Resilience and Planning Without Zoning in Houston, Gender Mainstreaming, and More

About This Episode

Welcome to Cover to Cover, a new series giving planners an insider look into the stories in APA's Planning magazine. Each month editor Meghan Stromberg and associate editors Mary Hammon and Lindsay Nieman dive deeper into the topics covered in Planning. They introduce listeners to some of the contributors and other voices on its pages, talk about how it all came together, and otherwise give us the story behind the story.

This month's episode focuses on the magazine's January 2020 issue, which tracks all things planning in Houston: increased resiliency efforts following Hurricane Harvey, a major transit bond measure, a new innovation corridor, and more. Planning writer Bill Fulton, AICP, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston, weighs in on H-Town's famous lack of zoning — he argues that, even in its absence, the city still uses important planning tools in guiding development. The editors also talk about gender mainstreaming and rising bedbug infestations in cities, and they give listeners a preview of the upcoming February issue.

Episode Transcript


[00:00:08] Meghan Stromberg: Hi, I'm Meghan Stromberg, editor-in-chief at the American Planning Association and the editor of Planning magazine. Welcome to Cover to Cover, an insider look at APA's Planning magazine. Each month we'll dive deeper into the topics covered in Planning, introduce you to some of the contributors and other voices in its pages, talk about how it all came together, and otherwise give you the story behind the story. I'm joined by my editorial team colleagues, associate editors Mary Hammon and Lindsay Nieman.

[00:00:35] Lindsay Nieman: I'm Lindsay Nieman. I work on our departments, Intersections and Tools for the Trade, which are sort of new this month and this year. And we'll talk to you more about those coming up.

[00:00:45] Mary Hammon: I'm Mary Hammon. I mainly work on features. I work with contributors, making assignments, doing research, and that sort of thing.

[00:00:54] MS: Great. This first podcast of ours, we have lots of stuff to talk about. But I think the most exciting thing is our brand-new look. We launched a redesign, sort of a tweak, a refresh, in January. And we really wanted to have a more strategic focus for what was in the magazine and reorganize things in a way that we think will be easier for readers to use. One of the biggest shifts that people will see is the way we've organized content. We have some of the same departments and items that people have come to look for in the magazine, but they've been rearranged a little bit differently into two buckets that are both towards the front of the magazine. Lindsay is the editor for Intersections, so I thought maybe you could tell us a little bit about that.

[00:01:42] LN: Sure, Meghan. Like you said, Intersections is really where we're going to see some of the biggest changes in the print version of Planning magazine. It's sort of where we're pulling together all of our current events and the conversations and the cultural moments that really show the kind of impact that planning has on our lives and vice versa. I think we describe it pretty succinctly in our own pages. We call it "where planning and the world meet."

[00:02:05] MS: I love that. I love that catchphrase. That's something that Cynthia [Currie] came up with, our art director. And I think it really sums up what Intersections is all about. Mary, can you tell us a little bit about Tools for the Trade?

[00:02:17] MH: Absolutely. Our Tools for the Trade section is really all about what planners need to know to do their work. We wanted it to be very nitty-gritty, knowledge and practice focused. So it includes things like Legal Lessons. We have our new JAPA Takeaway, which I think you're going to talk a little bit about later, and The Commissioner as well is part of that. So we're really excited at this new organization.

[00:02:47] MS: The tagline for Tools for the Trade is "knowledge you can put to work." So I think that really sums up what Mary just described. Thanks for mentioning the JAPA Takeaway. That's brand-new to the magazine. And the Journal of the American Planning Association is, of course, APA's double-blind, peer-reviewed, scholarly journal. It's kind of a mouthful. It's also a, it's kind of — well, it's a scholarly journal. And so lots of planners do read JAPA, but we're really trying to distill the information that's in a typical JAPA article in a way that's just really accessible for practicing planners. So we just launched the JAPA Takeaway, and that's about a page and a half of the key takeaways from any given JAPA article. So we're really excited about that one too. Another special thing about this issue, it's not just the launch of our redesign, but it's, of course, our special issue on Houston. Every year we do a special issue on the host city of the National Planning Conference, which takes place in April, and this year we'll be in Houston. So the editors worked with local planners, APA staff, and others to develop the content that goes into that issue: What are the biggest planning issues in that city? What are the transferable lessons that we think planners in other places will want to know about? And how can we get people excited about going to the conference? In putting together the issue, we all learned a ton about Houston. I don't think — has anybody been to Houston?

[00:04:21] MH: I haven't, no.

[00:04:22] LN: I haven't either.

