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Pro- and Anti-Development Groups Agree, Houston’s Style of Development Doesn’t Work

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael Silliman
October 16, 2017

In response to Hurricane Harvey, the Atlantic published an article titled Houston’s Flood is a Design Problem. The response from planners, developers and urbanists was strong and seemed to make clear the fault lines within the schools of thought on American community development, but in reality, the arguments are not that different.

cit_planningAlong with the aftermath brought on by hurricanes and floods, as well as other natural disasters, comes arguments about the environment and human responsibility for the changing climate and criticisms of preparedness and responses. Harvey was no exception on this front: watchdog groups criticized slow and wasteful responses from the Red Cross and FEMA, twitter mercilessly mocked Melania Trump for her bomber jacket and black stilettos and Donald Trump for praising the size of his audience. This was not the time or the place — but none of this was surprising. Disaster has become normal, as have the responses that normalize suffering and undermine what real people are experiencing.

Ian Bogost’s argument in this Atlantic piece was different. Instead of a typical hyperbolic environmentalist response, he was specifically criticizing greenfield development and storm water management (who knew storm water management was such a sensitive issue). Bogost likely thought he was making a simple argument: when cities build outwards (sprawl) they replace water-absorbing services like wetlands with impenetrable services like cement, thus requiring regional planners to build an ever more complicated water runoff system and putting an entire region at risk of flooding. All of this makes sense, and is true in Houston’s case. What Bogost did not seem to realize was that he was walking directly into the central debate within the development community: anti- vs. pro- development.

Anti-development groups jumped at the chance Hurricane Harvey provided to point out the relaxed land use policies of Houston. For a whole host of reasons, some honest and others red herring, groups dislike development in all its forms. These groups, often nicknamed NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), made the argument the relaxed land use policies in the Houston area (and all of Texas really) were at least partly to blame for the extent of the damage caused by Harvey. Bogost’s piece in the Atlantic seemed to fit the purposes of these groups, i.e. his argument was simply anti-development.

Pro-development groups, including conservative-libertarian types that are by definition against land use regulation (this was Texas after all) and developers for financial interests, were outraged at this cheap shot of an argument against economic development. This was not the time or the place.

To confuse the entire conversation, there is a third group to add to the mix of pro- and anti-development crowds. Most notably, Strong Towns took offense to the arguments suggesting relaxed land use policy was to blame. In their response, Houston Isn’t Flooded Because of Its Land Use Planning, they correctly pointed out no city in the country can handle 50 inches of rain. Author Daniel Herriges counters every argument that proposes the flooding was caused by the “it was relaxed land use policy” NIMBYs. He described the anti-development idea that excessively relaxed land use regulations, use of cement vs. green space, overdevelopment and allowing developers to build in flood plains caused this natural disaster as myths.

We should not mistake Strong Towns and other groups like them as strictly pro-development, though. The world of development is not so simple as pro- and anti-development. Strong Towns would be considered part of the New Urbanism group, an urban design movement that promotes environmentally friendly, economically sound and walkable neighborhoods that contain a wide range of people and jobs. Also known as mixed use development, promoted by others as smart growth, smart cities. These groups would be pro-small scale mixed use development but anti-new roads, parking minimum regulations and sprawl. One of Strong Towns principles is “land is the base resource from which community prosperity is built and sustained. It must not be squandered.” Their entire organization is based on anti-suburbs, cars and top-down big debt backed development, like all of Houston. Their argument here was not pro-greenfield development and sprawl, but was simply saying the flooding in Houston was not the result of these development issues. This was not the time or the place.

Author: Michael Silliman holds a Master’s in Public Administration from George Mason University and during the day works as a Program Manager at ICMA (International City/County Management Association). He studies and writes on the topics of civil society, community development and third-party governance. You can reach Michael at [email protected] or on twitter @michaelsilliman 

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