How Houston’s Sprawl Makes It Harder to Cope With Storms Like Harvey

Floodwaters in Houston. Photo:  Christof Spieler
Floodwaters in Houston. Photo: Christof Spieler

Hurricane Harvey has dropped more than 20 inches of rain on Houston, and the scenes from the city are devastating. Emergency crews carrying children through waist-deep water out of flooded homes. Nursing home residents waiting in a murky indoor lake to be rescued.

As the rescue effort unfolds (if you want to contribute, Slate has an overview of local charities helping victims of the storm), we should also be asking how to prevent or mitigate future storms. On a global scale, Harvey is another sign of the urgency of climate action to prevent superstorms from becoming ever more frequent and destructive.

Locally, while any city would be overwhelmed by so much rain in so little time, land use in the Houston region has made a difficult situation worse. Woods and prairies that used to provide a measure of resilience against stormwater are now covered in impervious surfaces, and development has sprawled into low-lying floodprone areas, increasing the public’s exposure. Last year, ProPublica reported that the region “has paved over over 166,000 acres of mostly former coastal prairie since 2001, land that held highly absorbent grasses.”

Jeff Wood, who grew up in the Houston region, has been thinking about how the city’s development patterns contributed to the current crisis. At the Overhead Wire, Wood writes that the problem is not Houston’s “lack of zoning” so much as a transportation and development paradigm that’s completely heedless of considerations like stormwater absorption and steering clear of the floodplain.

Wood flags a Texas development tool called the Municipal Utility District as one vehicle for runaway sprawl in the Houston region:

I’m sure MUDs exist in other places but they don’t seem to be as prolific as they are around the suburbs of Houston. The basic idea of a MUD is that it’s a way for developers to buy land and set up shop to build new development. Once they own the land they can request the creation of a MUD that allows them to sell tax exempt bonds for infrastructure…

So if a developer can just plop down anywhere in the county and build a massive development of single family homes, it stands to reason that regional drainage and water networks are not a top planning priority.

All this development gobbling up natural lands was enabled by the region’s expensive freeway habit:

But Houston as a region is currently working on its 3rd ring road and has made it a point of developing these roads to open up areas to development. The most recent example being the Grand Parkway, which organizations such as Houston Tomorrow have fought vociferously. The Grand Parkway now looks like an even worse decision considering it’s now opening up the Katy prairie land to more development, area that should really be left to its natural state.

More recommended reading today: Dezeen looks at how cities could use trees instead of bollards to prevent vehicular terrorism. And Buffalo Rising reports on a new design concept for the removal of the Scajaquada Expressway that involves making a historic bridge in the Olmsted-designed Delaware Park car-free.

39 thoughts on How Houston’s Sprawl Makes It Harder to Cope With Storms Like Harvey

  1. I don’t understand why there is such an obsession to build in greenfields instead of areas which already have infrastructure. Maybe if the developers had to pay for the roads, sewers, and electrical lines leading to their greenfield developments they might look to build in already developed areas.

  2. They do it because it’s cheap and people want cheap housing with low taxes. If Houston cut them off they would just go somewhere where they can do it. Look at what is happening in Chicago area. People are leaving and not being replaced by new residents because most towns stopped giving away these things and asked developers to pay for it. So no more new cheap greenfield developments and people are leaving. They end up in Houston or Phoenix where its cheaper to live. Problem is that those too places will get very hot and or wet and not be cheap anymore once taxes have to be raised to pay for the infrastructure.

  3. Remember though it’s only cheap because someone else is paying for it. Evidently the people in Chicago got tired of paying for people who want cheap housing and low taxes. Only a matter of time before it happens in Houston. The cost of buying a new house should reflect the cost of any new infrastructure needed for that house.

  4. This is only showing GDP growth rate. Not shown is whether or not that growth is sustainable. I personally don’t understand Wall Street’s obsession with growth. I certainly don’t understand applying the same flawed logic to states. Eventually a company might grow very large and take a large percentage of market share. At that point it can’t grow much more, so by Wall Street’s metrics it’s a failure even if it’s providing jobs, paying taxes, and making a product people need.

    The kind of growth we’re seeing in the southern US is mostly auto-oriented, sprawl-based growth. It’s not sustainable over the long haul either financially, or in terms of energy. Once you add in temperature and weather extremes from global warming, well, I’ll guess the southern US will be mostly a ghost town in 50 years while those states in red or orange will still be humming along.

  5. Hmm, my property tax bill (city of Chicago) sure doesn’t seem to have doubled. Don’t believe everything you’ve read. Yes, our property taxes are going up, no, they haven’t doubled. Not even close.

  6. Thanks for the correction. I knew it could vary depending on different factors but failed to double check the details. Also, I wasn’t just thinking of this year but over the last 2-3(?) years. At least I wasn’t totally crazy.

    Ouch! Property Tax Bills Double For Some Chicagoans

    The increase, from $8,652 to $14,104, has the couple reconsidering their plan to retire in the Kenmore Avenue home where they raised their kids. They’re looking at homes in Indiana

  7. How sustainable multi-nodal suburban development will be is debatable. While I’m agnostic I can appreciate Boeing not wanting to build Dreamliners downtown. Especially for industry reasonable access from suppliers is a critical element of their success and all these players have very large production facilities..

