On the day I flew to Houston a couple of weeks ago, I received an email from an old friend, an Oregon elected official who supports the state’s land-use planning program. Responding to my invitation to attend the Preserving the American Dream conference, he said he had been to Houston once before and it was “a living hell.” Then he added (ungraciously, I thought), if I liked it so well, why didn’t I move there?
I suspect that our attitude when we visit a place for the first time has a great deal to do with how we view that place afterwards. I admit that I, raised to believe that no landscape east of the Rockies could be worth visiting, took a long time to warm up to places such as New York and New Jersey (which, as it turns out, both have much beautiful scenery). Plus, I’ve noticed that the first objection many planning advocates have against Houston is its climate: “it’s hot and humid.” Yet I doubt any of them really believe that planners can do anything about local climates.
Kunstler might call this nowheresville, but the photographer called it “suburban bliss.”
Flickr photo by The Other Dan.
In any case, I came to Houston prepared to like it, and I did. This doesn’t prove anything; I may have looked at the city and region through rose-colored glasses. (Actually, I wore my amber ones.) I’ll be the first to admit that Houston isn’t perfect, and due to my ingrained prejudice against flat, I will probably never live there.
Yet no one can deny that Houston has a lot going for it. First of all, as I noted last week, because government is not standing in the way, builders can quickly meet any demand for housing or other developments. This not only means that housing is more affordable than most of the rest of the U.S., but that it is relatively immune from the ups and downs of bubbles.
Second, this also means that Houston offers a huge amount of variety. High rise, low rise, mid rise, granny flats, mixed use, mixed income, and of course plain vanilla single family. There should be and is something for everyone. In many ways, as I tried to suggest last Friday, the city of Houston should be a New Urbanist’s dream.
Third, the many master-planned communities in the Houston area are simply gorgeous and are wonderful places to raise families. I stressed this on Monday because government planning has effectively shut down the possibility of such privately-planned communities in Oregon, Washington, and other states that have growth-management planning. No developer in these states could ever assemble enough vacant land to do such a community because all large parcels of vacant land are outside of urban-growth boundaries or otherwise off limits to development.
Not much congestion for a Friday morning.
Fourth, although Houston has plenty of congestion, it has done more to relieve that congestion than almost any other urban area in America. Between 1982 and 2005, Houston increased its freeway lane miles by almost 80 percent and its arterial lane miles by 66 percent. The average U.S. urban area, and in particular regions such as Los Angeles and Portland, only grew their highway networks by about half that much.
Houston’s highways are also some of the best designed roads in the world, with gentle curves, HOV lanes, lots of frontage roads, and other features to minimize congestion. The Texas Transportation Institute’s annual mobility survey (which ranks Houston as having the seventh-worst congestion in the nation) exaggerates Houston’s traffic because it assumes that a freeway lane in Houston has no more capacity than, say, Connecticut’s Wilbur Cross Parkway, when in fact the former’s capacity may be close to twice that of highways built to standards set in the 1930s.
Houston’s detractors point to its air pollution problems, but most of that pollution is due to industry, not autos. It is also worth noting that reports of Houston’s high driving rates are probably inaccurate. The 2006 Highway Statistics reports 36 miles of daily driving per capita in the Houston urban area, compared with 23 in Los Angeles and 17 in New York. But this is based on an obsolete population of 2.8 million people in the Houston urban area. Using the more realistic Census Bureau number of 4.4 million results in 23 miles driving per capita, about the same as Los Angeles (whose urban area density is more than twice that of Houston’s).
Finally, it really doesn’t matter what I think. The fact that the Houston area is rapidly growing shows that it must be a great place to live. Since 1950, the Houston urbanized area has steadily added almost twice as many people per decade to its population as the entire state of Oregon. Since 2000, for example, the Houston urban area has grown by 88,400 people per year, while Oregon has grown by only 43,300 people per year.
Those who point to Oregon’s popularity as proof that “planning is working” will stumble over those numbers. If “a living hell” — someplace that is hot and humid much of the year and flat the entire year — can attract twice as many new residents each year as Oregon with its temperate climate and incredible scenery, well, just think how well Oregon would do if it adopted some of Houston’s policies. (Of course, some planning advocates would say that, by slowing growth, Oregon’s planning is doing its job, but this is an elitist view that most planners won’t admit to sharing.)
People are not the only thing attracted to Houston. The 2008 Fortune 500 list found that Houston is headquarters to 26 Fortune 500 companies, up from 20 in 2000. That makes it second only to New York City (which is losing headquarters), and Texas as a whole has more headquarters than any other state. People, businesses, and jobs are all attracted to places where property rights are secure and regulation is minimal.
As I say, Houston is not without its problems. More could be done to control industrial air pollution. There are inevitable land-use squabbles over such things as high rises on busy streets that happen to be next to neighborhoods of single-family homes. As one property rights advocate pointed out, if you buy a home that is surrounded by other homes that all have deed restrictions, you will pay more than if homes on one or more sides have no restrictions. People who knowingly buy a home next to properties without restrictions in order to save money and then want the government to “protect” (actually boost) their property value by restricting the rights of adjacent property owners are seeking special favors that the government should not hand out.
Some Houston politicians are willing to pander to such people in order to promote more central planning for Houston. Time will tell whether Houston voters are willing to give them that power. I suspect that, so long as developers can step across Houston’s city line to build for the market, the city’s government will continue to keep land-use regulation to a minimum. That will be a good thing for Houston’s economy and a good lesson for other regions.