Political foursquare (and what it means for the mayor’s race)

Today, with early voting underway, I offer a detour into politics: I think disagreements over development are splitting the electorate in unexpected ways — and I think there’s an opportunity to form a new governing coalition.

We’ve gotten used to thinking of politics as a two way split. In terms of urban form, that split is around planning:
matrix1 [UPDATE: To be clear, "planning" in this context means the government attempting to shape the location, form, or type of private development. Private planning, and the government planning infrastructure to meet existing needs, is uncontroversial.]

That split roughly matches the pro-goverment/anti-government partisan split. But in urban form, there’s another divide as well: pro-growth and anti-growth. That divides the electorate into four pieces.


Let’s think about who’s in each piece.

Pro-Planning and Anti-Growth people don’t want their neighborhood to change, and they want the government to protect it. These are NIMBYs; in local terms, they’re the “Stop Ashby Highrise” crowd.

Pro-Planning and Pro-Growth people think the city will grow and change, but want that growth to guided. Locally, this is Blueprint Houston.

Pro-Growth but Anti-Planning people think the city should grow, but that private developers should be left on their own to figure out how that growth will happen. That’s Houstonians for Responsible Growth.

Anti-Planning and Anti-Growth seems like an oxymoron in a city like Houston. But there are people in this group — they see their city is changing and they don’t like that change, but they think that change is being driven by government. Call them the tea partiers.


Here’s what makes that split important: none of these four segments are big enough to govern the city alone. Pro-Growth/Anti-Planning ruled the city for decades — but Pro-Planning/Anti-Growth neighborhoods are pushing back. And, as the Ashby Highrise shows, they’re nearly at a stalemate.

So winning the day means building a coalition between two groups. So far, coalitions have been built around pro-planning and anti-planning lines. But those coalitions can split — witness the rift in the Republican party between the (pro-growth) business groups and the (anti-growth) social conservatives. (In Houston, growth often speaks Spanish.) And we’ve seen the anti-growth coalition form around specific issues — “No Rail on Richmond” is a prominent example. Especially on the issue of development in the urban core, we could see a realignment.

So how does this apply to the mayor’s race? Consider who the members of each group are most likely to support on development issues:

The pro-planning pro-growth group finds an obvious candidate in Peter Brown. The pro-planning anti-growth group will tend towards Annise Parker, who talks in terms of historical preservation and neighborhood protection. The pro-growth anti-planning group won’t like either; they’ll prefer Gene Locke. And Roy Morales captures the anti-growth anti-planning contingent easily.


Obviously, these aren’t the only issues at play, and none of the candidates fall neatly into these categories. So we can’t take the election as a referendum of growth. But to win (either in the regular election or a runoff), and, more importantly, to govern, the mayor will need to build a coalition between at least two of these groups. And that coalition could literally change the shape of Houston.

UPDATE: Robin pointed out that Houstonians for Responsible Growth has endorsed both Gene Locke and Annise Parker for mayor. That hints at another coalition, one that’s solidified elsewhere: Pro-Growth/Anti-Planning+Anti-Growth/Pro-Planning. The inherent contradiction is usually resolved geographically: “As long as you protect my neighborhood you can build whatever you want elsewhere.” That equates to restrictions on construction in existing urban neighborhoods coupled with no restrictions on new development at the urban fringe. That’s turned into a powerful coalition in Austin, where older urban neighborhoods like Hyde Park have pushed for strict building regulations (like restricting the size of houses) while square mile upon square mile of new subdivisions go in in places like Round Rock. If that coalition solidifies in Houston, it could rule the city easily. But there are inherent internal pressures: at some point all those new suburbanites are going to want to widen the freeways that run through those urban neighborhoods.

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