Houston Embraces Its Region

Houston, with its long refusal to adopt zoning, is the city most planners love to hate. Yet underneath this apparent disdain for big government, the city has a complexity and receptivity to new ideas and people that make it especially appealing to visiting New Yorkers, even visiting planners.

Last week I journeyed there with my colleague Petra Todorovich as representatives of RPA's America 2050 program. We hosted with Houston Tomorrow a two-day forum on the future of the Texas Triangle Megaregion. This was the last of seven "megaregion" forums that America 2050 has helped convene over the past year. Our goal has been to help these places develop bottom-up economic development, climate, and infrastructure strategies. These strategies will become the building blocks in America 2050's proposals for national investments in transportation, energy, and water systems, including its emerging high speed rail network.

Houston is a great place to hold a conference of this type. Sure the city lacks zoning, but its residents and leaders love their city and love to talk and think about where it is going and could be going. It's also just a fun city. One of the city's biggest attractions is its eclectic cuisine, situated as it is at the place where TexMex, Creole and southern cooking meet. And Houston's doing a lot to remagnetize its downtown area around the successful Main St. Light Rail, the Buffalo Bayou Greenway, and the new Discovery Green park, which has become a central gathering place for Houston residents since it opened last year.

The challenge is to integrate this energizing urban core into what is being called the Texas Triangle Megaregion. Almost a century ago RPA was the first group in America to define and plan for what was then a new urban form: the metropolis. We remain deeply committed to sustaining the success of our home region — the Tri-state region around New York — as one of the world's leading centers of commerce, culture, and communication. And we welcome the Obama Administration's embrace of a metropolitan framework for dealing with the nation's economic, housing, and other challenges, and their assertion that America's metropolitan regions remain the drivers of the nation's economy.

But through the America 2050 program, RPA has identified and is partnering with groups across the country to understand the dynamics of a new 21st century urban form: the megaregion. Eleven emerging "megaregions" — linked networks of metropolitan areas with shared economies and infrastructure and natural systems — will play an ever increasing role in the nation's life. Nearly three quarters of US population already lives in these places. And the vast majority of the 130 million additional Americans projected to be here in 2050 will live in these places. Megaregions range from 200-600 miles in diameter, making them uniquely suited to high speed rail systems. In effect, they are too big to be easily navigated by car and too small to be accessible by airplane. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Obama administration's proposal for a national high speed rail (HSR) system was "topic A" at last week's forum in Houston.

The Texas Triangle is one of the fastest growing of the nation's emerging megaregions. In addition to Houston, it encompasses Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio. Together these places encompass nearly 80% of Texas' population and an even larger share of its economy and population growth. Until recently the cities of the Texas Triangle shared little more than football rivalries. But as a result of research by America 2050 and partners at Houston Tomorrow, the University of Texas at Austin, and Texas A&M University, there is a growing awareness that all of these cities share economic clusters, infrastructure systems, aquifers, and other natural resources. Representatives from all of these cities participating in last week's forum committed them to a partnership to attract a portion of the $8 billion in federal HSR funds for the Texas Triangle's proposed HSR link.

In keypad voting at the Houston forum, participants also agreed on an action agenda for the Triangle. They also agreed to priorities for sustained action to make the vision of the Texas Triangle as a more livable and sustainable place a reality.

On October 19th, America 2050 will be convening leaders from the Texas Triangle and from 10 other megaregions for a day-long meeting at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC to compile the infrastructure and development strategies being prepared in all of these places into a long range, nationwide vision for America's transportation, water, and energy systems.