Zoning Without Zoning

Although Houston is the only major American city with no formal zoning code, the city's land use regulations have historically been nearly as meddlesome, as pro-sprawl, and as anti-pedestrian as zoning in other American cities -- and have yielded similar results.

 Michael Lewyn Houston, Texas is the only large American city with no formal zoning code -- yet Houston has all the sprawl and associated ills of other Sunbelt cities. Houston is less dense than most big cities, and Houstonians drive more than in most big cities. Does it then follow that sprawl is the result of consumer choice rather than of government meddling?

Not necessarily -- because what other cities achieve through zoning, Houston achieves through several land use regulations.

Like other cities' zoning codes, Houston's municipal code creates auto dependency by artificially spreading out the population. Until 1999, the city required all single-family houses to gobble up 5,000 square feet of land. Although this limit is less rigid than minimum lot sizes in most suburbs, the city's statute nevertheless insures that many residents will be unable to live within walking distance of a bus stop, which in turn means that those residents will be completely dependent on their cars. In 1999, the City Council partially deregulated density in neighborhoods closer to downtown. But since 98% of the city's housing was built before 1999, this change in the law is of little importance.

Houston's parking regulations also create automobile dependency by encouraging driving and discouraging walking. Under Houston's city code, virtually every structure in Houston must supply plenty of parking. For example, apartment buildings must have even more parking spaces than residents; landlords must supply 1.25 parking spaces for each efficiency apartment and 1.33 parking spaces for every bedroom. Offices, supermarkets, and other businesses are subject to similar restrictions. Such parking regulations discourage walking by forcing pedestrians to navigate through massive parking lots (and to dodge the vehicles driving them) to reach shops or jobs. And where walking is uncomfortable, most people will drive. In addition, minimum parking requirements, by taking land for parking that could have been used for housing or businesses, also reduce density, thus making the city less compact and more auto-dependent.

Houston's street design rules also make life more difficult for pedestrians. The city code requires most major streets to have a 100 foot right-of-way and residential streets must have a 50-60 foot right-of-way. Thus, Houston's streets can be up to 100 feet wide. By contrast, most modern streets are 32-36 feet wide, and pre-World War II streets are usually 28-30 feet wide. Such wide streets are difficult for pedestrians to cross because a wider roadway takes longer to cross, thus increasing the amount of time a pedestrian is exposed to traffic. And because wider roadways are designed for faster speeds, such roads are more dangerous for pedestrians.

Houston's block designs are equally unhelpful to pedestrians. The city code mandates that intersections on major streets be 600 feet apart. By contrast, a recent Environmental Protection Agency report recommends that for "a high degree of walkability, block lengths of 300 feet...are desirable." Houston's long, intersection-free blocks deter walking because a block with few intersections gives pedestrians few places to cross the street and few means of reaching a destination on a side street.

Finally, government at all levels has accelerated sprawl by building more roads to the urban fringe in Houston than in other cities. For example, Chicago has more than twice as many residents as Houston, yet has only 10% more freeway miles. Big Brother's reckless road building has encouraged development to shift to newer areas with minimal bus service -- but apparently has done little to reduce traffic congestion. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, Houstonians lost 36 hours per person in 1999 to traffic congestion, more than all but three other American cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas).

In sum, Houston's land use regulations have historically been nearly as meddlesome, as pro-sprawl, and as anti-pedestrian as zoning in other American cities -- and have yielded similar results. The good news is that Houston is beginning to change its ways: minimum lot size requirements were loosened in 1999, and widened roads are actually beginning to become controversial. But it may take decades of real deregulation to undo the damage caused in the late 20th century.

Michael Lewyn teaches at Rutgers School of Law-Camden at the State University of New Jersey.




Houston zoning

I lived in Houston for 25 adult years before moving to Dallas. In Houston, you could find just about anything you wanted just about anywhere you tried to find it. Normal consumptive goods, not contraband. That's a benefit of Houston's no zoning. You can live near your place of work with suitable housing and shopping nearby, regardless of which diverse area of town you choose.

In Dallas you get to pick a standard of living, choose a neighborhood and then find out where you have to go find those goods and services and discover in which part of town. Thanks to zoning.

I've had similar experience in other parts of the country, goods and services grouped by 'type'. Thanks to zoning.

Houston has grown into the large, dynamic international city it is without the aid of political control over land use. Why change that now... political gain?


Cities are responsible for what inhabitants demand. As it's design influences the way people live and want. It will be a tough task to achieve the paradigm shift.

Houston's mega-sprawl

I recently returned to Houston after a 30-year hiatus. I have been amazed at the city's enormous growth and apparent prosperity. But there is an uncomfortable silence about the needs of residents who live on the margins.

Listening to the mayoral candidates banter about the city's future gives me little comfort that either of the two run-off candidates will assert the energy and vision to bring the communities together in the 21st century.

Very little has been said about improving the housing stock for low-income residents -- just as a single example.

I hope I am wrong.

Thanks for offering your analysis of what I have experienced, but did not put quite so succinctly into words.


Information Architect

Houston - No zoning

I was a planner in Houston around 1985-87. I completely agree with you on your analysis. Houston is a multi-nucleus city that has allow sprawl to generate around those centers. Like Atlanta which has zoning there is very little interest to promote the urbanist strategy for pedestrian oriented development. I am not too sure that it is little too late for both cities. I for one in Union City is having my zoning ordinance re-written to embrace New Urbanism.

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