Thursday, August 28, 2014

Houston: The Adolescent City

Recently, people have struggled to describe Houston, to give it an identity.

We've got a new slogan that touts Houston's endless possibilities, but that can also evoke thoughts of our seemingly endless suburban sprawl. Houston used to be "Space City, USA", but now the space program faces colossal cutbacks. We still house NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, but its role has been cut back drastically.

Houston used to be more widely known as "Clutch City", a description of the dramatic fashion in which the Houston Rockets won their 1994 and 1995 NBA Championships. But, the Rockets haven't been the same team since, so that one's lost its descriptive luster.

Houston's also known as the "Bayou City". And, even though Houston was founded on the banks of the confluence of White Oak and Buffalo bayous at Allen's Landing, it hasn't been until recently that the city or its citizens have understood the value of the city's bayous. They've got much greater value than simply being utilized as channels to collect the runoff from our suburban sprawl.

In the 1900's we were once named "The Magnolia City", but many of our magnolia trees were plowed under as our city grew.  Our oil economy afforded us the name "The Capital of the Sunbelt" in the 1970's. Due to our mass of oil and gas companies, we're also known by some as the "Energy Capital of the World."

Culturally, Houston has been called "H-Town". Hip hop and rap music fans know our city as "Screwston", in tribute to DJ Screw's "Chopped and Screwed" style.

The city of Houston's seal was influenced by our railroad heritage, but that seems to be something long forgotten. We've got no nickname for our history in that arena, and our utilization of rail in our city leaves us on the other side of the tracks of our heritage, and when compared to other large US cities. We've also imitated the moves of a bunch of other peer cities, and took out some pretty neat street car systems.

Houston has always done its own thing and wanted to doing things "uniquely Houston", whatever that is supposed to mean.That's why we might be best suited to call Houston "The Adolescent City".

Houston is readily compared by many, including myself, to the likes of New York or Chicago. We're about 50 years younger than sprawling Los Angeles, which is probably our closest comparison city in terms of population and size. Our comparisons to cities like New York or Chicago are probably a bit unfair at this point, but we should be looking up to those cities in how they've handled their growth.

I've previously stated that:
"When we compare our city to others such as Chicago or Los Angeles, Houston is much like a younger, wayward brother or sister that wants to do their own thing for a while, go 'find themselves', spin their wheels for a while, and shouts and yells when anyone challenges them, only years later coming to realize the benefit of wisdom and gracefully aging. We need more people within the city's main activity centers and within the Interstate 610 Loop. Without more people living within the city, mass transit may never be a viable option. Houston is young, and it needs to learn some lessons from its older, more seasoned comparison cities."

I've had this view for a while, and only recently found these comments from former Houston journalist Tim Fleck in a 1993 New York Times article discussing Houston's third attempt to institute zoning:
"Any time zoning came up before, Houston was always like the perpetual adolescent," said Tim Fleck, editor of The Houston Insider, an influential newsletter on politics and other local issues. "But now people are really asking themselves the question: do we finally settle down and accept the strictures of middle-aged city life, and regulate things, or do we just continue to be the adolescent, partying around and building wherever we can?"
I hadn't seen these comments before last week, and it looks like not much has changed in Houston in 21 years. We still might not need zoning, but we must recognize that our ordinances do not make for the land use predictability that the plaintiffs in the Ashby High Rise lawsuit desire. Our policy climate makes it hard to be sympathetic with them. In Houston, if you want to control something, you better buy it and make it your own. Or instead, you simply take legal action against someone who is using their land to its highest use, and in line with any governing ordinances. We don't want to give up any of our own development rights, but when we see our perceived rights being infringed upon, we cry foul.

We're at the point where Houston just got its braces off and it's ready to crack that first smile. Our acne's going away slowly but surely. Houston's got a good solid structure to work with, but now it needs to fill out and bulk up a bit, like that lanky high school freshman that fills in and becomes the starting center on the school's basketball team.

There's a lot that Houston has learned lately:

Traffic is terrible, and adding lanes to I-45 or I-10 isn't really the answer. It's called induced demand.
About 57 percent of Downtown Houston workers drive alone to work.
Rail transit isn't all that bad, and people will actually ride itBus ridership is up also.
We're the least courteous drivers in the country, yet people want walkable neighborhoods.
We need to embrace the natural features of our city, as they provide a great deal of benefits.
Density isn't bad, and it's actually vital if you want to support commercial activity along major corridors, in major districts, or in a downtown.
People want to live in and near Downtown Houston.
People and businesses want to be here.

We've got to beef up a bit now. We've been playing on JV, but it's time for us to get in shape for varsity. Thankfully Houston is putting on some muscle. We're adding density and rooftops to our downtown core. Some neighborhoods are embracing a greater population density and change of uses. We're going to have an expanded transit and rail footprint, and METRO is working to improve bus service to allow a greater number of Houstonians to use public transit, slowly decreasing our car dependency.

But when details of a Downtown Houston cycletrack (a two-way, dedicated bike lane) were announced (see here for greater detail) this past week, people were immediately hostile to the idea. It's time to grow up and consider the greater intricacies of urban life. Complaining about increased responsibility as a driver pulls out of a parking garage sounds much like the attitude of an adolescent. And, who knows, maybe we do need zoning. Somehow we've got to start thinking beyond planning for the car.

Houston hasn't fully matured, and there's evidence all around. We're figuring things out. We're doing things our way. We're learning. Let's just hope we don't get burned by future mistakes or negligence to look toward maturity. Let's settle down and gracefully age to a more complex maturity.