[00:04:23] MS: So don't tell anybody; we put this together without actually having been there [all laugh]. But like I said, we had lots of great help. And the issue really came together — the stories came together with a theme that we hadn't anticipated when we started. And it was sort of this idea of Houston at a crossroads. And that actually came across really beautifully in the issue with how our art director did sort of, not quite before and after photo collages, but a really — a look at what you think Houston is and then what planning has really made it today. That was a really terrific approach. One of the stories that I really loved and actually surprised me a great deal was the story about resiliency efforts in Houston. As we all know, as we all watched on the news, when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, the place was flooded. Many people lost their lives. It was the second most-expensive natural disaster after Hurricane Katrina. But it wasn't the only one, right? There — storm events and rain events happen in Houston all the time. And so now they're pivoting to this resiliency plan. And what I really love about it is although water is a really important focus, it's not just about water. It's not just about flooding. It's a really holistic, comprehensive approach to making sure the city can spring back from all kinds of stresses. Actually, there was a quote from the mayor of Houston that I thought really summed it up really well. Mayor Sylvester Turner actually just won a runoff election that was in the works when we were producing this issue. And he said, "Ten years ago, a mayor in Houston probably wouldn't be talking about climate change, maybe even five years ago, maybe even three years ago." So that just tells you how, how much Houston is at a pivot point, at a crossroads.

[00:06:21] LN: I think that holistic approach to resilience and climate change adaptability, you can kind of see that in the economy as well, with better protection of local resources, green building practices, and even ExxonMobil is getting in the action by looking into carbon-capture technology.

[00:06:37] MS: Mm-hmm. What I learned in working on this story was that Houston actually became the 101st member of the 100 Resilient Cities Network, which is the program from the Rockefeller Foundation. And they were helped by a grant from Shell to make that happen, even though, you know, they're the 101 of 100 Resilient Cities. And in — as part of that, Marissa Aho, AICP, who is a planner and a member of APA leadership, became Houston's chief resiliency officer in February 2019. She actually came from Los Angeles, where she was the CRO, working on their climate action efforts. And she is taking, she and her colleagues are taking a really comprehensive approach to resiliency. They're — the effort is called ... Resilient Houston, and it's this holistic framework that, like I said, helps deal with various different shocks to the system. It also coordinates with various other plans. It's not just a standalone document. Plan Houston, of course, was the general plan, the first general plan that Houston approved ever, I think. And that was in 2015. And then these neighborhood-based plans called Complete Communities — the action plans for, for that program are also part of this Resilient Houston framework. And I just, Marissa Aho herself summed it up really well in the story when she was talking to our writer. And she refers to it as "an effort that's like stitching everything together to make a big quilt." And I just thought that was a beautiful image for how complicated and complex and yet important these resiliency efforts are, maybe particularly in a place like Houston.

[00:08:31] MH: Yeah, something that really surprised me when I was looking through all of the stories and all of the dates — you want to talk about complexity? You mentioned Houston's first comp plan in 2015 and how that interweaves. But there's also — so their climate action plan, they're doing work on. A draft was released in July of 2019. There's the ongoing resilience — the Resilient Houston process, which they released a draft strategy in September 2019. Their Complete Communities program — the mayor, Mayor Turner, just expanded that by five communities in June of 2019. And the city just approved their METRONext Moving Forward Plan in August. So a lot of things —

[00:09:14] MS: Just this past August?

[00:09:14] MH: Just this past August. There's just a lot of — a lot of planning going on.

[00:09:19] MS: Yeah, a lot of things coming together.

[00:09:22] MH: Yeah, going back to the crossroads idea, as I was editing the "Toward Modern Mobility" feature story, Houston voters approved a $3.5 billion bond to pay for transit projects. It's the first since 2003. You know, in a city as famously car and highway centric as Houston, that's a pretty big deal. Another funny thing that happened, in December, Mayor Sylvester Turner, he's — who's actually a really big proponent of expanding transit in Houston — he won a runoff election the day we were supposed to sign off on the issue with the printer.

[00:09:56] MS: Yeah, that was fun. We had to hold — we had to count every page and keep track of every page where his name appeared on the off chance, as far as the polls were telling us, on the off chance that he lost, and he pulled through. So we were able to print the whole thing at once.

[00:10:12] MH: I think it was seven or eight pages. We actually even prepared a completely separate set of pages, one listing him as "mayor" and one listing him as "former mayor" in case we needed to swap them out at the last minute. We didn't want another [1948] "Dewey Defeats Truman" episode. [Meghan laughs] Yeah, but overall I got the sense that Houston's — all of their planning efforts are sort of all in the works or at the beginning stages of implementation. So it really makes me feel like the Houston that we're going to see in April at NPC2020 is going to be very different from what we'll see 10 or 20 years from now.

