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Density, drainage, development, and the good life

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  • Richard Risemberg
    Forwarded from the Carfree Cities list ======================== http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/editorial/outlook/2357967 One suburbanite s view: Core
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 20, 2004
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      Forwarded from the Carfree Cities list


      One suburbanite's view: Core of Houston must grow, prosper
      By JOHN S. JACOB

      The debate over the primacy of the central city versus the suburbs has been
      around some time, but it is at the heart of the debate about what our city
      and region will look like in the future. Where is most of our future growth
      going to occur? Does it make a difference where it occurs? And could we do
      anything about changing where it occurs if we wanted to?

      Ted Nelson and Roger Hord of the West Houston Association, in the process of
      offering advice to Mayor-elect Bill White in the Sunday, Dec. 28 Houston
      ChronicleOutlook section, stated that future population growth inside the
      Beltway would only be a fraction of the growth that will take place in the
      Houston Metro region, and that most of Mayor White's attention should
      therefore be given to the periphery. Nelson and Hord use the imagery of all
      of us pulling on the same rope in the same direction to get greater Houston
      moving; but the image that comes across from their article is that of the
      suburbs pulling against the center until it is so shrunken that the term
      center becomes meaningless.

      I am a suburbanite (Clear Lake), but I believe that our future is tied to
      the strength of the center, and that that is where our best and brightest
      should put most of their efforts.

      Consider this fact: 4 million more people are coming to the Houston area
      (choose your own time frame -- they'll be here eventually, whether in 20, 30
      or 50 years). The population density of the Clear Lake area is about 4,000
      people per square mile. Do the math -- if all of that growth goes to the
      periphery that means that at least 1,000 additional square miles of
      agricultural land, prairies and forests will be forever destroyed. That is
      more land than the city of Houston covers now. Is this loss inevitable, a
      necessary price of growth and progress? If that were the case, we could do
      nothing more than mourn the loss and do what we could to salvage a few
      scraps. But of course it isn't inevitable -- there are alternatives, and I'm
      not talking about the no-growth alternative.

      Where else could these people go if indeed they are coming to Houston? The
      alternative is denser development in the heart of Houston. Contrary to
      popular opinion, denser development does not have to look like a
      turn-of-the-last-century tenement in New York City. Properly designed and
      planned compact growth can result in a very high quality of life. Some of
      the most desirable places to live in this country have population densities
      in excess of 40,000 people per square mile.

      One of the biggest issues facing us is drainage, and that's a great one with
      which to address the differences in the cost of developing the periphery
      versus compact growth in the center. The biggest single predictor of where
      drainage problems will occur is the amount of impervious or paved-over
      surface. Simply put, the more pavement there is, the more runoff there will
      be, and consequently more flooding. The more you pave, the more you must do
      to somehow mitigate your negative impacts, usually in terms of stormwater
      detention ponds and other measures.

      Here is where the difference between compact growth and sprawl becomes
      apparent. There really isn't much difference in additional imperviousness
      when going from 4,000 people per square mile to 20,000 people per square
      mile. At 4,000 people per square mile, things are pretty much paved over
      already. (Sure, there are more lawns, but lawns aren't prairie and runoff in
      the suburbs is pretty close to what it is downtown already anyway.) So the
      additional impacts of the 16,000 more people we crammed into that square
      mile aren't all that significant, at least in terms of flooding.

      But what if we spread those 16,000 additional people out at 4,000 people per
      square mile on new, undeveloped land? That's at least another four square
      miles paved over.

      Now we are talking about a real difference in terms of additional runoff.
      Four square miles of prairie or forest or even agricultural land has a
      tremendous detention potential, especially if we factor in the depressional
      wetlands that dot our native prairies. Multiply that out over the 1,000
      square miles that will be paved over if current growth patterns continue and
      imagine the loss in stormwater detention and the additional flooding we are
      bound to see.

      But the four square miles of natural habitat does more than just detain
      stormwater -- it also cleans the water through filtration and thus helps to
      maintain high water quality in our bays and bayous. There is no question
      that the loss of another 1,000 square miles of natural lands will have a
      substantial negative impact on the water quality of Galveston Bay, one of
      the most productive estuaries in the nation and an important economic
      linchpin in our regional economy.

      Beyond the economic and ecological functions of open space, isn't having
      some wide open prairies nearby part of our natural legacy? Is the only thing
      we can bequeath our children and their children 2,000 square miles of
      wall-to-wall subdivisions and strip malls? Is it inevitable that we will
      have to drive to Sealy to see the prairie?

      I think we can imagine a better future. I think we can imagine both a
      healthy and livable city and a viable coastal prairie ecosystem in and
      around our city. In fact, I don't think one can be imagined without the

      The plain fact is that livable cities are compact cities. Compact growth
      facilitates proximity and connectivity, two essential elements of a great
      city. Having things close together is one of the main reasons cities
      developed in the first place, and the interconnectedness of different uses
      and activities is an extraordinary template for creative growth. Dispersed
      growth, or sprawl, enhances neither and thus cannot promote the kind of
      creative growth that Houston will need to be competitive in this century.

      Most of the cities in this country and elsewhere that people think of as
      attractive and worth returning to are highly dense. Charleston, S.C., and
      New Orleans, with its French Quarter and Garden District, are just two
      examples. Interestingly, both of these cities were designed and built for a
      pedestrian scale before the advent of automobiles. Cutting-edge planners now
      recognize that the human, pedestrian scale should be the dominant scale for
      city planning, incorporating the automobile and its accessories into this
      scheme rather than the other way around.

      In an era when security concerns seem to drive everything, consider the
      differences between sprawl and compact growth. How well do you know your
      neighbors in the detached single-family housing of suburbia? I rarely see
      mine! I don't walk very often in my neighborhood (only recreationally!). The
      vast majority of my trips are in my car in and out through my driveway.

      Contrast that with a dense urban neighborhood, perhaps composed of townhomes
      or condominiums, where a great many trips to the grocery store and other
      amenities can be made by walking. Who will know their neighbors better? What
      makes a safer neighbohood?

      The opening of MetroRail provides Houston with a real opportunity for
      accelerated compact growth. But to be an effective agent of compact growth,
      the light-rail line must build a dense transit network within Loop 610.
      Facilitating commuting from the suburbs will not aid compact growth. A dense
      transit network is a prerequisite for the kind of compact growth associated
      with great modern cities.

      The only place a dense transit network can be developed is in the city
      center -- not in west Houston, not in Sugar Land, not in Clear Lake. A dense
      transit network inside the 610 Loop could actually enable most of the new
      growth to be inside the Loop. The cultural renaissance occurring near the
      Theater District is only a taste of what can take place with compact growth
      inside the Loop.

      The pattern of future growth is the pre-eminent environmental problem facing
      us. No amount of mitigation can make up for the lost ecological functions of
      1,000 square miles of open space. There is no doubt that suburban
      development will continue, as that kind of development will continue to be a
      choice for many Houstonians. But many, perhaps even most, would choose the
      amenities that come with true urban living, were it available. Making that
      choice attractive and feasible is perhaps the greatest and most important
      challenge facing Mayor White. The future of both Houston and the prairies
      and forests it intersects depends on it.

      Jacob is director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program
      www.urban-nature.org, a program of Texas Sea Grant and Texas Cooperative
      Extension, both part of the Texas A&M University System. The views expressed
      here do not represent the official views or policy of the TAMU System or its

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