The Texas Big Six 2040 – Conversations About Our Future

On November 21st, I attended a conference hosted by the Texas Chapter, Houston Section of the American Planning Association. The Texas Big Six 2040 – Conversations about Our Future, held at the Barbara Jordan – Mickey Leeland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, included the directors of planning from the six largest cities in Texas for a workshop and panel discussion. The event was enlightening and inspiring for students and industry professionals alike, and it highlighted the unique challenges on which each of the cities is working.

For El Paso, which was at the turn of the century the preeminent city of the Southwest, redevelopment and vitalization of the urban core after fifty years of decline are of prime importance. San Antonio is in the process of developing its first comprehensive plan, has forecast an increase in population of one million residents by the year 2040, and is working towards mitigating the issue of water scarcity in years of drought.

Dallas and Fort Worth, though often considered a unified metropolitan area, are in completely different phases of planning. When the DART was created in the 1980s, a one-cent sales tax was levied to fund the program. As a result of this effort, Dallas has one of the most successful light rail systems in the Unites States and is nearing capacity in the central business district. At the same time, Fort Worth levied a half-cent sales tax to fight crime in the city; consequently, Fort Worth is an incredibly safe city, but difficult to get around. In working towards ameliorating this problem, the city of Fort Worth has received mixed signals indicating the desires of its residents. Dallas, on the other hand, has been mapping psychographic data to create a demographic tapestry and anticipate the needs of individual neighborhoods.

Austin seems to have had much success using incentives and bonus programs to help encourage industry to align with the city’s planning vision. They have taken a community-centric approach, sparking planning discussion with the public in neighborhoods, at music festivals, and through other avenues. A team effort for the entire municipal body, the comprehensive plan distributes goals and task over various city departments which work together for improved efficiency.

Houston, in its infancy in developing a comprehensive plan, has set clear goals for the next few decades. I was happy to hear that there will be emphasis on increased density and transit-oriented development. Without zoning laws, however, it is unclear how the city plans to implement their ideas; perhaps they will take a page from the model set forth by the city of Austin and use incentives to influence development.

As for the issue of poor air quality, which is well-represented all across the state, there do not seem to be too many solutions from the planners. Obviously, a move towards increased density and transit-oriented development will take cars (and their emissions) off the road which will help with smog. But emissions of particulate matter and volatile organic compounds from dirty industry (metal recyclers, concrete crushers, petrochemical refineries, coal export terminals, et al) cannot be regulated at the city level without major backlash from industry in the form of lawsuits. Responsibility for regulation lies within the state legislature, which is a scary prospect here in Texas.