Ryan Holeywell | October 7, 2015
Following a process that took more than a year, the city approved an outline of its goals. Now the real work starts.

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | October 7, 2015

Downtown Houston at dusk. Image via flickr/telwink Downtown Houston at dusk. Image via flickr/telwink

Houston’s City Council last week adopted its first-ever general plan, which lays out – in very broad strokes – the city’s goals for the coming years.

Business leaders, community advocates, planners and others had championed the creation of such a plan for years, arguing that a city as large and dynamic as Houston needs a set of shared principles to guide its growth.

The 32 goals included in the newly-adopted “Plan Houston” document emphasize the city’s desire to promote diversity, attractive streetscapes, the arts, workforce development, multi-modal transportation and affordable housing, among other priorities.

Those may seem straightforward, but – perhaps surprisingly – the city had never adopted a document that committed those concepts to paper.

It’s unusual for a city as large as Houston to have gone so long without a general plan, said Jeff Taebel, director of community and environmental planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the regional organization serving governments in the 13-county region surrounding Houston.

But community leaders felt that as Houston experiences rapid growth, it needs to plot out how, exactly to manage and adapt to it.

“Up until now, we’ve been a city with lots of land and still relatively low land costs and housing costs,” said Amanda Timm, executive director of Houston's office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a community development organization. “We could let ourselves be reactionary.”

Now, Timm – a member of the Plan Houston steering community – says the city is quickly changing, and it can’t afford not to have a plan. “People see value in coordinating our efforts,” Timm said. “If we don’t act now, we’ll miss the opportunity to be a great city.”

What remains to be seen is whether the new Plan Houston will have a clear impact.

Taebel, the H-GAC planner who served on the Plan Houston steering community, acknowledged that Houston is so large that any plan may lack the same impact a similar document could have in a smaller city. “There’s a lot of moving parts in a larger city,” Taebel said.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that the Plan Houston document is short on specifics. At just 17 pages long, it doesn’t get into very many details of how to achieve its goals, nor does it outline specifics metrics by which the city’s progress toward achieving those goals can be evaluated.

That’s left some observers wondering how, after a year of work, is this all the city could muster? And more importantly, is there any way to actually fund or enforce the plan to ensure it comes to fruition?

Those involved in the plan’s development are aware of those concerns but emphasize the document they created is intended as a starting point – not a final product.

“This is clearly just step one,” said Joe Webb, an architect who chairs Blueprint Houston, which has been pushing for a general plan for 15 years. “It’s high level, but what it does is it sets the framework.”

In other words, Webb sees the document a sort of compass for city leaders in the coming years. “It’s our Bible,” said Webb, who served on Plan Houston’s steering committee. “Government functions more efficiently when everyone’s on the same page.”

Plan Houston’s backers expect those working in city hall to constantly consider whether their actions are in-line with the goals enumerated in the document. “There’s value in going on the record,” Taebel said. “To me, a plan that’s well-used is referred back to quite frequently.”

And, Timm notes, the year it took to develop Plan Houston is really not that long. “It seems like a long time, but it’s not nearly long enough to up with complete plan.”

Indeed, Webb said, the committee that helped develop the plan hopes there will eventually be metrics that can be used to evaluate the city’s progress on achieving its goals. He also expects the city’s planning department to develop a more a detailed working plan that will provide a road map showing specifically what needs to happen for the city to achieve the goals included in Plan Houston.

“Truthfully, the details are yet to be determined,” Timm said.

“I see the next big chunk of work as answering, ‘how do we rally around the things that matter to us,’” she added. “The difficult, nuanced work is about to happen.”