Bill Fulton ( attr(href) ), director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, wrote about Houston’s famous lack of zoning ( attr(href) ) for the latest issue of American Planning Association’s Planning Magazine ( attr(href) ), which is filled with stories about the city.
While mostly and technically true — yes, it has no zoning for use — over time the line between caricature and reality has blurred for many who are outside of the city limits looking in. (Actually, that’s the case with a lot of popular misconceptions about Houston.)
It’s a little like "Houston, we have a problem," the well-known but misquoted line from the Apollo 13 spaceflight. By now, thanks to the Comic Book Guys of the world, most of us are well aware that what Astronaut John Swigert actually said back in 1970 was, "OK, Houston, we’ve had a problem here." Followed by Astronaut Jim Lovell’s "Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem." The inaccurate quote doesn’t change the gist, plus it’s a lot less clunky as a soundbite. In reality, life for Bayou City developers isn’t an endless laissez-faire free-for-all. As Fulton puts it: "A city without zoning … isn’t necessarily a city without planning."
Here’s a rundown of the article, which can be read it in its entirety ( attr(href) ) on the American Planning Association’s website.
It’s complicated: There may not be zoning but there are restrictions
Houston is the fourth-largest city in America, with a population of 2.3 million people spread across more than 600 square miles. It contains some of the densest job centers and ritziest residential neighborhoods in the country. Yet three times in the last century — most recently in 1993 — Houstonians have voted down that most elemental of planning policies: zoning based on use. It’s the first thing any planner — indeed, almost any person — asks about when they ask about Houston.
A city without zoning, however, isn’t necessarily a city without planning. Or without a frustrating development code. Or, in a certain way, even without zoning.
The story of Houston’s land-use policies is a lot more complicated than "no zoning." In reality, Houston is a big mixture of ordinances, policies, tactics by neighborhoods, and independent efforts by nonprofits, all of which play a role in determining how land is used. Whether or not the lack of zoning and the use of these other tools add up to a more equitable city or a city where the affluent are protected is open to debate.