[00:10:53] MS: Yeah, absolutely. That's a feeling I got too. And it's not that everything is right at the beginning, but so many significant efforts are happening at the same time.

[00:11:02] MH: And they're all, as you said, it's a big quilt. They're all sort of overlapping and interweaving and building on each other.

[00:11:08] MS: Yeah, I'm excited to see it.

[00:11:10] LN: And I think that one of the areas where you're starting to see a little bit more forward momentum is in the economy. There's a lot of efforts that are sort of midway through or already having gotten started. Like Meghan was talking about, in 2015, Houston passed their first-ever general plan. And it's sort of this high-level blueprint of the city's vision for future development and, importantly, investment. It's putting an emphasis on developing a resilient and diverse economy through a couple of different strategies, especially — not necessarily moving away from oil and gas, but sort of adding to it and diversifying and creating that resilient economy that they're really after. So some of these efforts you can even start to see. I mean, when we go to Houston in April, there's a couple of things that you can visit and watch happen. There's the Houston Ship Channel, which already operates as one of the world's busiest waterways, and it actually makes up about a quarter of the state's GDP, not just Houston. It's about 50 miles long right now and 530 feet wide. But there's a, currently a billion-dollar effort underway to widen and deepen the channel to accommodate more and larger ships. And then there's also the innovation district, which is being led by a huge project from Rice Management Company. They're converting an old Sears store into the Ion building. And it's gonna anchor the city's new innovation corridor, which will be a four-mile stretch running through the heart of Houston. It will support entrepreneurship and partnerships with nonprofits and startups and other universities.

[00:12:40] MS: There's already a pretty significant medical sector in Houston, isn't there?

[00:12:43] LN: Mm-hmm. Yeah, the Texas Medical Center. It's currently the world's largest medical complex and the eighth-largest business district in the country. It gets about 10 million patient visits a year already. And right now, it's in the middle of a huge project that will bring in global health research efforts, too. And with that's going to come a 37-acre development, they say 26,000 more jobs, and an addition of more than an estimated $5 billion to the city's economy.

[00:13:10] MS: So much going on in Houston. Our other stories in this issue are about — one of the, one of the stories is ["At Water's Edge."] And Houston was founded on the bayou system and near the Gulf of Mexico, and the bayous literally run through it. And for years, they were — the approach was to control the water and manage the water. And they're learning very recently and making some significant efforts, including the Bayou Greenways 2020 Plan, to really find ways to access the water, live with water. There's trails up and down the bayous and even extending into some of the more suburban areas, which is a wonderful way to make sure everybody has access to the water. And the other big issue that we could not not talk about in this issue about Houston, as everybody knows — or at least all planners know and wonder about — is how does Houston have any planning without zoning? It's one of the few cities in this country. It's certainly the largest city in the country that doesn't have a zoning code. And it's really hard to picture what a place looks like without that traditional code. So we asked a planner in Houston to tell us a little bit about it. And it turns out, you know, yeah, they might not have zoning, but they have plenty of the same tools that other cities have to make sure that neighborhoods and communities function in the way that residents want and need them to.

[00:14:38] Bill Fulton, AICP: My name is Bill Fulton. I'm the director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston. I began my career as a journalist and I always wanted to write about cities and urban planning. And over time, I transitioned from being a journalist into being more of an analyst and a practitioner. I started writing for Planning magazine, believe it or not, in 1979. But over time, I was a planning — I went to planning school at UCLA. I was a planning consultant. I had a political career; I was the mayor of Ventura, California. And eventually I was the planning director of San Diego.

[00:15:17] MS: So now you're in Houston, and you've been there for how many years?

[00:15:22] BF: I've been in Houston for five years now.

[00:15:25] MS: OK. And recently you wrote a story for Planning magazine about the question at the top of most planners minds when they think of Houston. And that is, you know, how does how does planning happen in Houston without zoning? And one of the things you point out is there are actually plenty of plans and policies and ordinances and various other efforts going on in Houston, even without zoning. And in fact, in the story, you point to a couple of different things specifically that Houston uses. And I'm hoping you can tell us a little bit about those.

