Houston, Texas – and why the wrong planning regime can turn cities into monsters

The scene of the crime. Image: Google Maps.

Blimey! What's this?

This, since you ask, is the outline of the urban area covered by Houston, Texas, placed over London.  Well, I guess, Americans do things bigger – portions, cars, and, evidently, cities.


That’s true in the sense of the amount of space they take up, at least. But by one very important measure, London is actually twice the size of Houston. The urban area of the British capital contains nearly 10m people; that of Houston just 5m.

So why is the latter’s footprint so much bigger? In order to best serve the American dream of owning a huge house with a rolling meadow for a garden, and a care the size of a spaceship in the driveway, Houston has very few planning restrictions. Development can happen anywhere within the city’s vicinity – a situation that’s resulted in low density sprinklings of large houses with estate-sized gardens.

Although many Houstonians reside in mansions about 10 times the size of a London flat, the urban sprawl which has resulted from the city’s liberal approach to development brings its own problems: poor health outcomes (Houston is America’s fattest city), long commuting distances, congestion, and poor public transport.

London’s growth, by contrast, is heavily regulated by planning laws like the greenbelt. That’s meant higher density development, less sprawl, comprehensive public transport, and a city with a population more than twice the size of Houston using up significantly less land.

While London’s transport system continues to evolve to meet the needs of its growing population, Houston has largely resisted mass transit system development in favour of expanding roadways, highways and interstates to accommodate more cars. This means a lot of its residents spend a significant proportion of their lives in their cars, rather than lounging in their mansions (something to think about the next time your face is pressed into the armpit of a stranger as the northern line speeds you the short distance home to your shoebox flat).

It’s not just planned cities like London that Houston blots out like the arrows of the Persian army. Even when placed over others cities which are listed among the worst offenders for sprawl, Houston still dwarfs their comparatively feeble efforts at environmental degradation. Look:

Houston has fewer people than every one of those cities.

There is one beast that even Houston cannot tame, though, and that is the insatiable urban sprawl of Los Angeles – where if you ask for directions to a subway you’re more likely to end up with pastrami on rye than a subterranean odyssey.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering why one arm of the city extends so far to the south east in that way – that’s the seaside city of Galveston. That’s where the beach is. 

Joseph Kilroy is policy officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.