Doing Houston Wrong


Last August, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, causing massive flooding in the Houston area and likely becoming one of the most expensive disasters (current estimate: $81.5 billion) in U.S. history. In the aftermath, Houstonians rallied to rebuild and look after one another, but they did so with the echoes of a persistent chorus of criticism ringing in their ears: Houston, critics said, was partially to blame for what had happened.

Though some of the New York Times’s coverage, notably by Emily Badger, was fair-minded, much of it was full of selective reporting and bias. According to Michael Kimmelman, Houston struggled because it is not properly zoned and because it lacks the planning that one associates with cities like New York. “The very forces that pushed the city forward are threatening its way of life,” Kimmelman wrote. Kimmelman blames Houston’s notorious “sprawl,” underwritten, as one urbanist historian tells him, by “decentralization and anti-statism.”

The Times has a selective memory. New York is certainly zoned and planned, but it suffered $19 billion in damage from Superstorm Sandy, which dropped only a half-inch of rain. But Sandy’s storm surge flooded 51 square miles of New York and inundated 300,000 homes and 23,400 businesses—estimates that exclude the much-larger impacted area in the suburbs of New York City. “‘Smart growth’ plans didn’t prevent that,” noted the Wall Street Journal.

Higher density and zoning don’t guarantee a resilient infrastructure. New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina was both dense and zoned, but this did not protect the city from devastation. In September, Hurricane Irma did considerable damage around residential towers and in downtown Miami. As Houston mayor Sylvester Turner put it: “Zoning wouldn’t have changed anything. We would have been a city with zoning that flooded.”

The real point of Kimmelman’s story, like much Times coverage of almost any natural disaster, is that the effects of climate change are already here, and to avoid them, cities must adopt a specific view of urban development and an accompanying planning agenda. “Texas after Harvey is no different, and perhaps even less prepared to change” than New Orleans, Kimmelman maintains. But Houston responded to disastrous flooding many times before climate change became an issue, including after the 1900 hurricane that essentially destroyed Galveston, and another that deluged downtown Houston in 1935. Yet Kimmelman and other commentators blame Houston for purportedly ignoring nature and inviting disaster. “No city could have withstood Harvey without serious harm, but Houston made itself more vulnerable than necessary,” intoned Bloomberg. “Paving over the saw-grass prairie reduced the ground’s capacity to absorb rainfall. Flood-control reservoirs were too small. Building codes were inadequate. Roads became rivers.”

Hysteria about climate change and finger-wagging about zoning do not address the real issue: boosting resilience. Houston has already shown that it can learn from the past. Previous storms, such as Hurricane Ike (2008) and Hurricane Allison (2001), led to regulations requiring “detention ponds,” which temporarily capture storm water, for all new developments more than 10,000 square feet in land area. These detention basins require no net increase in runoff from new developments. Electricity can’t be turned on for a development until it passes detention inspections, which reoccur annually.

Overall, the Harris County Flood Control District has spent over $4 billion on infrastructure, and spends another $100 million each year—a far cry from doing “nothing,” as critics imply. The Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest medical complex, suffered significant flooding damage during Allison, but it made improvements afterward—installing warning systems, pumps, elevated electrical equipment, and floodgates and doors that prevented flooding damage during Harvey. The media devoted much attention to Houston’s flooded streets but rarely noted that the city designed those streets as last-resort water-detention ponds. Though 30 percent of Harris County was underwater at some point during Harvey, less than 7 percent of homes were damaged. The enhanced regulations helped the region withstand a disaster that would have humbled New York, and which still afflicts New Orleans. In less than two weeks, Houston was largely back in operation.

The notion that setting aside more open space would have contained Harvey is dubious at best. As Charles Marohn notes at Strongtowns, critics lack a “proper sense of scale.” Between 1992 and 2010, according to research by Texas A&M, nearly 25,000 acres of wetlands were lost to development around Houston; they would have stored nearly 4 billion gallons of stormwater. That sounds like a lot, but Harvey dropped an estimated 19 trillion gallons of rain on Texas. The lost stormwater-storage capacity amounts to 0.2 percent of the water that fell during the storm. And too high a greenspace requirement would have led to even more sprawl, pushing developers further out, as has occurred in cities around the world, such as Toronto and London.

Much of what critics think they know about Houston is simply untrue.

