Thursday, August 13, 2009

The City We Deserve

A recent piece on the KHOU web site asks if zoning is in Houston's future. While the article does not come to a definitive conclusion, it implies that more restrictive land-use controls will be necessary. Or, as urban planner David Crossley says:

I mean, everybody gets the general concept—you can either create the future you want or you’ll get the future you deserve.

By "create", Crossley means government planning to control development. Though he shuns the "z-word", Crossley makes it clear that government should be more involved in land-use:

It isn’t zoning that’s the issue. It’s that there is no plan, no comprehensive plan for the future.

Let us assume that Crossley is right, and Houston needs a comprehensive plan. Whose plan will be used? There is no shortage of pundits sharing their vision of what Houston should look like in the future. These plans often conflict, so we will be left with the crucial decision on choosing one plan to the exclusion of all other plans. Equally important is the issue of implementation--a plan that isn't implemented is merely a pipe dream.

City officials will have two basic options for developing and implementing a plan. The first is to hire experts--such as Crossley--to develop a plan and then shove it down our throats. Or, they could hold an endless series of hearings, meetings, and other gatherings to solicit public input. Then, after more meetings and compromises, they could shove that plan down our throats. No matter which route city officials take to develop a plan, its implementation must necessarily require its forced imposition upon all Houstonians.

Crossley, who has been briefing mayoral candidates on the issue, argues that Houston must encourage denser development and offer better public transportation. This is a plan shared by many. Others--such as the Southampton and Boulevard Oaks civic clubs--are not so keen on denser development. And the home owners and businesses along Richmond Avenue aren't happy about light rail rumbling past their property. In short, there never has been and never will be a city-wide consensus on which plan to adopt.

Advocates of zoning (or planning, as they now call it) warn Houstonians that without government control over land-use the city will plunge into debauchery and decline. They have been shouting this refrain for nearly ninety years, and it is no truer today than it was when zoning was first proposed in the 1920s. If their claims are true, why has Houston's population steadily grown? Why did Houston lead the nation in job growth in 2008? If their claims are true, why has Houston prospered more than any other city in America?

The fact is, Houston has shown a greater respect for property rights than any other city--Houstonians have rejected zoning three times. Our economic growth, low cost of living, and affordable housing are the practical benefits of our relative freedom in land use. Because Houstonians have rejected government control over all land use, today we do enjoy the city we deserve.

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