[00:16:00] BF: Yes, three separate efforts that take the place of, of use zoning. Houston has a very robust development code, which has everything in it than any other development code has in it, except it doesn't have use zoning. And in some cases, it doesn't have height and density restrictions. But it does have, for example, in most parts of the city, very ample setback and parking requirements, right? Which have been a break actually on dense urban development. But in the absence of actual use zoning, several things have emerged sort of to take its place. The first one, and the one I think most people do know about, is that deed restrictions are widely used by subdivision developers in Houston. In suburban Houston, for example, and — the City of Houston has great front-end control over development in the suburbs, even if those suburbs do not eventually annex to Houston because of Texas's extraterritorial jurisdiction law. But subdividers typically use deed restrictions as a way to protect their, their neighborhoods that they are building. So most affluent, single-family neighborhoods in Houston are actually protected by deed restrictions that prohibit any other use. And curiously enough, some of those deed restrictions are actually enforceable by the city, not only by the homeowners association or the developer. So that's number one. Most affluent residential neighborhoods have deed restrictions that restrict zoning. In the last 20 years, in the absence of zoning and as the city has changed, two other tools have become widely used and these can be initiated by neighborhoods. The first one is historic districts. The first historic district was set up in the, the [Houston] Heights neighborhood, which is a historic, early 20th-century neighborhood near downtown Houston. The [Houston] Heights neighborhood became a historic district, or actually three of them, about 20 years ago. Since then, more and more neighborhoods have taken advantage of the historic preservation ordinance. So now there about 20 or 25 of them, and they actually also restrict changes in use. And, and lastly, this is something that is done in gentrifying modest neighborhoods, especially ones with a big homeowner population, there's a small-lot subdivision-restriction ordinance that can be initiated by the neighborhood. And so — because the typical way you gentrify a neighborhood in Houston is you tear down old single-family homes and you replace one single-family home with six expensive townhomes, right? So if neighborhoods initiate this small-lot subdivision ordinance, prohibiting small-lot subdivisions, then you essentially block townhome development. And, and you maintain the current, the current neighborhood fabric, which is often single-family homes. That's been used in neighborhoods of modest means. Community organizers trying to protect those neighborhoods from gentrification actually encourage those homeowners and those neighborhoods to use that tool to block townhome development and to block gentrification. So, so deed restrictions, historic districts, and the small-lot subdivision prohibition, those are three tools that developers and neighborhoods have used, as I call them, workarounds, but that are used to protect mostly single-family development in certain parts of town in the absence of actual use zoning.

[00:19:23] MS: So what about nonresidential properties?

[00:19:25] BF: Nonresidential property is pretty much anything goes. There probably are some mixed-use developments that have deed restrictions, right? But where you see weird stuff popping up in close proximity to single-family neighborhoods that are otherwise protected is along with commercial strips. In that sense, it's not so much different, right, from many other, many other cities in America where the single-family neighborhoods are protected, but the adjacent commercial strips are changing rapidly.

[00:19:55] MS: And that's something I was trying to get a sense of. I was recently in Houston, as it happens, a couple of weeks ago. But before I went, I was really trying to get a sense of how it would feel on the ground. And it sounds like, in many ways, it feels, and my experience showed, that it was very much like being in any other place.

[00:20:14] BF: Yeah, I — Houston does not look, especially if you are familiar with the newer Sunbelt cities, right? Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles. Houston does not feel substantively different. It's a little bit more random. So in the absence of zoning, for example, you may get density, but it is scattered about, and density occurs completely at the discretion of the land owner, right? So instead of concentrating density around a transit stop or in one particular area, you might get a 30-story apartment tower here and then another one three blocks away, and in between, you've all got, you know, supermarkets and Starbucks and Subway sandwich shops.

[00:21:02] MS: But there —

[00:21:02] BF: So it tends to be a little more random in that sense.

[00:21:05] MS: Is there anything else you want to mention about planning in Houston that would help planners understand it better?

[00:21:11] BF: I think planners, some of the planners in town are very articulate about how you can't start with an ideal end state. You have to start with the market. And you have to begin by planning for what you can — what the mart — what you can foreseeably expect the market to build. And then I think one thing Houston needs to do a better job of is, is orienting the fiscal incentives that it has around the desired outcomes, right? Houston has less regulation than other cities, but it also has, like many cities, a lot of fiscal and economic incentives to build certain things. So, for example, the Downtown Living Initiative, the city basically gave a $15,000 per unit tax break to developers to build apartments downtown because there weren't, there were only, what, three or four thousand people living downtown. And that was very successful in, in stimulating apartment development, you know, apartment towers downtown, which really previously hadn't existed. And I think Houston can do a better job of using its economic development incentives and its fiscal incentives in place of zoning to encourage dense development, for example, around transit stops where it should occur rather than simply allowing townhomes to go everywhere, which is kind of the default in most parts of the city at this point.

