Wall Street Journal: Houston and Detroit Are Leading the Way in Urban Innovation without HUD
Cities are the future
In 2008, for the first time in history, more human beings lived in cities than in rural areas. The United Nations projects that by 2050 nearly two-thirds of the world’s projected 9.7 billion people will be urban.
Some urban planners scratch their heads about how it’s all going to work. As ever-denser, more populous cityscapes continue to emerge, the eternal struggle to balance growth and quality of life shows few signs of abating.
Yet some ideas that address these types of problems are in place already and gaining traction in a handful of cities, including a few that are right under our noses.
To find out what urban-development policies and experiments currently hold the most promise, we asked more than a dozen experts—urbanists, architects, planners—what cities they think are worth watching now.
Their choices were illuminating. While the world’s megacities—Tokyo, Jakarta, Shanghai, New York City—get a lot of attention, for the most part the experts we asked picked cities a tier or two lower in size. None of the cities they highlighted, they thought, were doing everything right. But in all cases, the cities are taking some actions that the experts say demand our attention.
The five we ended up with aren’t meant to be exclusive. A larger list could have included London, considered by many to be the world’s most dynamic city, despite increasingly unaffordable housing. Seoul and Amsterdam, meanwhile, are among the leaders in putting “smart city” tools into the hands of their citizens.
With that in mind, here are five innovative cities that are worth watching.
Note that only American cities Houston and Detroit are discussed below to focus on how their excellent growth patterns will be compromised by HUD and the AFFH rule.
HOUSTON: Thriving but affordable
Many successful cities—most notably, London and San Francisco—have a glitch in their operating systems: Though they are growing rapidly, too many people are finding they can’t afford to live there.
Not Houston. From 2010 to 2014, the Texas city added more than 140,000 people, a 6.7% increase and second only to New York in the U.S. But the difference between Houston and other high-growth cities is that it has expanded its housing stock to accommodate its new residents. In roughly the same period, the Houston metro area issued construction permits for 189,634 new units, the most in the nation. It is not surprising, then, that more than 60% of homes in the larger Houston metro area are considered affordable for median-income families, according to the National Home Builders Association, compared with about 15% in the Los Angeles area.
Houston has “shown a capacity to grow without the kind of massive real-estate inflation that makes settling into places like New York, San Francisco, Boston, as well as London, all but impossible for middle-class families,” says Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism.
Many factors contributed to the recent growth spurt: Houston is the hub of the recently booming oil industry, which is now going through a painful bust. It boasts a nationally recognized medical center and is home to a thriving port. But affordable housing also contributed, Mr. Kotkin and others say, thanks to pro-growth policies and a light regulatory touch, especially the lack of traditional zoning.
No zoning makes it easier and faster to build, especially in response to changing economic conditions. A developer can avoid a lengthy and expensive rezoning process to build a townhome complex in a declining neighborhood of aging single-family homes. It might have to upgrade sewer lines and streets, but development costs are still low compared with other places. Although prices have risen some as builders replace older homes with nicer housing, the city stays affordable because so many new homes can quickly come on the market to keep up with demand.
The lack of zoning “actually does give the developer and design communities the ability to do things unlike anywhere else,” says Tim Cisneros, a Houston architect.
Says Mr. Kotkin: “While many on the ocean coasts yearn to restore the 19th-century city, the Texas cities are creating a template for this century.”
PREVIOUS CITIES COVERAGE
MEDELLÍN, COLOMBIA: Making high-profile investments in poor districts
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DETROIT: Reducing red tape for neighborhood redevelopment
Detroit, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2014, doesn’t have a lot of money for revitalizing all of its neglected areas. So it is trying something more radical: setting aside areas where normal development rules don’t apply.
Developers and designers complain that, like many cities, Detroit’s onerous and outdated rules make it too difficult to rebuild or repurpose long-neglected retail areas. To try to reduce those obstacles without a time-consuming and expensive rezoning process, the city is proposing a handful of “pink zones,” where red tape will be cut to help small developers and entrepreneurs open new businesses and revive aging commercial strips. The goal is not to eliminate zoning but to ease some of the constraints faced by new projects, like minimum-parking requirements or environmental-impact reports.
With a $75,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the city planning department intends to recruit designers and planners to come up with a general framework for anyone who wants to start a new business or build in those areas. This might include pre-approved plans that can be used by builders to speed up a new development.
“You can create a great place, and you won’t have to go through months of red tape,” saysMaurice Cox, Detroit’s planning director.
The idea of pink zones has been rumbling around planning circles for a few years. In the U.K., where it is called pink planning, it mainly aims to remove obstacles to new residential developments. It is part of a larger effort called “lean urbanism” that aims to reduce the regulatory tangle that can hinder new business.
Andrés Duany, a planner and architect who in the 1980s helped popularize the New Urbanism idea of walkable neighborhoods with a mix of housing, jobs and retail, is a leading U.S. proponent of lean urbanism. He says the idea came from all the young entrepreneurs and artists who in recent years were drawn to Detroit by cheap housing and space for launching new ventures. Detroit’s recent bankruptcy made that possible, he says, because the city wasn’t able to enforce its development rules and hinder the pioneering newcomers.
Detroit’s pink zones pilot program is the first test of this idea and is expected to serve as model for efforts to spur small redevelopment projects in other cities. “The city is ripe, the time is ripe,” says Douglas Kelbaugh, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan.
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA: Improving walkability
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Mr. Totty is a news editor for The Journal Report in San Francisco. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.