Smart Growth Places 3rd in Houston Mayor's Race

Houston city councilman Peter Brown, unique as a devotee of smart growth (compact development) in this city of light land use regulation, placed third in the mayoral election yesterday. Brown had long advocated Portland-style smart growth land use and development policies for the city of Houston and looked likely to garner the most votes in the four-way race. Brown, an architect and urban planner, spent more than $3 million of his own money in the election.

The Houston metropolitan area distinguished itself by not experiencing the profligate credit and smart growth related house price bubble and, as a result experienced little decline in house prices and largely avoided the Great Recession. Houston is the largest municipality in the nation without zoning, however, with land regulation being principally limited to private covenants between land owners. Other Texas metropolitan areas also averted the housing bubble and the Great Recession, because their generally more liberal approaches to land regulation did not produce the price distortions that occurred in more highly regulated metropolitan areas as in California, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast.

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“Tres sophistique!”

Yeah yeah, okay, so now let’s take a look at BusinessWeek’s Top-Ten rankings of the U.S. metropolitan areas least touched by recession[i] (which are based upon a recent Brookings Institution report[ii]):

1. San Antonio, TX
2. Austin-Round Rock, TX
3. Oklahoma City, OK
4. Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway, AR
5. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX
6. Baton Rouge, LA
7. Tulsa, OK
8. Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA
9. Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX
10. El Paso, TX

Some quick facts: First, San Antonio is at the very top of the list and it has form-based building codes, which are a much greater hindrance to uninhibited real estate development than traditional zoning will ever be;[iii] Second, coming in second is Austin, which in the late 1990s adopted a “Smart Growth” initiative “to modernize Austin's long-range plan for growth, managing and directing growth that minimized damage to the environment and helped build a more livable city;”[iv] Third, five out of the ten U.S. metropolitan areas least touched by recession are located in Texas and, according to the aforementioned report, “the most resilient metros were protected by a potent mix of recession-resistant jobs” and not by their aversion to “Smart Growth.”

But now let’s again take a look at what Mister Cox has to opine on the matter: Houston in specific and Texas in general “averted the housing bubble and the Great Recession, because their generally more liberal approaches to land regulation did not produce the price distortions that occurred in more highly regulated metropolitan areas as in California, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast” while the high rate of taxation is driving folks from New York City.[v]

All’s I can say in response is “Tres sophistique!”

And I mean that quite literally indeed. For this Greek-derived word means deceptively attractive and, when applied to rhetoric, it transforms into what is called sophistry, i.e. subtly deceptive reasoning or deceitful argumentation apparently plausible in form but actually invalid. A person who employs such rhetoric is called a Sophist. Why am I taking the time to explain this? Because, solely in order to take a cheap shot at “Smart Growth” and simultaneously buttress the antiquated form of so-called laissez faire growth he espouses, this author entirely ignores how the low rate of state taxation[vi] and the stable oil and gas industries in the state of Texas have contributed to its metropolitan areas’ relative economic stability over the course of the past couple of years.

Furthermore, according to McGraw-Hill: “Still developers in Texas are forging ahead with smart-growth projects...Redeveloping urban core and mixed-use projects continue to show payoff.” David Lake, founding principal of the architectural firm Lake|Flato in San Antonio: “The smart money is going to be chasing buildings that perform and have more capacity to weather the ups and downs of the economy. The best thing we can do in Texas is make our urban cores stronger and more livable.” Larry Speck, design principal with PageSoutherlandPage in Austin: “People want a much easier environment to live in...There’s a way to have everything compact and convenient.” Jonathan H. Brinsden, chief operating officer of Midway: “It’s a small city under construction...When you are creating a mixed-use development, the goal is for the value to be greater than the sum of the parts.”[vii]

Waiting to hear how Dallas and Houston could have ranked even higher on this list if, like San Antonio and Austin, they didn't have light rail,
David Parvo
Most Senior Fellow
THE Placemaking Institute
[vi] This growth tactic of course has its adverse ramifications, as evidenced by the performance of Texas’ healthcare system:

Metros vs. cities

These are metros, not cities. In Texas, counties outside of cities have very limited land-use controls, and certainly nothing like smart growth. Even Austin only controls a limited core area. In addition, even cities like Austin and San Antonio that tightly control their core tend to be much looser outside of it.

