Houston, the largest city in America without zoning, is expected to house an additional one million people in the next 20 years, raising the metro area population to around seven million. In the past, Houston has managed growth with freeways and sprawl, but neither can maintain the city’s infrastructure and development without running into issues of walkability, beautification, and affordability—just to name a few. So on September 30, 2015, Houston’s City Council adopted Plan Houston, a citizen-engaged growth strategy that intends to serve 21st century trends while preserving Houston’s character. Instead of implementing land-use controls, the plan establishes goals and policies generated by Houstonians themselves.
Blueprint Houston, a nonprofit organization, researched and advocated the plan for an entire decade, holding numerous citizens’ congresses to collect visions of what Houstonians want in the city’s future. “We have tried to be the squeaky wheel in the face of mayors,” said Joe Webb, architect and chairman of Blueprint. Finally, in September 2014, Houston’s Mayor, Annise Parker, ordered the planning commission to create the city’s first General Plan, Plan Houston. Blueprint passed along the content from their citizens’ congresses to a team of consultants. They reviewed and evaluated hundreds of different plans and, working with the committee staff, coming up with 32 goals and 12 strategies for nine topical areas: people, place, culture, economy, environment, public services, education, housing, and transportation. The 12 core strategies include: sustaining quality infrastructure, connecting people and places, and celebrating what is uniquely Houston.
Houston is a city of clearly defined neighborhoods and districts, but because the plan concentrates on overall growth, topics are examined on both scales: neighborhood-district and citywide. For example, when addressing quality and equity issues, the plan not only looks to where investments go, but rather how all the communities can benefit. Silvia Vargas, Senior Associate at Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT), a national collaborative practice and member of Plan Houston’s consultant team, noted this strategy is more incentive-focused than regulatory. For instance, instead of having a land-use map that identifies a town as an area that would accommodate more density, Plan Houston incentivizes developers by making land more affordable or facilitating permitting. David Robinson, architect and an at-large councilman for the City of Houston, said, “The role of the General Plan is to not mess with something that is stable and good. It’s about the subtlety and diverse nature of Houston’s wonderful neighborhoods. It’s not shoving anything down anyone’s throat. What it becomes remains to be seen.”
Also introduced though Plan Houston is the Planning Coordination Tool, an online platform allowing any individual or organization to geographically see the range of planning efforts and coordinate efforts to push common goals. Currently, the hundreds of available plans were designed by organizations, not the city of Houston. Anyone unrepresented is able to submit their plan via the website, planhouston.org. Because the Planning Coordination Tool promotes quality growth through communication, not zoning, developers are aware of how the communities want to project themselves.
To ensure that these community visions and goals are carried out, Plan Houston establishes performance indicators, also on the website (planhouston.org/indicators). Each indicator links to one or more of the plan’s goals and provides an assessment of progress and trends. Also, one can click on the goals from the goals page to see the corresponding indicators.
“With the adoption of Plan Houston, we have ushered in a new and more coordinated era of planning,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “This plan can be a powerful tool to proactively address challenges we know the city will face in the coming years.”
In 2016, Mayor Parker will reach the three-term limit, and the new mayor will inherit Plan Houston. Regardless of who is elected, this citizen-engaged platform allows Houston to step away from its reputation as a developer’s Wild West and position itself for smart growth.