TO PLAN OR NOT TO PLAN

Pleased and impressed by a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal (“Success and The City,” 7/14/14), in which the authors note with surprise that Houston is a huge success story among the big cities, though they also have the grace to observe that “Houston’s growth is more than oil-industry luck; it reflects a unique policy environment. The city and its unincorporated areas have no formal zoning, so land use is flexible and can readily meet demand. Getting building permits is simple and quick, with no arbitrary approval boards making development an interminable process. Neighborhoods can protect themselves with voluntary, opt-in deed restrictions or minimum lot sizes.  The flexible planning regime is also partly responsible for keeping Houston’s housing prices relatively low . . .”

Then it hit me:  just a few days earlier, I had been reading about The Woodlands, Texas, the “master planned community” where I live, which began as a suburb of Houston but has now become virtually a city in its own right.  The writer had observed what a huge success story The Woodlands is, how it will soon be more populated than places like Rochester, Des Moines, Baton Rouge, Spokane, Richmond, Reno, etc.  Not for the first time, I considered the possibility that, when the dust eventually settles after the upcoming move by Exxon to a vast area just south of The Woodlands, Houston might be on the way to being considered a suburb of Greater Woodlands.

So, which city has the answer:  super-planned The Woodlands, or reckless and out-of-control Houston?  Should future cities be modeled (or existing ones re-modeled) via progressive-style central planning, or should they follow the Hayek-style, conservative model of minimal governmental planning and regulation?  Is there irony in the political observation that our centrally-planned Woodlands has always been run by conservative Republicans, while zany free-market Houston – like most major American cities – is run by Democrats?

My answer, true to my Hayekian orientation, is that there is no correct answer.  Cities should be as individualistic as a fingerprint.  Good plans are good, bad plans are bad.  Good plans turn bad unless they are altered continuously to adapt to changing conditions – in other words, unless their administrators react like players in free markets. The Woodlands had one great idea, which was to create a novel suburb that actually had a “downtown” core area that would always be an anchor and a true destination, the kind of layout that would truly embody the notion of feng shui.   Once that concept was imposed upon a gorgeous forest, and builders were required to preserve the essential, wooded character of the place, the master plan was revised an almost-infinite number of times to adapt to the ways in which the place grew.  In other words, The Woodlands is a free-market enterprise operating within an overall regulatory plan that is inspired and sound but not heavy-handed.  In comparison, Reston, VA, another master-planned community often mentioned as a model, presents no feng shui whatsoever – to my eye, Reston is just a tasteless jumble of streets and structures that have no visible, organic connection to one another.  As with Oakland, CA, in Reston “there is no there there.”  Reston is Exhibit A for the proposition that master plans, in cities as in countries, tend to be bad; The Woodlands is a happy accident, not a model.

The progressives, of course, want everything – including the City of Houston – to operate under severely-restrictive master plans.  They would love to use my beloved Woodlands as their precedent for the remaking of urban America.  I hope they do not; these people cannot be trusted with plans.

 

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