Thursday, 26 November 2015

Thinking big in Texas

After spending time in Texas, it is clear that the pride taken in being America’s biggest state by all Texans is not lost on land use planning. Texas likes their innovations and ideas big and even more prudently - done correctly - and this was evident throughout my time in Texas.

Firstly, upon arriving in Texas, the idea that ‘Texas likes things bigger’ was made evidently clear to me through visiting the State Capitol - proudly proclaimed to me by our hosts as ‘the largest state capitol in all of America’. This was just an example of what was to come. Through visiting Design Workshop - a planning firm with offices throughout Texas as well as the world over, I became aware of just how difficult the planning issues facing Texas would be to overcome, but also just how committed planners and policy makers in Texas were to getting it done the right way.

Houston is the fourth largest metropolitan area in the United States and despite having suburbs with quaint names like Sugar Land, it is facing a raft of residential and commercial planning issues. A comprehensive plan for Houston - The Houston Plan - was created and enacted during 2015 after a process lasting many years, was the first strategic plan Houston has ever had. It represents a massive victory in a municipality where land use zoning is illegal. However, city planners of Houston believe that the plan’s future beyond the current mayor’s term is still uncertain. It depends on the next mayor’s priorities and political ideals, and is emblematic of the involvement of political process and policy making upon urban planning. This cross-over is not just representative of the ‘anarchy’ of Houston zoning and planning, but of political process issues planners face all over the world. It is clear, however, that a concerned effort is being made to plan for growth in business and development beyond Houston’s booming energy and resources sector. This was particularly evident in Uptown Houston. Increasing business opportunities across sectors was attracting ‘flow-on’ development to Uptown Houston, making it a desirable place to live, work and stay. Attracting public transportation and transit beyond private vehicles on a greater scale is the next step the burgeoning metropolis of Uptown Houston - large enough to be the 14th largest business district in the U.S. - needs to take to create and improve business, land use and social outcomes for Houstonians and those doing business in Houston.

However, there are impressive planning developments and improvements being made in Texas, with an example being the development of the Mueller Estate and Town Center, not far from downtown Austin. Mueller is the result of years of careful social, environmental and demographic planning on a disused airfield less than ten minutes drive from the thriving Texan capital of Austin. Here, neighbourhoods are allowed to grow and thrive and form a distinct character whilst services and infrastructure were gradually built and updated around it. Additionally, an innovative aspect of Mueller was the idea of ‘shared community yards’ - where a block of detached housing would be linked together by a single, shared, front garden, to allow for neighbourhood integration. All services and household needs - including community centre, education and a farmers' market - were within walking distance, and the neighbourhood mixed affordable housing for lower income earners alongside luxury homes. This all came together to create a wonderful, vibrant neighbourhood character evident at the local farmers market. Mueller is large scale proof that low density development and neighbourhoods can exist in the current day and age without social problems such as car dependency, poor walkability and social and economic isolation/elitism.

Patrick Spinazzola