Thursday, February 5, 2009

Urbanizing Dallas

The City of Dallas and it's city planners are looking to introduce a formal zoning code to try to curb unregulated sprawl and to increase development in downtown neighborhoods. For those of you that are unfamiliar with Texas and their land use laws, you should that Texans are fiercely pro-property rights and are against any government regulation. So much so, that it is against the law for a planning official to label a zoning map an official government document. Texas zoning or land use maps or more recommendations.

What does this mean when it comes to city development? It means that anyone can subdivide their land almost as many times as they want and construct a development as large as they desire...anywhere. No matter the scale or appropriateness of that development. This means that a 70 story skyscraper can be placed outside of a downtown next to a freeway exit with no other large office development nearby (Houston, Tx).

So what is the big deal of allowing the market to determine development, the last thing we need in this economy is for government to stifle growth of businesses and construction, right? Well the problem is that these cities are inefficient and non-sustainable and actually cost tax payers more money to provide services to sprawling developments then it would it city developments were dense and compact. Wherever development goes, infrastructure has to follow. That means, highways, roads, bridges, power, water, schools, police, fire, ambulance all have to provided for large developments no matter how far or inconvenient. All of these services are expensive and they tax the residents of existing development even more to pay up front for services to another development that they will most likely never use.

Besides the monetary expenses of development there are other consequences in allowing sprawl. One of the most harmful consequences is pollution. Houston is now one of the country's most polluted cities because of smog. Texas cities are dependent on freeways for travel. In Dallas,the mere mention of a subway system brings out strong protest. Other factors, are quality of life factors and having those that normally dependent on public transit forced to seek automobile transit some how, some way.

Despite all of the negative consequences, there are Texas planners that vehemently oppose zoning and hold up their cities as a model of success purely on the fact that their cities continue to grow while East coast cities (the cities with zoning codes) continue to shrink. While it is true that East coast zoning codes have become burdensome encyclopedia of regulations, allowing the market to dictate development is even more troubling. Remember parts of the code exist because the market had no problem cramming workers into dumbell tenement housing that lacked air, light, sewer and trash disposal.

In Dallas, the continued pattern of suburban growth and increased population has planners looking for better solutions. While Dallas planners are still not in favor of traditional zoning, which is based on prohibiting land uses, they are looking toward the new urbanist approach of "Form Based Zoning" which promotes land uses on coded streets that a community would to see. From a
recent article:

"The solution most proposed was 'form-based zoning,' which encourages developers to purchase large tracts of land on which to develop dense urban areas near transit stations and along the Trinity River.

It’s kind of like college vs. the real world. In college, parties just sort of happen. As adults, parties come with the cumbersome trappings of invitations and phone calls, dates, times and places to meet up.

In districts with the proposed zoning ordinances, Dallas-ites can live and have fun in the same vicinity: they spend an evening wandering around, stumble upon a new coffee shop, see a movie, find a nice place to sit and talk, have a beer, run into friends, and walk home in a single night."

Hopefully Dallas Planners can convince it's council to implement a new urban zoning code. And hopefully other cities not just in Texas but in suburban locales all across this county can do the same. In an country that is 80% urbanized we can no longer continue are pattern of sub-urban growth. As a country we can not afford the infrastructure and as of last summer, we could not afford the gas for our commute. Our post World War II development patterns can no longer continue, we must create a new pattern of development for a new generation of people that is sustainable and not over extend our local governments like a proverbial credit card as they bank on future growth which may not happen.

1 comment:

JayRay said...

You are right that Dallas needs to improve their city planning overall. But I think it's important to note that not all Dallasites are against all planning and regulatory initiatives. Although it is not a subway system, DART has been quite successful and it is expanding to encompass more of the sprawling metroplex. We are moving in the right direction; we're just alittle behind. But I do agree with most of what you said about Houston...their zoning laws are ridiculous.