Don't confuse New Urbanist, dense, mixed-use projects (which are successful all over Texas in our relatively free development market) with 'Smart Growth' (tight controls on overall development and a broad forcing of density and transit), which is pretty much non-existent in Texas outside of Austin's city limits.

Point very much taken

Here's yet another city ranking, this one from Forbes...there is a cost to how Houston does its laissez faire business:

I myself live in Central Texas. And I've been talking with economic development directors for small towns that are within a thirty minute radius of Austin in order to determine how many "traditional," ie most decidedly non so-called "Smart Growth" developments that have already been platted but have gone under because of the housing market...I'm up to 19.

David Parvo
Most Senior Fellow
THE Placemaking Institute

No more lists


I was waiting for somebody to take up my point very much taken, but to no matter the bureaucratic level one breaks government down into, be it the county or the metropolitan area or the city or whatever term you'd like to use (all's this breakdown allows is a further bastardization of statistical purity, i.e. that one can crunch the numbers as one sees fit in order to compile, well, lists), what it comes down to is that they all follow the exact same basic growth model, which is based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is more than inadequate as a measure of growth.

Heck, even Simon Kuznets himself agrees with me: "The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP."

David Parvo
Most Senior Fellow
THE Placemaking Institute

Toxic cities list

I notice smart growth Portland is #10 on that list, worse than relatively free market Dallas.

Broaden the big picture

Portland argues that their toxicity results from environmental and industrial mismanagement that pre-dates their "Smart Growth" initiatives. I guess that, much like the argument that restrictive land-use is the cause of wildfires, the big picture must be broadened beyond recent history. At least they've learned from their past mistakes.

David Parvo
Most Senior Fellow
THE Placemaking Institute

A sophisticated argument

Because of the expected wave of street-snarling traffic, the retailer Target demands a parking garage as a condition of moving to Washington DC.[i] So the city builds a parking structure in Columbia Heights with $40 million of taxpayers' money. But the expected hordes of drivers never materializes. "The concept is that in a city like ours, with so much transit and so many transportation choices, demand for parking is on a glide-path downward," said Harriet Tregoning, director of the District's Office of Planning. "It's become more the fashion not to get in your car." Now the lot is losing money, costing the city some $100,000 per month.

This thusly is proof that, despite being so heavily subsidized throughout America, nobody is driving anymore and building parking lots is a bad investment. And so cities would be better off if instead they invested in a transportation system that provides alternatives to cars.

David Parvo
Most Senior Fellow
THE Placemaking Institute


Further buttressing my remarks

Culled from:

It's refreshing to see a set of rankings attempting to take an objective, hard data-based look at comparative analysis. The Milken Rankings are a combination of job growth, wage and salary growth, high-tech GDP growth, and high-tech location quotients (see page 8 of the report).

A region's industry mix plays a big role in its ranking; you can see energy-centric regions scoring well. But remember that these rankings also explicitly factor in high tech growth and high tech concentration.

Regions that avoided real estate inflation and those maintaining what they have or simply avoiding rapid decline tend to score better.

“‘Best performing’ sometimes means retaining what you have,” said DeVol. “In a period of recession, the index highlights metros that have adapted to weather the storm. As we move forward in a recovery that still lacks jobs, metros will be further tested in their ability to sustain themselves.”

David Parvo
Most Senior Fellow
THE Placemaking Institute


Wow can you please sound more like a douche bag? You probably majored in Plan II and wrote your thesis on how to save the environment. I'm from Houston; I live in Austin. Take it from me, Smart Growth sucks.


Nice try...just trying to figure things out and further myself. I'm not advocating anything except an open mind. Give it a whirl some time, kind sir.

Good day.

David Parvo
Most Senior Fellow
THE Placemaking Institute