Late last year, a Houston-based think tank called the Center for Opportunity Urbanism released a report titled “The Texas Way of Urbanism,” a blueprint that emphasizes light regulation and fast growth. In contrast to older cities like New York, Chicago and Boston, cities like Houston, the report argued, have avoided prescriptive development standards to create an affordable environment that’s lured hundreds of thousands of people over the last generation.
“The future of American cities can be summed up in five letters: Texas,” two of the report’s authors, Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox, wrote. Their report was prescient last fall in one notable sense. Houston’s challenges include inadequate infrastructure against flooding, the report noted, months ahead of Harvey. But the answer, it added, isn’t for Houston to mimic tighter regulation, transit investments or compact development elsewhere.
In the week since the storm began to retreat in Texas, a chorus of planners, scientists and pundits has yelled largely the opposite.
Harvey, they say, makes arguably the strongest case yet that Houston’s free-market model may have a fatal flaw.
Mr. Kotkin and Mr. Cox, though, aren’t backing down. Mr. Kotkin has long argued with “smart growth” advocates that what looks like sprawl is healthier for the middle class and conforms to what most families want anyway. Three years ago, he created the Center for Opportunity Urbanism to spread that gospel (he is based in California himself, though).
“Most of America — and certainly the parts that are growing the most — are more like Houston or Dallas than they are like Manhattan or San Francisco,” Mr. Kotkin said. And the idea that Houston should in some ways take cues from Manhattan has class undertones, he said.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board echoed them last week in writing that Texas, once again, is “being sneered at by coastal elites” who now say the city needs more regulation (and warrants some introspection in the wake of the storm’s devastation).
What Houston needs, Mr. Kotkin says, is more drainage within the city or new land engineered along the coast to buffer Texas from storms. It doesn’t need more regulation, he said, nor policies like the urban growth boundary that restricts development at the edges of Portland, Ore.
Houston’s refusal to do just that, Mr. Cox said, is the most important factor in explaining its affordability.
“If we bring Portland to Houston, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, et cetera, we’re going to destroy the middle class,” Mr. Cox said. “We could expect house prices to escalate substantially, we would get a lower standard of living, we would get increases in poverty.”
Peter Calthorpe, a longtime advocate of sustainable and transit-oriented urban design, responds bluntly to the idea that Houston’s affordability proves the wisdom of sprawl. “The hypocrisy is monumental,” he said in an email.
Houston’s middle-class affordability, he argues, has been underwritten by the construction labor of undocumented workers and by insurance programs that subsidize building on cheap flood-prone land. And the housing is less affordable when you factor in the transportation costs of getting to and from those homes in a far-flung metro.
The owners (and renters) of Houston’s affordable homes are also now facing steep new costs.
“The potential for flooding and damage to property was never considered in the calculus of ‘affordability,’ ” said Shelley Poticha, who leads the Urban Solutions team at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “These homes are no longer affordable.”
No city could withstand 50 inches of rain, whether it has a growth boundary, a regional master plan or a strict zoning code. But Mr. Calthorpe and Ms. Poticha are talking about a matter of magnitude — that Houston’s anything-goes development made matters worse. Houston doesn’t have to become Portland to alter those ways, Mr. Calthorpe said.
“They’re very different places, and they should be different,” he said of the two cities. “That doesn’t mean you can’t be thoughtful about how Houston grows. These are false alternatives that are constantly used to blur the discussion. It’s crazy to say, ‘It’s either Portland or it’s a free-for-all.’ ”
It’s true, he and others acknowledge, that San Francisco for instance has become so restrictive with new development that housing costs have escalated beyond what even the well-off can afford. And in that, other cities have something to learn from Houston.
“Red-state Texas does a much better job of producing affordable housing for middle-income Americans than blue-state Massachusetts does,” said Ed Glaeser, the Harvard economist. (The triumphing city in his book “Triumph of the City” was admittedly much more like Manhattan than Houston.)
But he says that even Houston could restrict housing in its flood plains and preserve more open space from development without substantially raising housing costs. It could adopt such regulations without copying, say, San Francisco’s endless community approvals process.
Mr. Fulton, who was the mayor of Ventura, Calif., and the planning director of San Diego, said his experience in California taught him that “slowing down in and of itself does not solve all problems.”
“But going so fast that your public infrastructure is always operating in reaction to private development — that’s a problem,” he said.
Houston is a city full of engineers — petroleum engineers, NASA engineers, civil engineers. And so the idea is deeply rooted in its culture that you can engineer your way out of problems, rather than plan for them, Mr. Fulton said. Now, he believes, the city must face up to the costs of how it has grown in the past. He moved to Houston from California three years ago, and in those three years, Houston has experienced three “500-year floods.”
The prospect of more in the future may change how people think about Houston’s greatest advantage over other cities, and what makes it a “model” worth emulating. But the ferocity of this fight — and the speed with which people have staked out opposing lessons in the wreckage — also hints that change may come with great difficulty, if at all.
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