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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Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

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As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

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In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.