Making the Case for Change in North Texas

VERDUNITY was formed to help north Texas communities plan and develop in a manner that is more fiscally and environmentally resilient than what we have been doing for the past fifty years. Each of our team members has a little different take on why it's important to change what we're doing, and even how we need to get there, but we all share a common passion for making our communities stronger.  We like to say we help communities do the right projects, the right way. This isn't just a random idea on our part - it's backed up with past events, projects we've been involved with around the country, and a combination of global, national and regional trends.

Global and National Trends

Global ecological footprint projections

Global ecological footprint projections

Global Population. In 2010, the global population was nearing 7 billion people. By the year 2050, the world is projected to have over 9 billion people. At the same time, in 2010, the 7 billion people were consuming natural resources equivalent to 1.5 times the amount available on the planet. If we continue our current development and consumption patterns, we would need the equivalent natural resources of almost THREE Earths to sustain the projected population. Much of the future population growth and resource needs is expected to come in areas of the world that are current undeveloped or in early stages of development, but advanced countries like the United States and China must make significant changes to consumption patterns to accommodate our populations.

Municipal Bankruptcies. Just about everyone knows about what happened in Detroit, where the city built up a debt of over $18.5 billion and ultimately filed for bankruptcy. What's not getting as much mass-media coverage is the number of other, smaller communities that have also filed for bankruptcy, and the growing list of additional cities that are having to make drastic cuts in service levels in an attempt to balance their budgets. 

Deteriorating Infrastructure. One of the driving forces behind many of these troubled cities is infrastructure. In the post WW II development pattern, design of communities shifted from the traditional grid to a more spread out pattern seen in most suburbs. Developers would build the initial infrastructure (roads, utilities and storm sewer) for new single family developments, and city leaders would enthusiastically say "we're getting XX new rooftops at no cost to the city!!". The catch is when those streets and utilities the developer put in reach the end of their life and need to be replaced. At the same time, cities were offered similar deals from the Federal and/or state agencies to build more and wider roads - many programs offered (and still do today) a 50/50 or even 80/20 match where the city put up a portion of the funds and the state DOT or federal program would cover the balance. Some of the first cities that committed to the car-focused development pattern are now faced with millions or billions of infrastructure that needs to be repaired, but are finding that this development pattern does not generate enough revenue (property and sales taxes) to pay for the infrastructure that was built to serve it. They do their best to keep for a while, but eventually the roads and utilities deteriorate to a point that businesses and people move out, leaving them with massive liabilities and even less revenue. The result is bankruptcy. Newer suburban communities have a little better balance of dense, mixed-use development where revenue generated is very high relevant to the infrastructure costs (think more buildings/businesses per SF of land or block of street), and we've put revenue sources like roadway impact fees in place, but I'd argue that most places that experienced heavy growth in the 1950s and later are still going to face difficult decisions as infrastructure needs pile up. Here's an article about what the City of Dallas is up against. In north Texas, many inner tier suburban communities like Garland and Carrollton are now faced with being effectively built-out, and having to figure out how to repair miles of streets, alleys, water and sewer that were put in by developers in the 60s and 70s. To make matters worse, the federal and state agencies that handle construction and maintenance of interstates and highways are facing their own maintenance/funding challenges, so the ability for those groups to provide financial support for city projects is also decreasing, putting even more pressure on local communities to pay for their own infrastructure. The solution is moving back toward more of the traditional, walkable development pattern where the productivity of places is significantly higher than those built around the car. If you want more details on how a traditional main street block is more fiscally productive than the new fast-food restaurant or big box store, read this and check out some of the other information available from our good friend Chuck Marohn at www.strongtowns.org

Regional Challenges in North Texas

Here in north Texas, an award-winning planning effort was completed a few years ago called Vision North Texas. This document has some great information about the anticipated growth the region is facing, and how it will affect mobility, water supply and quality, workforce, and housing, among other things.

Water. If you live in the area, you don't have to look far to see the impact recent droughts and our out-of-control consumption patterns are having on water supply. Can we build more reservoirs and pipelines to bring more water to the region? Sure, but can cities afford it? No. We can do rain dances and build pipelines all we want, but if we're going to sustain all of the businesses and residents living in the region, we have to drastically change our consumption and development patterns. Water quality is also an issue. For more on this topic, check out the series of blog posts my colleague Mikel Wilkins is writing. We have a lot of work to do to clean up our rivers and creeks, and communities are going to have to pay their share of the costs.

Mobility. Anyone who comes to Texas for the first time will marvel at the amount of highways, bridges, retaining walls and STROADS we have built. We are very proud of the transportation system we have built. The only problem is that we don't have the money to maintain what we've built, and we can't build enough roads to move all the people that are coming here. The chart below is from the most recent regional mobility plan completed by NCTCOG. We need nearly $400B to address all the region's needs, but only have a tad over $100B of funds available. The worst part is that even with this $100B invested, congestion will still be WORSE than it is today. We simply cannot build enough roads to handle the population, and we have nowhere near enough money to maintain what we've already built, let alone build more. Just like water, the solution is that we have to change our development pattern to move away from spread out places that force reliance on the car and shift toward more places where the majority of people's day-to-day activities can be completed without having to get in a car and drive everywhere. Put another way, we need to move away from the scenario where most daily trips are a 20 minute drive, to a scenario where most trips are a 20 minute walk or bike ride. For regional transportation in the Metroplex, transit is going to be critical. 

The North Texas region has only 25% of the funding needed to address regional transportation needs.

The North Texas region has only 25% of the funding needed to address regional transportation needs.

Housing and Workforce. The demographics in the region and our country are changing. Both the older and younger age groups are looking to live in places that are walkable. Seniors want to ditch their cars and yards in favor of places where they can eat, shop and socialize within walking distance. Kids coming out of school value their smartphones more than having a car. These personal desires along with increasing costs of gas and water are going to have a huge impact on where people live and the types of housing they want. Businesses are already looking to locate in places that offer mixed-use, walkable living options. These can be in large, metro areas like downtown Dallas and Fort Worth, or in mixed-use developments within a suburban area like Legacy Center in Plano.

What Does All of This Mean for Local Communities?

Cities in north Texas are all focused on the same thing - recruiting and retaining businesses and residents. We are lucky to have some of the best state policies in the country that make it attractive for people to move to Texas, and they are coming. We cannot continue doing things the way have been doing them though. If we do, North Texas in 10 years will look very much like California does today - 8 lane interstates where cars don't move, horrible air quality, very little water, and a very high cost of living. Many of our communities will be facing bankruptcy like the ones in California are going through now. The proof and case studies are there. We need to study them, learn from them, and start changing, right now. As residents and businesses, we need to understand what our communities are up against, change our expectations, and offer our time, talent and/or treasure to help preserve the communities we've built. City leaders need to be honest about what their liabilities are, communicate the situation transparently, and incorporate new approaches that make it easier for citizens, business leaders and developers that want to do the right projects, the right way.

In my next series of posts, I'm going to describe some specific issues facing my home community of Rockwall County, and discuss some ideas that I hope county and community leaders will entertain. If you'd like to learn more about these challenges and what VERDUNITY is doing to address them, I'd be happy to come present to your city, chamber, HOA or business organization. Email me at kevin@verdunity.com.