James Howard Kunstler attends the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) and finds downtown Houston a "ghastly" environment that shows that even without zoning a city can achieve "miserable" results.
"The big Peak Oil conference of the year took place in Houston last week – but before we get to the substance of that, a few words about where we were. It is hard to imagine a more horrifying urban construct than this anti-city in the malarial swamps just off the Gulf of Mexico. And it is hard to conceive of a more desolate and depressing urban district, even of such an anti-city, than the utter wasteland around Houston's convention center.
Luckily, we didn't have to enter the convention center itself across the street -- a baleful megastructure the size of three aircraft carriers, adorned with massive air-conditioning ducts to counter Houston's gym-sock-like climate. And when I say "street" you understand we are talking about four or six-laners, with no curbside parking, which is the norm for this town. The effect is that every street behaves like an extension of the freeway at the expense of pedestrians – but pedestrians have been eliminated anyway because in ninety percent of Houston's so-called downtown of glass towers there are no shops or restaurants at the ground-floor level, only blank walls, air-conditioning vents, parking ramps, and landscaping fantasias. We were informed that in parts of downtown there existed a network of air-conditioned underground corridors with shopping, but that everything in it closed at 7 p.m. when the last office workers straggled home. Anyway, none of it extended as far as the convention center. The rest of district was devoted to surface parking.
It has often been stated that Houston's ghastly development pattern comes from having no official zoning laws. But all it really proves is that you can achieve the same miserable results of typical American boneheaded zoning with no zoning – as long as your don't give a shit how people feel in their daily environments.
The convention center itself, though, demonstrated something beyond even that degree of thoughtlessness. Its pharaonic hugeness was a metaphor for the fatal grandiosity at the heart of contemporary life in American today, the utter disregard for a scale of human activity consistent with what the planet has to offer within its ecological limits – and of course the oil issue was at the center of that story."