[00:22:37] MS: Bill, if people want to find out a little bit more about Kinder, where would you send them?

[00:22:43] BF: You can go to Kinder dot Rice dot e-d-u []. That's our website. We also have a pretty strong social media presence. Just find the Kinder Institute on both Twitter and Facebook and actually LinkedIn as well.

[00:22:54] MS: Well, thanks very much, Bill. I'll see you in a few months.

[00:22:57] BF: Thank you. Look forward to seeing you here in Houston.


[00:23:11] MS: So there's more than just Houston in this issue, of course. We talked already about the reorganization, but — and I talked a little bit of the JAPA Takeaway — but I didn't talk about what the topic is. Mary just made a grimace and shivered. And it's about bedbugs. They're back. And cities all over the country are facing these infestations of bedbugs. And the bad news is they're not really sure what to do about it, so read all about it in Planning magazine to figure out what you should do about these creepy crawly [pause] uhhh.

[00:23:45] MH: I feel like I was scratching throughout the production process.

[00:23:49] MS: No, but it is a really great — a really great look at this emerging issue that cities are just not quite sure how to deal with.

[00:23:57] LN: And it's nice to know that planners can do something about it, because bedbugs seem sort of like an undefeatable foe sometimes. But there is something that can be done.

[00:24:06] MS: There's a, there's a couple other great pieces. Well, there's lots of great pieces in this issue. And there's one that you worked on, Lindsay, in Intersections that worked out beautifully.

[00:24:16] LN: Yeah. I'm really excited to have it in the magazine. Actually APA recently published a PAS Memo called Integrating Gender Mainstreaming into U.S. Planning Practice by Sherry Ryan. And we were able to catch up with her for a Q&A to sort of get a crash course on what gender mainstreaming is and how a failure to account for the different needs of different genders is becoming this huge equity problem in — across so many different sectors but in planning too. And we also got to get to know Sherry a little bit. We found out why this topic is so important personally to her and how she has a transportation planner that works on long-range bicycle planning furthers these goals in her own work. And if you're not sure what gender mainstreaming is, you're not alone. It was actually defined in 1997 by the United Nations, but it's been very slow to catch on in a lot of countries, but specifically the U.S. Gender mainstreaming sort of refers to "the process of assessing the implications for [different genders] of any planned actions," like "legislation, policies, programs, in all areas and at all levels."

[00:25:26] MS: That was in 1997?

[00:25:28] LN: It sure was.

[00:25:29] MS: And so the U.S. has not made a lot of strides, you said. Has anybody else?

[00:25:34] LN: Vienna is actually sort of the poster child for gender mainstreaming. And actually, now that you mention it, we have a story about that coming up in our February issue. There's actually a lot of stuff that APA and Planning magazine is doing to sort of bring gender mainstreaming into the mainstream and make this something that everyone is thinking about and considering when they're doing their planning, from transportation to hiring practices in planning departments.

[00:26:01] MS: Thanks for mentioning the February issue, Lindsay. Mary, can you tell us a little bit more about what readers can look forward to in the February issue of Planning magazine?

[00:26:10] MH: Sure. So in addition to the gender mainstreaming story, we have a rundown of California's new landmark ADU legislation, a news story on the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, a story on user-centered planning, and a documentary about toilets.

[00:26:27] MS: I'm sorry, what was that last one?

[00:26:29] MH: Toilets.

[00:26:30] MS: Great. [Lindsay laughs] As much as I'd love to leave this hanging on the word "toilets," Mary, another story that we have coming up is on planning for nightlife and the number of cities that are employing night mayors and other people who help make sure that things run smoothly after dark. Look for those stories and lots of other great ones in the February issue of Planning magazine. And don't forget that Planning magazine is always available at planning dot org slash planning []. It comes free with your membership to the American Planning Association, and subscriptions are, of course, available to others. Also, look for us on the Planning magazine app.

[00:27:13] LN: And you can join in on the discussion on social media. Catch us at APA underscore planning [@apa_planning] and hashtag plan mag [#planmag].

[00:27:21] MS: Thanks everybody for listening to Cover to Cover. And I'd like to think Lindsay Nieman, associate editor at Planning magazine, and our other associate editor, Mary Hammon, as well as Kelly Wilson, who did the production and audio mixing for this recording. Make sure to look for and listen to next month's podcast of Cover to Cover.

[00:27:41] MH: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the American Planning Association podcast. To read the stories mentioned in this episode and more, visit planning dot org slash planning []. To hear past episodes of the APA podcast, visit planning dot org slash podcast []. You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Have an idea for the podcast? Send it to podcast at planning dot org [].

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