Houston Back to the Future

November 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

There has been much discussion about Houston’s future. Indeed, is there one? Engineers, historians, urban planners (how do you plan an ‘urb?’) and those who bombard newspapers with letters so they can see their names in print, all of them have their own plans for this town’s next 100 years.

Our own expertise is as valuable as anyone’s, so let us explain how to make Houston a better place for our children and their children. First, we must bring order to chaos by instituting strict zoning. Aha! You say that zoning stifles growth. Tell that to the city of Austin which has zoning, building regulations and ordinances tough enough to make Santa Fe blush. Indeed, one of Austin’s biggest problems is that everyone else wants to live there. (The city now has a greater population than Fort Worth or El Paso). So much for the “stifle growth” argument.

We need to do something about our traffic. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, Houston-area commuters spent 56 hours sitting in traffic during 2005, making it the seventh-most congested city in the nation. That time could be better spent firing Astros, collecting garden hoses or, of course, planning ‘urbs.’ In the future, Houston should invent something I call “mass transit” whereby a person called a “driver” or “engineer” does the driving while the rest of us sip coffee in the mornings and martinis in the afternoon while crocheting shawls as we zip through the city to our destinations.

It’s a crying shame that Houston doesn’t have tracked transit left over from its earlier days when trains moved cotton and cattle. Today we could use the rails to move people. For instance, if only there had been a railroad track right alongside the Katy Freeway. Such a transit system would also solve another of our problems: air pollution. Using our plan, by the year 2107 this city will have air as clean as a Marine boot-camper’s boots. I suggest that we:

A) Pass laws against polluting the air; and

B) Enforce them.

Yes, it’s a revolutionary concept, but worth a try. And who knows? Such changes might even be good for our economy as we make this an even more attractive place to live and work. We keep hearing that Houston must have a “good business climate.” Let’s create one — literally.

According to news reports, in a report commissioned by the Greater Houston Partnership, “Opportunity Urbanism: An Emerging Paradigm for the 21st Century,” urban historian Joel Kotkin argued that quality-of-life issues such as parks and cultural amenities do not need to be a top priority of local leaders. I agree. We need more blight to attract more unemployed soccer hooligans and Blackwater hit men.

Even without additional billboards and fewer libraries, we seem to be doing all right. Between 2000 and 2006, the population of Harris County increased by 485,653. It is as though every man, woman and child in pre-Katrina New Orleans moved here; sometimes I think they have. However, many of the newcomers moved here from the north. Do you ever get the idea that the border patrol is watching the wrong river? What’s more, experts predict over the next few years this area’s population will double.

A few more changes will help Houston in the 22nd century: two daily newspapers with at least one of them articulate; and radio talk shows that are not pitched to the John Birch Society.

We need an Alamo like San Antonio and a Riverwalk. Steal from the best.

Houston should build a Six Flags amusement park and a big sports facility we’d call the Astrodome.

We can install video cameras at major intersections to determine who is setting up all those video cameras. While these initial cameras are spotting red-light runners and are cutting down on deadly collisions, they create real problems for our local TV news shows.

A catchy motto would help, such as “the Bayou City,” “Gateway to Channelview” or “Houston — where you are never more than a half inning away from Major League Baseball.”

This brings us to sports. We could sign up some local sports talent like Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Vince Young; otherwise they might leave town to play for another team. And, in this football-crazy town, a pro team should do well here. Let’s call them the Oilers.

This is the energy capital of the world. So we should go with our strengths to make Houston the “world-class city” we keep hearing about. We form a huge energy-trading company called Enron. The world, class and otherwise, will soon hear of us.

Anything in Houston that has a second coat of paint gets a historical plaque. We need an Old Town district to attract drunken tourists who throw up on our sidewalks, get in bar fights and leave lots of money which they can’t account for. Again, stealing from the best, we need a French Quarter. I understand an unused one is currently available.

Incidentally, if you are worrying about just who will implement and oversee all these projects, we shall do as our city government has always done and create a Blue Ribbon Committee which, with the help from lots of highly paid consultants, will meet, hold public hearings and issue a report that will be read and followed by all as a blueprint for the future.

The Allen brothers and other founding fathers should have thought of these civic improvements when they first staked out this city more than a century and a half ago, but they didn’t have that vision thing. So now it’s up to us to lock the grid and throw away the key.

For Houston to be the city of the future, we must have low taxes and high services, honest officeholders like Tom DeLay, and a slick, efficient hurricane evacuation plan which we shall call Operation Rita. True, we already have a fine city with much going on, great people, arts, restaurants and trees. We simply need to tweak the system for the future.

Finally, you are asking, “How do we pay for all of this?” Once again we steal from the best — in this case the federal government. We pass the costs on to our children and their children. They’ll appreciate our foresightedness.

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