How a lack of zoning messed up Houston in more ways than one

Wow. Pretty. Image: Getty.

No matter what city in you’re in, in pretty much any part of the world, there will be a similar structure of how buildings are laid out; skyscrapers close together, residential homes in certain areas, factories outside the centre, and so on. These very basic, very obvious rules are followed in most major cities because they help a) create a coherent flow that is logically easy to follow and b) keep cities from looking like pieces of shit.

But have you ever wondered what a city might look like if it said, you know what, why don’t we just build whatever we want wherever the hell we want?

Well, my friends, there's no need to wonder. Welcome to Houston, Texas: America’s biggest clusterfuck and home to vast pockets of organisational monstrosities such as this:

Image: Metro Matt/City-Data.

You may be asking, who the fuck would let this vile set-up happen? To catch you up, the US (and most of the western world, really) has this thing called zoning laws, which are the rules and regulations around how a city or town is sectioned off. It creates zones where you can only put up a certain type of building or structure – for example, residential zones for homes or commercial zones for businesses. The US started to see zoning laws crop up around the early twentieth century, and now almost every major city has them.

I say almost, of course, because there is just one exception. You guessed it: Houston, the only major city in America that has zero, and yes, I mean ZERO, zoning laws.

A lot has been written about Houston’s lack of zoning, including this CityMetric piece from a few years ago. These pieces largely focus on how Houston shows the danger of not zoning because it creates sprawl: cities without a proper centre that seem to go on endlessly because there aren’t any rules forcing them to stop.

What these pieces often fail to show you is what an absolute mess this major American city actually looks like on the ground. Sure, Houston is insane because it's pointlessly enormous – but the real freak show is found on the streets where you can witness these planning fuck-ups:

Image: Jim.henderson/Wikimedia Commons.

 

Image: Google Maps.

The lack of zoning means there are parts of Houston where homes sit next to skyscrapers next to malls next to factories. Placing buildings that should be miles apart be within a few metres of one another makes the city look terrible in more places than you would imagine.

That’s the other thing about zoning laws: not only do they select areas where only certain things should go, they also keep things that shouldn’t be near each other from actually being near each other. Like, for example, single-storey homes next to skyscrapers. Car parks next to playgrounds. Or, even, primary schools next to sex shops:

Image: Google Maps.

Behold one of Houston’s most famous no-zones nightmares. The Zone d’Erotica, a kink-friendly ‘adult’ store, is located in the car park of The Galleria shopping centre which houses a private pre-school as well as many other slightly more wholesome facilities. And not just that: many Houston residents have complained that it is directly across the road from a heavily populated residential area that is also packed with children.

It’s worth pointing out that Houston does have some land-regulation, that looks and smells like zoning. But you can tell it isn’t the real deal because of the endless municipal planning catastrophes.

Zoning is good and cities should have it. That’s my point here.

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Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?

Latitude

You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.

 

Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?

Wikipedia

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.

McDonald’s

I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

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