Tuesday, July 7, 2015

What Can We Do By 2022? Planner Patrick Kennedy and Jim Kumon of Strong Towns visit with advice for Houston's next mayor

Last night I had the opportunity to go hear both Patrick Kennedy, a Dallas-based urban planner and designer, and Jim Kumon, the executive director of Strong Towns. speak at Houston Tomorrow's summer lecture series, What Can We Do By 2022? The discussion of their topics continues today at Houston Tomorrow's luncheon discussing the same topics from last night. Today, Houstonians Steve Spillette, Raj Mankad, and Susan Rogers will also take part in a panel discussion highlighting walkable urbanism and the city's tax base. This series is intended to highlight what can be done by the time another Houston mayor (or three, in the chance one mayor is not elected two more times; and, can we get a charter amendment and create four-year mayoral term limits already?) is done implementing their strategies.

Jim Kumon of Strong Towns focused his discussion on development data, specifically the return on investment of development. In many of our cities we are facing infrastructure crises, trying to figure out how we will pay for much needed updates. Should we increase taxes? That won't be popular. How about cutting services? That won't be popular either. We as American cities struggle to figure out what to do next. Part of this problem, Kumon states, is that we don't know what to do first.

Kumon's presentation included three main points, 1) The space between buildings and its function, 2) The city as a corporation, and 3), doing the math on place, asking how much it costs to achieve the outcomes we currently have in our cities.

Jim Kumon of Strong Towns with suggestions for Houston's next mayor

We know that different parts of our cities will look and perform different than others. But, the form of our cities is important, and is a driver for economic activity. The street designed to move traffic as efficiently as possible (Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns has labelled this a "stroad") may not be the same "sticky" street that allows for a greater amount of economic activity.

As citizens, we are shareholders in our cities, and we should want a high rate of return. Many times we are building infrastructure without considering the cost that will be incurred with continued maintenance. Kumon proposed what he called "The Mansion Proposition", asking the audience whether they would be willing to inherit a $20 million mansion, or simply gain a typical $200,000 home. Given the maintenance costs, even without the initial investment in the home itself, a mansion will cost much more. This is a parallel to the kind of thinking that has been applied to the development of infrastructure in many cities. It's just too much infrastructure to afford.

Finally, we need to do some math on the places within our cities that are outperforming their investment, or those that are absorbing much more than they are contributing to a tax base. Kumon cited an example from Lafayette, Louisiana, which helps to see the mismatches between revenue and expenses in a city. An analysis much like the one undertaken in Lafayette can help cities understand where they are overachieving, and also where they are subsidizing development and activity.

Patrick Kennedy followed, highlighting some of the glaring differences between Houston and Dallas. For the most part, Houston seemed to come out on top. But, Dallas has a great deal of momentum, especially politically, in discussing what its city should look like, and how it should function. Kennedy presented some the work he has done in Dallas, especially with The Coalition for a New Dallas and the proposition of removing Interstate 345 from Downtown Dallas.

Patrick Kennedy

Kennedy reminded us that cities thrive on connectivity. This is where the desirability of places comes from; how connected they are. Highways do nothing but disconnect a community. He then provided a few suggestions for Houston to consider to incrementally allow for a greater amount of investment in our development, including;
  • changing the current method of traffic modeling to account for mixed use development and the decreased number of trips in a particular area that might result from greater density,
  • utilizing parking overlay districts to achieve more flexibility in land use options, and
  • splitting the tax rates of property and improvements on properties.
If yesterday's discussion was any indication of today's luncheon, it should be a great time filled with stimulating conversation. These are important ideas that our leaders need to be exposed to and considering, and will likely lead to better governance and representation for our city's citizens.