In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, we've seen other media organizations respond with heartbreaking photos, moving stories of rescue and vital on-the-ground facts. But we've also noticed a thread of commentaries coming from the urbanist/planning corners of the internet that is truly misguided and downright offensive. Many of these outlets are accusing Houston of creating the conditions which enabled this hurricane and resultant flooding to have the horrific impact that they've had. Today, Strong Towns member and contributor Daniel Herriges is debunking these myths.
To all of our members, readers and listeners impacted by Hurricane Harvey: We love you guys and we're keeping you in our thoughts. - Rachel Quednau
Days after Hurricane Harvey hit, Quartz published a fiery article under the title, "Houston’s flooding shows what happens when you ignore science and let developers run rampant." This piece and others like it are pushing a false narrative about Houston's planning. At worst, there's a "They had it coming" undercurrent to some of these stories, one which that implies that the death and destruction from Harvey can be laid at the feet of Texans and their supposed lax, "don't tread on me" attitude toward government regulation. Although this conclusion may be ideologically satisfying, it's simplistic and implies some damaging "solutions." Don't learn the wrong lessons from Harvey. Here are five myths about Houston and why they're wrong:
Myth #1: Better land-use planning could have significantly alleviated this flooding.
Fact: 50 inches of rain would have devastated any city. Even this article acknowledges that the loss of wetlands from 1992 to 2010 accounted for about 4 billion gallons of lost capacity to absorb storm water. Harvey had already dropped 15 trillion gallons as of two days ago. The total is certain to be far higher.
Myth #2: Houston has no land-use regulation.
Fact: Houston's level of land-use regulation isn't all that unusual. The city of Houston proper is unique among large US cities in that it has no traditional use-based zoning (ala-Sim City: residential here, commercial there, etc.), but it regulates land use in many other ways, such as minimum-parking requirements. Many neighborhoods have homeowners associations and deed restrictions that limit what can be built. And Houston's suburbs largely do have zoning.
This "no zoning" claim is a red herring. Houston's suburbs are largely indistinguishable from the suburbs of any American city—a car-dependent development pattern dominated by enclave subdivisions, big-box retail plazas, wide arterial roads and massive parking lots. This is about the only thing you can build profitably given the economic incentives provided by an extremely car-centric transportation network; regulation is only a secondary factor. Houston is not unique or unusual in this regard.
Houston was still a very small city in 1950, when car-centric planning really took off in America, so its relative lack of prewar neighborhoods compared to Northern cities, and its rapid growth in recent decades, contribute to the perception that it's a development free-for-all. But really, post-1950 Houston looks a lot like post-1950 Cleveland or Chicago or Kansas City or Seattle in many ways.
Myth #3: Houston's problem is that too much of it is paved over with impermeable cover (buildings, asphalt, concrete) and there isn't enough green space.
Fact: More "green space" required by development regulations would actually lead to more, not less, paved surface at a metro-area level. The reason is cars. We have impermeable surfaces in cities for basically two reasons: buildings we spend time in, and parking lots and roads to accommodate our cars. In most places, the latter category exceeds the former. For example, take a look at the aerial photo on the right of a Houston-based Walmart. The parking lot is far larger than the store and this is the norm for big box stores across the nation.
Now, I'm all for permeable pavers, green roofs, and other technological innovations to alleviate runoff issues. However, the prescription I've seen in several articles about Harvey—to simple require that developers leave more green space on their properties—is entirely counterproductive. Given the same amount of population, more green space just means more spread-out development, longer commutes (and transit, biking, and walking become less viable means of transportation), requiring ever more asphalt to accommodate driving and parking all our cars.
Let me beat a dead horse here: Pretty much every place in America built after 1950 has too much impermeable surface because it's car-dependent and requires vast amounts of land for roads and parking. Houston is not an outlier here. I can tell you exactly what place in the U.S. has the least paved land area per capita: Manhattan.
Myth #4: Houston is "overdeveloped."
Fact: I don't know what this means. The Houston metro area has grown rapidly in population, yes. It hasn't done this because greedy developers are allowed to run rampant. It's done this because lots of people wanted to move to Houston, for an array of reasons. Building a home doesn't simply create the demand for that home; developers build because they know they have a product they'll be able to sell once it's done. There's a weird sort of magical thinking among the "just stop overdeveloping our city" school of growth-control advocacy, that if we stopped building houses, we could choose to stop growing.
The truth is, this would come with severe unintended consequences. If x people would like to move to your city, and you only allow enough housing to be built for y people, and x > y, you're going to end up with a population of y people. That means you have x – y people who don't get to live there. That group will include a disproportionate number of poor people who are priced out (including, almost certainly, current poor residents who will be involuntarily displaced). A Houston that tried to use regulation to choke off its own growth would quickly become a Houston whose home prices looked more like San Francisco's do now. Do we want this?
(Semi) Myth #5: Houston's problem is that it lets developers build in flood plains.
Fact: Ok, yeah, probably. I don't doubt there are specific sites that you could make a convincing argument are not suitable for development because their flood risk is too high. Houston lies in a flat coastal plain in one of the rainiest and most hurricane-prone parts of North America, and I would never argue against planning for resilience in the face of major storms.
But let's be clear: would tighter flood-zone building regulations have prevented catastrophic damage from this unprecedented storm? Not by a long shot. And if those regulations came at the cost of pushing development further outward, gobbling up more wilderness and farmland, they could well be counterproductive.
The most environmentally-sound cities are compact, walkable, transit-friendly cities. They take up less land, and they have a lower carbon footprint. But Houston's lack of density and walkability is not due to a lack of regulation. If you try to build a compact, mixed-use development in 95% of places in America, you will encounter many obstacles, and a sizable share of them will be regulations and incentives created by government. This is as true in Houston as anywhere.
(Top photo source: US Department of Defense)