Why sprawl is essential for the survival of a city
If you think back to the origins of the great cities of the United States you will undoutfully notice two distinctive layouts. The majority of the old-world east coast cities owe their high density designs to an era in which a citizen’s world was limited by that of his feet or other means of public transit. These cities expanded vertically as the limited mobility of the era required a tight circle between work and home. To this day the landlocked nature of these cities continues to define life despite modern transportation. In the era starting with the discovery of oil in Beaumont in the late/early 1800’s/1900’s to the post-WWII highway expansion the cities of the South and West took on the role of the Automobile as their central design component. Though the modern suburb is credited as the East Coast development known as Levittown, it is the Westward states that embraced and expanded the concept. As we all know in Houston the desire to expand further outside of the city in search for land, schools, and breathing room became a quest that many if not most Americans sought to pursue. In this world bread winners would make the daily commute inbound and outbound to a cities central business district. As times changed with the length of the commute we witnessed such developments as branch banks, convience stores, and strip centers to service the needs of the suburban community. In a further example of decentralization we witnessed major businesses relocating to suburban locations as the ranks of their workers increasingly filled with those commuting from the suburbs.
Flash-forward to the late 1990’s and we found the suburbs and suburban commuters increasingly under fire for their long commutes by environmentalists. To be fair the complaints against further expansion was not solely the cry of environmentalists, but that of “smart growth” advocates. (Which some call anti-progress advocates). So once again the dividers attempted to size up citizens into good and bad categories. These outlying regions were demonized as evil and unsustainable. The reliability on the automobile was deemed detrimental to our children’s future. And Houston with our so called “evil” Big Oil was right in the middle of it. Regardless of your political affiliation you as a Houstonian you were right in the middle of the vast conspiracy to drill for oil in Golden Gate Park or club thousands of baby seals in ANWR. Regardless, Houston and Houstonians became targets during the mud-sling of the 2000 Presidential elections. Candidates for office pointed to Houston as a sprawling metroplex that was responsible for making the planet unsustainable. Every Houstonian drove an SUV and tossed out our fast food bags onto our gridlocked freeways. And then came Katrina and Rita.
But what does this have to do with sustainability and the suburbs you ask? Plenty.
I am predicting that many will see Houston and its layout under a new light after the tragedy of Katrina. As many are already debating what needs to change in the City of New Orleans, I hold Houston as an example. I will not make any pretense that the layout of Houston is from a master planned designed. The reality is that Houston is a response to the demand of it’s in habitants. It is a city of manifest destiny coupled with listening to the consumer. It has its own unique timetable and sometimes that can be painful to its citizens. Houstonians have learned economically of the dangers of placing all ones eggs in a one basket. The plunge of the oil and gas industry in the 1980’s led us to diversify our economy. With this diversification came such companies as Compaq, BMC Software, and many others like it. I specifically named HP/Compaq and BMC Software as they also represent my main premise. These companies maintain operations outside the Downtown or Central Business District of Houston. They essentially have become the downtowns or “Edge Cities” that come together to become the Houston Metropolitan area.
In this day and age of global uncertainty in so many avenues, it is essential not to have your economic livelihood in one central location. If a situation similar to that of Katrina hit Houston, we would have an advantage based on geographical layout alone.
Just as the Internet served as an example of a de-centralized information continuance, Houston’s sprawling metroplex represents the habitat, livelihood, and business continuance of our businesses and residences.
Houston typifies what experts point to as the future of business. We are a city were it is possible to live and work in the same geographical area. We have options in residence, place of business, entrances, exits, modes of transportations, and so forth. We are a decentralized city that is focused on achieving the future not hanging on to the past. Yes, because of this viewpoint we have lost a few architectural landmarks, but we have also moved past great fallen giants that would have marked the demise of other cities. Energy has defined our past and embodies the spirit of our citizens as they reach out and help to build the lives of our next generation.
It was assumed that all residents made cross-city commutes. A look at small business start-ups show this not to be the case.
It was assumed that all workers drove they own cars. A look at the park & ride buses and open laptops will refute this. (Hey Metro, why the lack of WiFi on Park & Ride buses?)
Houston learns from its mistakes, makes appropriate adjustments and moves on. Sometimes sprawl is a good thing. The naysayer’s should move on.