Thursday, October 22, 2009
On Wednesday in Houston there was an interesting conference called "The Truth About Smart Growth: Setting the Stage for the Housing Collapse--National Conference on What Works and What Hurts." It was organized by Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a local developers' PAC that advocates generally on the pro-property rights side of various issues. The conference was co-sponsored by Heritage, Reason, Cato, and several other groups. It had a lineup of speakers that included some of the nation's leading land use scholars from the libertarian perspective.
Tory Gattis was recruited to give the introduction and to moderate. Gattis is a social systems architect in Houston whose insightful commentary on his Houston Strategies and Opportunity Urbanist blogs has made him one of the leading voices on land use issues in Houston. Among the highlights from the speakers:
Sam Staley of the Reason Foundation spoke about Houston's land use system compared to the dominant mode of planning and zoning in other American cities. Staley says that Houston's system is superior because it is dynamic, flexible, and responsive to the market. These factors actually enable Houston to offer some of the types of development that proponents of smart growth want--such as higher density and mixed use--without the increased costs caused by overregulation. He correctly observed that Houston is not "unplanned," but rather that it has mostly private planning, through covenants and site development platting. Staley warned Houston against adopting zoning or more stringent land use regulations.
Wendell Cox of Demographia then presented "How Texas Averted the Great Recession." There are many Texans who have been hurt by the recession, but Cox is generally correct that it hasn't been as bad in Texas as in many other parts of the country. One of the reasons is the nature of Texas's economy, and another is that there wasn't really a housing bubble to begin with here. Cox argued that the more permissive land use regulatory environment allowed development to more accurately track the market demand in Texas, and that adopting smart growth policies would drive up the median multiple (ratio of average home price to income) to an unacceptable level.
Luis Vera of LULAC spoke in support of Proposition 11, which will essentially constitutionalize Texas's anti-Kelo prohibition of economic development takings. I'll post more on Prop 11 soon. Vera gave an interesting speech talking about land use and housing policy as possibly the next great civil rights issue, in part because of the disproportionate impact that eminent domain sometimes has on minority neighborhoods; he said (I paraphrase) something like: we (i.e. LULAC and property rights groups) may not agree on things like immigration, but we agree on keeping the American Dream alive.
Randal O'Toole, from the Cato Institute and the Antiplanner (and who has suggested that urban planning caused the housing bubble), spoke about the possibility of an "alternative vision" to achieve the goals of smart growth through less restrictive means. Turns out that this alternative vision is pretty much Houston. O'Toole has extensive command of housing statistics and regulatory policies from across the nation, and makes a good case that the non-zoning approach is at least partly responsible for the areas in which Houston has outperformed other cities. There were a few other interesting speakers as well, about which I might post later.
So is Smart Growth (or perhaps more accurately, government regulatory policies intended to achieve Smart Growth) really that bad? The speakers at this conference are among the land use experts who make the best case against it. At the end of the conference I spoke with Joshua Sanders, the Executive Director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, and he indicated that the audio/video links might be put online; if they do, I will post them.
UPDATE: Tory Gattis has a post up on Houston Strategies with some thoughts on the speakers' presentations and the text of his introductory remarks.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Andrew M. Manshel (executive vice president, Greater Jamaica Development Corp.) has written A Place is Better than a Plan: Revitalizing Urban Areas is Best Done Through Small Improvements, not Grand Designs for the Autumn 2009 issue of City Journal. The summary:
The importance of small ideas to urban revitalization isn’t widely appreciated. Particularly in the most recent real-estate cycle, many planners, design professionals, and developers produced grand schemes instead. But profound change is more likely to result from a deeply considered idea that alters an essential component of an urban environment than from an elaborate master plan that requires abundant resources and considerable political capital. While some large-scale plans, like Rockefeller Center, are successful, most become impersonal, overbearing failures—or, even more often, are stillborn, the victims of the long process of assemblage, environmental remediation, community participation, zoning adoption, and the securing of financing.
Manshel uses the example of putting movable chairs in several small New York parks beginning in the 1980s to convey a message of personal control over social arrangements, trust, and safety. He seems to be telling a story that is sort of Jane Jacobs-meets-broken windows theory. Plus there is a shout-out to Houston's new downtown urban park, Discovery Green.