in a medium-density Inner Loop townhouse development, while others may prefer a lower-density suburban setting with a larger house and yard. Planning should remain agnostic on urban form and instead create the conditions in which developers can respond to the changing demands for both types of product. In other words, planning should facilitate urban dynamism, not stifle it through stringent rules and the micromanagement of land use.

However, if the end result is the imposition of a decision-making and regulatory bureaucracy on top of something that currently works well, it could create imbalances and inefficiencies that would try to force the wrong things in the wrong places at the wrong time. Current planning tools tend to be too inflexible, static and resistant to economic changes. Houston needs flexibility and adaptability to allow dynamic growth and urban evolution.

For city leaders, the challenge will be to move from the abstract to the concrete. What exactly are the problems that planning is trying to fix, and would the ultimate policy prescriptions create unintended negative side effects or even exacerbate the symptoms? Can we fix them with narrowly targeted ordinances that cause minimal distortion to real estate markets? Would planning in Houston result in a process that facilitates and accommodates changes in the market, or would it stifle the dynamism that makes this such a great city? Is any step forward possibly a step backward, given the limitations in the current tools available in planning? Almost every policy “solution” will be more prescriptive than what’s available in Houston now. How exactly will the “planning vision” be enforced in a city without zoning? Or is this a slippery slope to zoning (or to the regulatory equivalent of zoning without actually using the provocative z-word), what Dr. Edward Glaeser of Harvard refers to as “a highly regressive form of taxation?”

No doubt there are things Houston could do better when it comes to infrastructure and development. The key is addressing those issues while being aware of the risks and without making the same mistakes made by other cities. And, in the end, when it comes to “establishing a shared vision for the city,” we hope that Houston moves forward as an Enabler rather than a Dictator.

Leonard Gilroy is a Houston-based certified planner and senior policy analyst with the Reason Foundation. An archive of his work is here, and Reason’s urban growth and land use research and commentary is here. Tory Gattis is editor of the Houston Strategies weblog.