Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Anarchy or innovation? Actually neither

While Texas has some planning controls, it doesn’t have zoning. The lack of zoning has ensured a cheap steady constant supply of land. This cheap land has ensured an under-development of sites across the state, with ground level carparks, 20 lane interstate freeways, and low rise disconnected housing and commercial development.
Following the GFC the economy has revived, and that land is now providing cheap development sites for redevelopment. In Houston, Midtown is experiencing gentrification. From a gritty industrial base, it’s becoming a popular spot for creativity with new businesses establishing themselves, and relatively affordable housing close to the city.

In Uptown Houston, money rules, and new development is rife (sort of like Tokyo), where new skyscrapers are being built with the millions of dollars of oil money pouring in. While density is being achieved, there’s limited planning of this going on, and it seems with little or no co-ordination. Traffic is becoming a problem. In an attempt to alleviate this, interstate’s are being expanded (with the i10 now being 20 lanes wide), and a Bus Rapid Transit line is being installed with dedicated lanes. Car lanes are not being reduced, rather the road is being expanded (contrary to so many other cities elsewhere in the US). BRT was chosen as the cost is less than a quarter of light rail, and even that has been unpopular with most Texans. There seems to be a thing of just repeating the past, and building it bigger in Texas, to the point where Houston now stretches around 40 miles north/south and east/west.

In Austin, we did see some innovation. The development where Steve and Rebecca lived was done with heavy regulation from city, but really had me drawing comparisons to Tsunami recovery areas in Japan. The city owned the land, and were able to sell it to a developer with conditions to achieve better integrated outcomes. The development contained a mix of housing types, and a range of densities with separate single family homes on lots as small as 200m2, ranging up to 500m2, and ranging in price from around $300,000 to over $1 million. Apartments, and multiple family homes also existed in the area, ensuring housing was affordable for a broader range of people.

So anarchy, or innovation? Actually neither. Texas is like a cave man hanging onto the way things used to be. Spending their money to build bigger and the old better. Living the dream on cheap oil, and building their way out of congestion with new freeways. The Bus Rapid Transit is somewhat innovative (as a cheap solution to move people), but it’s been selected as a cheaper alternative because of the political stigma of spending money on public transport.

Daniel Borton