The Unplanned Order of Houston, TX
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody,
because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
- Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
I recently had the pleasure of visiting the great American city of
Houston, Texas. I was only there for two days, and so only saw a tiny
fraction of what there was to see. But I was able to spot some evidence
and hear some firsthand accounts of one of the city’s important
peculiarities: its lack of zoning laws. With a population of 2.1 million
(6 million in the metro area), Houston is the largest city in America
without zoning laws—and it gets along just fine without them, thank you
In the Zone
If there’s one thing that seems certain in this world besides death and
taxes, it’s that cities have zoning laws. These laws determine what
kinds and sizes of homes and commercial buildings can be built where,
the densities of neighbourhoods, the outward appearances of structures,
and so on. But as much as we have come to take these minute regulations
of city life for granted, it wasn’t always so.
According to Samuel R.
Staley, who teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban
planning, regulation, and urban economics at Florida State University in
Tallahassee, “Before the twentieth century land-use and housing disputes
were largely dealt with through courts using the common-law principle of
If a smelly pig farm set up shop in a residential area, for instance,
residents could go to court and either be compensated for the harm
caused by the noxious fumes or get the pig farmer to cease operations or
As Staley explains, that all changed with the ascendancy of the
Progressive movement in the early years of the last century.
Progressives argued that the common-law approach to nuisance was too
expensive, time-consuming, and complicated, making it a difficult avenue
for the less fortunate members of society to use. Zoning would be more
efficient and fair, they claimed. Yet whatever the good intentions
behind it, its effect, writes Staley, “was to fully politicize land-use
decisions,” often in favour of the politically powerful.
Houstonians, unique among the residents of large American cities,
rejected zoning in popular referendums on three separate occasions: in
1948, in 1962, and again in 1993.
Despite pleas before the 1993 vote from the
about the need “to stop the cancerous erosion of the quality of life in
many of our neighborhoods,” the city’s registered voters did not seem
overly concerned about their quality of life, as few of them even
bothered to come out for the vote.
How Can People Live This Way?
So, does chaos reign in The Big Heart (a
nickname earned when
Houstonians pitched in to help many tens of thousands of refugees from
New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina)? Hardly. There
were no slaughterhouses or pulp and paper mills in the residential
neighbourhood I was staying in. There was a charming Mexican restaurant,
though, with parking for maybe twenty vehicles, a small bridge crossing
a little creek, and an expansive patio bordered by tall shade trees.
“In Houston, more than in most
cities, people can pursue their own plans. Rather than
leading to chaos, this leads to a more spontaneous, more
organic kind of order.”
CB Richard Ellis, a big property company,
the city manages to avoid “a disjointed landscape where oil derricks sit
next to mansions and auto salvage yards abut churches” without recourse
to zoning laws: “What is unique about Houston is that the separation of
land uses is impelled by economic forces rather than mandatory zoning.
While it is theoretically possible for a petrochemical refinery to
locate next to a housing development, it is unlikely that
profit-maximizing real-estate developers will allow this to happen.” The
spontaneous order of the market encourages charming restaurants in among
private homes, but discourages incompatible uses. As author James D.
“heavy industry voluntarily locates on large tracts near rail lines or
highways; apartments and stores seek thoroughfares; gas stations vie for
It is not the case, however, that Houston is completely bereft of
regulation. Developers commonly employ private covenants and deed
restrictions to limit the uses of land in a given development. These can
keep businesses or apartments out of the neighborhood, or even stipulate
lawn care and acceptable house paint colours. But importantly, as
Saltzman points out, “However detailed, deed restrictions contain rules
voluntarily accepted by home buyers, unlike the edicts issued to
property owners by a zoning commission.”
In addition to these voluntary restrictions, though, there are also some
land-use ordinances regulating things like trailer parks, rendering
plants, and commercial landscaping. And in fact, these city regulations
have not all had positive effects, either. Michael Lewyn, associate
professor at the Touro Law Center,
points out that rules regarding minimum lot
sizes for single-family homes, minimum street widths, and mandatory
parking space requirements for both residential and commercial buildings
have made Houston less dense than it would have been if its development
had been left entirely to market forces. This means the sprawling city
is more dependent on cars and less pedestrian friendly than it could be.
Reaping the Benefits
Despite such laws, however, Houston still regulates land use to a
significantly lesser degree than other cities. The payoff, in addition
to a welcome, convenient, eclectic mix of uses, is more affordable
housing. As prices were soaring across the country in the inflation-fueled
housing bubble a few years back, they remained relatively stable in
Houston. And not having soared, they did not plummet when that bubble
inevitably burst. According to Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas senior
economist Bill Gilmer, lack of zoning
deserves a lot of the credit.
As Jane Jacobs wrote about in her classic 1961 work,
The Death and
Life of Great American Cities,
city planners often behave as if the rest of us who live in a city had
no plans of our own. In Houston, more than in most cities, people can
pursue their own plans. Rather than leading to chaos, this leads to a
more spontaneous, more organic kind of order. If residents of other
cities could move away from imposed, top-down order, we too could be
freer to pursue more of our own plans without the hassle and added cost
of zoning laws.
From the same author
Dynamists vs. Stasists: Virginia Postrel's The
Future and Its Enemies, 15 Years Later
308 – February 15, 2013)
No Vapour For You! Canada's Ban on Smokeless
307 – January 15, 2013)
The 2012 US Election and the War
on (Some) Drugs
305 – November 15, 2012)
What Makes a Good President? A Review of Ivan Eland's
304 – October 15, 2012)
I’ve Got Olympic Fever—And the
Only Cure Is More Nationalism!
302 – August 15, 2012)
First written appearance of the
word 'liberty,' circa 2300 B.C.
Le Québécois Libre
Promoting individual liberty, free markets and voluntary
cooperation since 1998.