Density, drainage, development, and the good life
- 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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