Over the course of the last month we’ve discussed the Grand Parkway and all the reasons for and against it. I’ve offered an alternative concept that I believe would better support the existing development in the area, and I suggested that I think that also offers a better land-development scenario for the Katy Prairie. Today I wanted to briefly outline that concept and hear what you have to say about it.
First, let’s consider why growth in the Katy Prairie matters in the first place – after all, it’s just a big grassy field, right? One thing people should understand about the Katy Prairie is that it serves an essential role as part of the Southeast Texas ecosystem. The Prairie is comprised of grasslands and wetlands that serve as a major wildlife habitat, and also a critical ecosystem for migratory birds. The Prairie also acts like a massive water-treatment plant, cleaning and polishing the water that flows through it before it enters Houston’s urban areas. Jeff Taebel at HGAC has observed that the most important thing we can do to protect water-quality in the City of Houston is preserve the massive, free water-treatment function of the Katy Prairie, keeping the water as clean as possible before it enters developed areas. For more on the significance of the Prairie, check out the Katy Prairie Conservancy at http://www.katyprairie.org/.
As I see it, the challenge for the Houston region is to protect the Katy Prairie in a way that’s palatable in our local culture. To protect the Prairie we need to steer growth in the area in such a way that its ecological impact is minimized. To do that, we cannot rely on urban growth boundaries, draconian zoning, or any other heavy-handed form of government regulation. What we must do is use the tools we have established in Houston.
The first opportunity for preservation, then, is for the city to work with groups like the Katy Prairie Conservancy to purchase or place deed restrictions on the most critical land in the Prairie, the land near streams. There are a number of ways the city could enable this, but perhaps the best way is for the city to offer incentives such as matching grants or even tax deductions or credits for local property owners who contribute to the conservancy. By supporting the efforts of the Conservancy the city can help.
The second opportunity, and by far the most important, is to change the vision in the city’s transportation plan: the Major Thoroughfare and Freeway Plan. A rigid one mile grid, the current plan doesn’t take the existing natural resources into account at all.
If we move instead to an Urban Network Plan, using the closer alignment for Grand Parkway that I discussed Wednesday, we have the foundation of change. We could adopt an urban network plan which direct thoroughfares away from critical ecological corridors.
We can then develop context-sensitive patterns for these roads so that near intersections (prime development areas) they can urbanize (split into couplets, have on-street parking, and have sidewalks). In targeted development areas, curb cuts can be limited to crossing streets spaces about 300 feet apart. This sets up the foundation of a well connected neighborhood street pattern.
Outside of targeted development areas, we can do two things. First, we can restrict driveways opening onto thoroughfares, and limit crossing streets to about one per 1000 feet. Then, the city could choose not to accept any public responsibility for streets built outside of the targeted development area. Private streets could still be built, therefore development is free to occur outside the targeted development area, but without city maintenance of roadways development is likely to be much less intense.
I’ve represented these ideas in the gallery below.
Using the tools it already has, the city could actively protect ecological corridors and promote the development of compact, walkable neighborhoods, eventually becoming a string of villages and towns throughout the far western fringes of the city. This approach embraces market-driven growth in the area while avoiding subsidies as much as possible.
Lastly, by working with the Katy Prairie Conservancy the city can preserve a significant amount of wide open green space connected in corridors. This could become a major regional amenity, a place that could be used for nature centers, hike and bike trails, and the like. It also would result in a higher-quality built environment and natural environment, and a more cost-effective infrastructure system – and any policy that could do that is well worth considering.