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.

 
 
 
 

More than 830 cities have brought essential services back under public control. Others should follow

A power station near Nottingham: not one owned by Robin Hood Energy, alas, but we couldn't find anything better. Image: Getty.

The wave of cities worldwide rejecting privatization is far bigger and more successful than anyone thought, according to a new report from the Transnational Institute, Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation. Some 835 cities in 45 countries have brought essential services like water, energy and health care back under public control.

The persistent myth that public services are by nature more expensive and less efficient is losing its momentum. Citizens and users do not necessarily have to resign to paying increasingly higher tariffs for lower standard services. The decline of working conditions in public services is not an inevitability.

And the ever larger role private companies have played in public service delivery may at last be waning. The remunicipalisation movement – cities or local authorities reclaiming privatised services or developing new options – demonstrates that cities and citizens are working to protect and reinvent essential services.

The failure of austerity and privatisation to deliver promised improvements and investments is part of the reason this movement has advanced. But the real driver has been a desire to meet goals such as addressing climate change or increasing democratic participation in service provision. Lower costs and tariffs, improved conditions for workers and better service quality are frequently reported following remunicipalisation.  Meanwhile transparency and accountability have also improved.

Where remunicipalisation succeeds, it also tends to inspire other local authorities to make similar moves. Examples are plentiful. Municipalities have joined forces to push for renewable, climate-friendly energy initiatives in countries like Germany. Public water operators in France and Catalonia are sharing resources and expertise, and working together to overcome the challenges they meet.

Outside Europe, experiments in public services are gaining ground too. Delhi set up 1,000 Mohalla (community) clinics across the city in 2015 as a first step to delivering affordable primary health care. Some 110 clinics were working in some of the poorest areas of Delhi as of February 2017. The Delhi government claims that more than 2.6m of its poorest residents have received free quality health care since the clinics were set up.


Local authorities and the public are benefiting from savings too. When the Nottingham City Council found out that many low-income families in the city were struggling to pay their energy bills, they set up a new supply company. The company, Robin Hood Energy, which offers the lowest prices in the UK, has the motto: “No private shareholders. No director bonuses. Just clear transparent pricing.”

Robin Hood Energy has also formed partnerships with other major cities. In 2016, the city of Leeds set up the White Rose Energy municipal company to promote simple no-profit tariffs throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In 2017, the cities of Bradford and Doncaster agreed to join the White Rose/Robin Hood partnership.

Meanwhile, campaigners with Switched on London are pushing their city to set up a not-for-profit energy company with genuine citizen participation. The motivations in these diverse cities are similar: young municipal companies can simultaneously beat energy poverty and play a key role in achieving a just and renewable energy transition.

Remunicipalised public services often involve new forms of participation for workers and citizens. Remunicipalisation is often a first step towards creating the public services of the future: sustainable and grounded in the local economy. Inspiration can be found in the European towns and villages aiming for 'zero waste' with their remunicipalised waste service, or providing 100 per cent locally-sourced organic food in their remunicipalised school restaurants.

Public services are not good simply because they are not private. Public services must also continuously renew themselves, grow, innovate and recommit to the public they serve.

The push for remunicipalisation in Catalonia, for example, has come from a movement of citizen platforms. For them, a return to public management is not just an end in itself, but a first step towards the democratic management of public services based on ongoing civil participation.

Evidence is building that people are able to reclaim public services and usher in a new generation of public ownership. The momentum is building, as diverse movements and actors join forces to bring positive change in communities around the world.

You can read the Transnational Institute report, “Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation”, on its website.