Wednesday, 25 November 2015

“Texas – it’s not that bad!”

I’m pretty sure Texas exceeded my expectations in terms of planning; either that or it was the small examples of success that outweighed the standard sprawl that we are now accustomed to. I think most of us were surprised when we saw Austin, especially its South Congress and Rainey Street districts, as well as the community life at the redeveloped old airport site. But we were told Austin was going to be a bit different, so I won’t discuss how a solid foundation of new ideas and alternative culture can lead to better places.
Flashback to Manhattan, where I was told by K-State planning staff that I would be impressed about how terrible Houston would be. Now I’m mad because I wanted to see some kind of desolate wasteland that we could set as the new benchmark for poor planning. But it wasn’t. It’s kind of like that t-shirt we saw in Kansas if only Texans were aware of their critics; “Texas – it’s not that bad!” And yeah, I get that we were shown some of the highlights, such as the midtown and its quality urban design and discovery green, the transformed car park in the downtown, but these were still pretty big wins in terms of planning.

What we wouldn’t see in Australia is the impact of the private sector on planning outcomes that effectively benefit the whole local community. Discovery Green is a good example of this, 70% of this project was funded from private sources rather than public authorities. While this is all well and good when things get done, planning in Texas leaves itself open for failures when there is no demand for something better, i.e., when the consensus is that business as usual is okay. I basically saw the GFC as this demand, where Houston was threatened by global energy city competitors. Perhaps they realised they had critics and actively sought to silence them.      

Brendan Aikman