Friday, January 15, 2016

New Year's Resolutions: Houston's Urbanism and Civics Calendar

Each year we're prone to give ourselves New Year's resolutions. I'm sure many of us have already broken those resolutions no more than a few weeks into 2016. Most people resolve to exercise more. Some want to volunteer. Some people may resolve to have a greater involvement in their city's civic organizations or government. But, along with that last resolution comes a struggle to know just how to get involved or familiar with local government. As a local government employee, I understand that, and couldn't agree more with a resolution like this, and want to help Houstonians.

People love to vote every four years for a presidential candidate, however, most people often underestimate the impact that local decisions have over their quality of life. Many residents of Houston are also surprised when major changes happen in their neighborhoods. To be fair, there are many moving parts to Houston's civic and development, and the process can be overwhelming. Being more informed can help lessen the surprising blow of major changes while increasing our understanding of how government, and especially development, functions in a place like Houston. Residents usually look for some sort of predictability in their neighborhoods, and without zoning in Houston, residents are left surprised once something is already taking place.

Well, I hope that this is something that might help: Houston's Urbanism and Civics Calendar. This is something that I have wanted to do for a while. I originally saw this idea at Daniel Kay Hertz's City Notes website, where he began listing urbanist events in Chicago. (His calendar is no longer on his site, but it's still a great idea.) I've included many of the organizations that guide local government, with an influence on those organizations that contribute to Houston's built environment and urban experience.

As for the Houston Urbanism and Civics Calendar, examples of organizations with posted events include Houston City Council, Houston Planning Commission, Harris County Commissioners Court, METRO, management districts, TIRZs, architecture tours, design and planning lectures and other local planning-related events.

For those who are unfamiliar, management districts and TIRZs (Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones) have a significant amount of power in using public funding to complete construction or programming within an area. The Houston City Council recently approved TIRZs for the Montrose and Sunnyside. Steve Jansen at the The Houston Press wrote a critical (and incredibly informational!) piece about Houston's TIRZ system last year. While TIRZs certainly accomplish many great things, many arguments have been made pertaining to their somewhat clouded operation.

Any quasi-governmental organizations listed, including TIRZs and management districts, will post their agendas at least 72 hours in advance as directed by the Texas Open Meetings Act. In Houston, some organizations, like the Houston Downtown Management District, post their agendas online. Other groups may only have their public agendas posted at City Hall or the Harris County Courthouse. The City of Houston's public bulletin boards are located on the back side of City Hall, facing Bagby Street.

The public hearing bulletin boards outside Houston City Hall

Many of the organizations and events listed will be architecture or urban planning related. Many of these organizations are responsible for stewarding the public funding they receive, and their meetings are open to the public. These are regular opportunities for the public to have a voice in the decisions that will impact them each day.

I resolve to try to keep Houstonians informed about their local government. But, I won't be able to do this alone! If you know of public meetings or events that fit the description of those already included, please let me know, and I may be able to put those meetings or events on the calendar. I am still in the process of adding some management districts and TIRZs, but have a number of them included already. Again, Houstonians, please let me know if I can add anything to the calendar. Let's stay informed in 2016.