Envisioning Houston’s Future

Blogger Tory Gattis has an interesting series of posts on Envision Houston, a visioning project currently underway in Houston (links below). The goal is to gather input on what citizens want the city to look like in 30 years. Like most “smart growth”-esque citizen participation exercises, this visioning process is infused with a hearty dose of utopian wishful thinking, rather than a sober analysis grounded in economic reality. As Gattis writes:

This exercise was certainly interesting, but you can easily see how it could run amok if people had the actual power to force what they wanted (like zoning commissions have, and we, very fortunately, did not have). Granted, we were told to articulate our “ideal vision”, but people with very good motivations can quickly make unrealistic decisions that have huge implications like:

  • Drawing tens of billions of dollars of rail lines on the map without considering how they would be paid for and whether ridership would justify costs
  • Marking off huge swaths of land for preservation without considering compensation to existing landowners who just lost their development rights
  • Designating large areas for high-density residential development without knowing whether there is sufficient demand for that housing choice or school district, or how those existing neighborhoods would feel about the new density and traffic

Placing these lines and stickers all over very nice metro maps is a huge power trip, and very fun until you realize that someday politicians with real power might do similar things in your neighborhood – then you suddenly get a cold chill down your spine. Where are free markets? Where are property rights? Without getting into the detailed specifics, basically we had a certain number of chips we had to place somewhere on the map representing the next 30 years of population growth. Different chips could be traded for each other in certain proportions, but you still had to put everybody somewhere. I don’t think you’d be surprised at the consensus of most tables: let’s pack all these newcomers in high-density developments away from my neighborhood and make them ride transit so they stay off my roads. Yeah, good luck with that plan.

Having participated in similar visioning processes, I can attest that Gattis is spot on in this analysis. The “smart growth” solution looks great on paper when you don’t have to balance it out with concern for costs, property rights, etc. He goes on to describe four models of future growth based on different combinations of concentrated vs. dispersed homes and jobs, and how those models might play into Houston’s future. The whole series offers a thoughtful and balanced assessment of the visioning effort, and each section is well worth a read:

Nice work, Tory. UPDATE: Check out this previous post discussing a similar visioning effort in the D.C. Metro area earlier this year.