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.

 
 
 
 

Here are all the names of London tube stations that we’ve just stopped noticing are weird

What the hell. Swiss Cottage. Image: Oxyman/Wikipedia Commons.

Angel

 “The next station is Gnome. Change here for Elf, Cherubim and Gnome.”

Arsenal

Would be a lot less weird if it wasn’t a good eight miles away from where they actually built the arsenal.

Bank

It’s like something from a kid’s picture book where everything is labelled incredibly literally. Was even sillier when the next station along was still called Post Office. (It’s St Paul’s now.)

Barking

Disappointing lack of doggos.

Barkingside

Same, also a surprisingly long way from Barking.

Bromley-by-Bow

But not by Bromley which, once again, is eight bloody miles awy.

Canada Water

No.

Chalk Farm

Chalk isn’t a plant, lads.

Cockfosters

...

Elephant & Castle

What.

Grange Hill.

Hainault

Hang on, that’s in Belgium isn’t it?

Hornchurch

There are literally horns no the church, to be fair.

Kentish Town

Actually in Middlesex, nowhere near Kent.

Knightsbridge

Not only no knights, but no bridge either.


Oval

Might as well have a station called “oblong” or “dodecahedon”.

Oxford Circus

Plenty of clowns though, amirite?

Perivale

Does any other London suburb promise such a vertiginous drop between name and reality?

Plaistow

To be honest the name’s fine, I just wish people knew how to pronounce it.

Roding Valley

The river’s more than 30 miles long, guys, this doesn’t narrow it down.

Seven Sisters

None that I’ve noticed.

Shepherd’s Bush

“Now where are those sheep hiding now?”

Shepherd’s Bush Market

Because one bush is never enough.

Southwark

1. That’s not how that combination of letters should sound. 2. That’s not where Southwark is. Other than that you’re fine.

Swiss Cottage

Sure, let’s name a station after a novelty drinking establishment, why the hell not.

Waterloo

Okay, this one is definitely in Belgium.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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