The Culprit of Houston Flooding: Sprawl, Not Lack of Zoning

As Houston's flood waters recede and attention turns from rescue to recovery and soon rebuilding, critics have pointed to the city's lack of zoning as the cause of the devastation. But are they looking in the right direction?

2 minute read

September 4, 2017, 7:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


Texas Flood

AMFPhotography / Shutterstock

"As we watch Houston struggle with the catastrophic flooding associated with Hurricane Harvey’s biblical levels of rainfall, it is easy (from a safe distance, anyway) to get judgmental about the city’s famous lack of land-use planning," writes Ed Kilgore, political columnist for New York Magazine.

Houston legendarily has no zoning. The resulting haphazardness of its patterns of development, we may imagine, make the city a sitting duck for all sorts of disasters.

But doesn't a lack of zoning cause sprawl? If that was the only contributor, Planetizen's sprawl tag would only have articles pertaining to America's fourth largest city.

It’s true that Houston’s sprawl does invite problems, but it’s only partially true that the sprawl is a result of its lack of zoning...But the bigger problem is a lack of regional planning. Development has overwhelmed the city’s World War II–era reservoir system of flood control and consumed the wetlands that absorb excess rainwater.

Kilgore cites the now much-referenced ProPublica series, "Hell And High Water: Preparing Houston For The Next Big Storm." 

"In Harris County alone, research by Texas A&M scientist John Jacob shows, almost 30 percent of freshwater wetlands were lost between 1992 and 2010, a figure he calls 'unconscionable,'" wrote three reporters: Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal; Kiah Collier, The Texas Tribune; and Al Shaw, ProPublica.

Another insightful piece questioning the culpability of Houston's lack of zoning for the disaster was written by Henry Grabar, a staff writer for Slate’s "Moneybox."

The most important thing is this: No city is or should be designed to accommodate a one-in-a-million-year flood, which is what Harvey turned out to be. 

Last word goes to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner: “Zoning wouldn’t have changed anything. We would have been a city with zoning that flooded,” he tweeted on Aug. 30. "It’s an easy shorthand that conveys a sense of Houston as a free-for-all. As usual, the truth is more complicated."
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For more discussion on whether zoning would have helped Houston whether the epic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, see blog post by Planetizen contributor Michael Lewyn.

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