“Lack of zoning in Houston has contributed to people building anything, anywhere,” a city planner told Marketplace—but Greater Houston imposes substantial permitting regulations and zones many areas. Sugarland, Pearland, The Woodlands, Cinco Ranch, and Lake Jackson—areas of much recent growth—are zoned. Other outlying areas, like Pasadena and Conroe, are not.

The city is not as “sprawling” as critics insist; the Houston region ranked as the 18th densest among 41 metro areas with more than 1,000,000 people—scoring higher than Boston, Austin, and Philadelphia. Houston’s density is approximately equal to that of Seattle and only 18 percent less dense than Portland, a smart-growth mecca. Houston is far denser than some other large urban areas: 66 percent denser than Hartford, 74 percent denser than Atlanta, and 77 percent denser than Charlotte.

Nor is the city the paved-over disaster so often evoked in the media. Houston has more acres of parkland and greenspace than any other large city in America, and it ranks third behind San Diego and Dallas in park acreage per capita. The city has substantially fewer impervious surfaces covered by buildings, roads, and parking lots (39.2 percent) and substantially more absorbent surfaces with trees, grasses, and soils (60.6 percent) than similarly populated American cities. “If Harvey happened in 1850 instead of today,” explains historian Phil Magness, “the results would be nearly identical in terms of land flooded . . . No zoning law or ban on parking lot construction would ever have ‘fixed’ anything about that.”

The standard suggestion from the experts is that Houston should sharply constrain development in the prairie outside the city, where the vast majority of growth has taken place. Yet Houston’s development model remains attractive enough that, even after Harvey, the region is among the leaders in new housing starts. (Moody’s forecasts a drop in metro Houston’s employment and gross regional product in fourth quarter 2017, but an increase, above pre-Harvey levels, by first quarter of 2018.) Few planners or critics appreciate that Houston’s liberal land-use regulations have led to some of the most affordable housing in the U.S., as measured by price-to-income ratios. Coupled with its strong economy, this has made Houston among the best cities in the world in terms of standard of living—well above New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other planning paragons. Over the last 10 years, Houston’s “median multiple”—the median house price, divided by median household income—has averaged 3.2, roughly a third of that in coastal California.

Perhaps the solution to flooding lies not in undermining Houston’s regulatory model but in strengthening it. Houston’s dispersed, multipolar form, notes MIT’s Alan Berger, may have helped it respond more effectively to Harvey; the city has no central point, like Manhattan in New York City, whose closure damages the entire region. If we accept that more Harvey-like events are possible, even probable, then the most important issue is not zoning but flood control, which requires resilient systems. Bolstering resiliency is an issue not just for Houston but also for many communities in the vulnerable coastal areas where a growing number of Americans live.

Should Houston abandon growth to defend itself against projected climate change? Great cities don’t surrender; they build themselves around resiliency. The Netherlands has been addressing, with great success, a rise in sea levels for several hundred years. The prosperity of drought-plagued California depends on massive water transfers from its mountain ranges. Even in impoverished Bangladesh, better drainage and preparedness has reduced deaths and damage from flooding. After the devastation of Harvey, Houston must address its longstanding vulnerability to flood—but with a focus on boosting resiliency, not abandoning its growth model.

Houston has the history and the resources to plan for potential disaster. Often overlooked is the region’s remarkable grassroots culture. Houstonians, residents of America’s most diverse large metropolitan area, reacted to disaster with remarkable aplomb—showing the “Houston spirit,” as Mayor Turner called it. People volunteered to help their neighbors in such numbers that many were turned away.

Such grassroots efforts may not be a complete solution to nature’s fury, but they do represent a critical element, along with strong government action, in building urban resiliency. American cities, particularly coastal cities, will likely face more disasters like Harvey. They can surrender to urbanist orthodoxy, thus assuring the loss of social mobility already so evident in many high-regulation cities, or they can come up with adaptive strategies that protect residents while nurturing urban opportunity.

This piece first appeared in City Journal.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book is The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, and co-authored the original Opportunity Urbanism studies. Tory writes the popular Houston Strategies blog and its twin blog at the Houston Chronicle, Opportunity Urbanist, where he discusses strategies for making Houston a better city. He is the founder of Coached Schooling, a startup to create a high-tech network of affordable private schools ($10/day) combining the best elements of eLearning, home and traditional schooling to reinvent the one-room schoolhouse for the 21st century. Tory is a McKinsey consulting alum, TEDx speaker, and holds both an MBA and BSEE from Rice University.

Photo: Rich Johnstone, via Flickr, using CC License.