Notes From Houston

In July, long before the recent flooding, I visited Houston.  Houston has a reputation as a poorly planned city- and in some respects, it is.

But Houston’s transportation planning is superior to that of my native Atlanta, in at least two ways.  First, Houston has a grid of commercial streets; one can travel though Houston fairly easily without being forced onto an interstate highway.  By contrast, Atlanta’s roadway system is dominated by north-south interstate highways; in some parts of Atlanta and its suburbs, east-west arterials are few and far between.   Second, sidewalks seem to be the norm rather than the exception in what passes for urban Houston; by contrast, in the homeowner blocks of Atlanta, sidewalks die out about four or five miles from downtown, long before the city limits.

What about land use?  Houston’s lack of zoning does not seem to make a huge difference in spatial order; by and large, I saw no large-scale land uses (such as, say, factories or department stores) in the middle of homeowner blocks. However, the absence of formal zoning does allow for slightly more mixed use than in a typical city; although I saw very few blocks that combined housing with even small-scale commercial activity, I saw more blocks that contained both single-family and multifamily houses.  Although Houston is basically a low-density city, it is somewhat less so than other Sun Belt cities.  Inside Houston’s I-610 “Loop” (which includes around 100 square miles of land) the population density is a little over 4,500 people per square mile.  By contrast, the density of the city of Atlanta (which includes about 130 square miles) is about 3,500 people per square mile.

Michael Lewyn

Michael Lewyn is an associate professor at Touro Law Center in Central Islip, NY. His scholarship can be found at http://works.bepress.com/lewyn , and he recently wrote the book “Government Intervention and Suburban Sprawl: The Case for Market Urbanism.”

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