Urbanism

Houston Continues to Do Dallas’ Urbanism Homework

The city is set to adopt new ordinances that would help reverse decades of car-centric development

First it was the buses.

In 2015, Houston adopted a plan to completely revamp its bus system, changing from the hub-and-spoke network model Dallas Area Rapid Transit currently uses to a grid system that focuses on raising service levels to promote increased ridership. Since then, DART has begun the process of following Houston’s lead.

Now, Houston is adopting a slate of new ordinances designed to encourage more urban design. Dallas would be wise to take notes and perhaps explore a similar revision of many of its codes.

For a full rundown of what Houston plans, head here. I’ll touch on a few quick highlights:

  • In the 1990s, Houston adopted a rule that forced all development on major streets to provide a 25-foot setback. That resulted in tons of buildings with street facing parking lots. These new ordinances toss that in a few designated neighborhoods. Others can join if they get enough support from property owners.
  • Like many cities, Houston required that all businesses no matter where they were located provide the same number of parking spaces. Now, those rules are being tailored to specific neighborhoods–and eliminated in some cases–in order to reduce space dedicated to cars and foster more walkable design.
  • Houston had a standard sidewalk width at 5 feet. Now, developments in areas designated as “Walkable Places” or as part of a new “Transit-Oriented Development” Program will need to provide for wider sidewalks as well as buffers between streets and sidewalks.
  • Some Transit-Oriented Developments will not be required to provide any parking, a radical move for a city whose historic love of highways outpaces even Dallas.

The spirit of the new program is captured in this quote from James Llamas, a transportation engineer who served on the committee that drafted the plan:

“The type of walkable, urban building form that’s been the standard for cities for thousands of years was made illegal in Houston because of various planning decisions in past decades that were designed around making it easier to drive.”

Houston’s program illustrates how city ordinances can dictate urban design, and that making places that are more human-oriented requires rewriting city ordinances. The Chronicle report also points to a recent survey that shows high-demand for walkable places in Houston, and yet a shortage of supply. This dynamic underscores one often misunderstood aspect of urban revitalization. Because walkable places are in sort supply, neighborhood improvements often spark a process of gentrification.

That can generate fear that any neighborhood improvements will disrupt existing communities. But gentrification is, in part, a function of the limited supply of quality urban design. If city codes can be reworked to make it easier–or mandate–better urban design, the forces of gentrification can be softened.

The good news is that, while Houston is further down the road on this, Dallas is already playing catch-up. The pandemic shutdowns have inspired some innovation. The parklet program, started as a way to help restaurants expanded outdoor seating, developed into a full-fledged initiative that will look at many of the city’s codes and ordinances and determine how they can be amended to help foster walkable communities and small business growth alike. So far, this effort is an ad hoc collaboration between Downtown Dallas Inc. and former Council member Angela Hunt, but the group hopes to advance a number of short- and long-term ideas for revamping the city’s codes in order to foster quality urban places.

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