  8. It’s cheap because as the article noted Texas is picking up the tab for the new roads and son on. Illinois is no longer funding new roads because there are other things to pay for including upkeep on existing infrastructure which includes flood control projects. Also, we have hit a limit on how far out people want to work from downtown Chicago as noted by others, that reduced demand for greenfield developments in Will, Kane, and Lake counties. Companies keep re-locating downtown and no one wants to commute that far. Where I live in the suburbs there are now a lot of infill projects that are much less expensive but the price points are relatively high so they can still make money. Don’t forget taxes in Chicago are much lower than the burbs and services are cheap, water and garbage pickup are a steal compared to the burbs. Back to Houston. They will have to start asking for developers to pay for that and they will just stop building and go somewhere else. How much will flood control cost once the flood maps reflect reality.

  9. If the trucking industry paid proportionate to the wear and tear that they do to roads (i.e. much more than they do today), the design of our distribution networks would look a lot different. Concepts like “Just in time” and “Warehouse on Wheels” only work in a world in which it is both very cheap and very easy to move freight by truck. Those conditions (cheap, easy) are two that I would not predict will continue for the trucking industry over the next 30 years provided every level of governments’ fiscal problems. As distribution networks – and therefore industry (since industry always follows distribution) – realign to where it makes most economic sense, which is along private rail and water networks, it’s going to be very problematic for places that have made huge public investments into a manufacturing style that’s predicated on an unsustainable distribution model. Boeing’s forecasts are certainly less than 30 years so they’ll be fine most likely, but the cities and their financiers should not be so short sited. The infrastructure built to accommodate this manufacturing style will almost surely be a non-performing asset during most of our lifetimes.

  10. What the city needs is a higher tax take. Eliminating sprawl in Chicago with infill development increases the tax base without raising taxes.

  11. Wouldn’t know the particulars but I assume with the new HQ’s downtown that Rahm sent them roses (and sweetheart deals). With respect to condos/apartments that would help for those who can afford the cost.

    With respect to Cook Co they’ve either been losing population or seeing a smidgen of growth. Why would they sprawl?

  12. Well stated and interesting. I wouldn’t necessarily agree but provocative ideas and only time will tell.

    States for their part make decisions on whether to attract industry and jobs, typically with incentives, or to repel them. Whether the $gazillion of incentives handed out by Texas is wise is still tbd I guess.

  13. Those cases are ones where property values have gone up a lot. Those jumps are in reassessment years (every 3 years). So, yes, it’s possible for bills to have doubled over 2-3 years, but only in cases where properties were under assessed.

    The second one specifically, that’s a case of a property that was drastically underassessed, the valuation there went from something like $600k to something like $1M. The property may be worth even more than that. So, “we’re going to move to Indiana, waah taxes” really means “holy crap did we get lucky in buying a house in a neighborhood that went *way* up in 40 years, we’re cashing out”.

  14. That’s one of those weird parcels that keeps ending up with connected people who don’t do anything with it. I know Rezko owned it at some point. Nowadays I think Related owns it and they’re supposed to start moving on it.

  15. In many cases the land is cheaper and you have more options to build than in an area that’s already settled with its own infrastructure rules/regulations and systems in place. Also, many people like to live in a “new” area, away from inner cities and aging suburbs, which appear to be more attractive, and, in some cases, more affordable. The sprawl debate in the Bay Area hasn’t slowed the transformation of farm land into cul de sacs, as more people have to drive farther in order to find affordability.
    In the 90s, one sub-division and strip mall after the other popped up in NoVA putting a huge stress on the existing infrastructure that simply could not handle the spate of development. 20 minute drives turned into 80 minute drives. Developers could not have cared less about infrastructure. Same goes for the huge HP/Bayview project going in. Infrastructure? Like transit? Nah.

  16. Thanks for the clarification. It’s been a couple of years I think since I had read about the issue and just a guess that perhaps it was overblown a bit?

    Denver is to ask voters in Nov to approve $937 million in new bonding (sizable for Denver) w/o raising property taxes (millage). Doesn’t mean people’s property taxes aren’t going up ofc. 🙂

  17. JIT manufacturing always struck me as a rather stupid concept. Sure, you save a bit on warehouse space but if your shipments get delayed for any reason your plant shuts down. This is in addition to such manufacturing relying almost solely on trucks instead of rail. From a sustainability standpoint I agree that the days of cheap freight movement by truck are drawing to a close. The issue is mainly one of road wear. If we made trucking companies pay the true cost of road wear, even now there would be no such thing as cheap trucking. Instead, we as a society subsidize it. The question is how much longer can we afford to do so? My guess is not much longer.

  18. You are very excited about insulting some politician. It seems to dim your view of the big picture.

    Cities are like farms, their money comes from managing the land they have properly. Look at the picture I linked. It’S prime real estate, and completely wasted.

    Look at the parking lots at the planetarium and the Field Museum. Why would you not put them underground and put 6 to 8 story buildings on top? Stores on the ground floor and condos upstairs, and parking in the basement.,+IL,+USA/@41.8647845,-87.6123058,831a,35y,327.04h/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x880e2c3cd0f4cbed:0xafe0a6ad09c0c000!8m2!3d41.8781136!4d-87.6297982

    There’s no excuse for this level of stupidity, and spare me your fairly tales about corruption and your fake concern for the poor.

  19. The issue though as I’ve said elsewhere is people may want these things, but they’re unwilling to pay the true cost. That’s why we need to force developers to build any new infrastructure needed for a new development, then pass these costs on to the buyers. If we did this, it would almost always cost less to build, or better yet renovate, in already developed areas.

    Another issue from a sustainability standpoint is the generally abysmal quality of construction in these new developments.

  20. Just looking at it though it could be a superfund site that would require millions in cleanup before developing. Quite a few places like that in cities where old factories contaminated the land to the point it’s not usable without major cleanup.

  21. Look at the parking lots at the planetarium and the Field Museum. Why would you not put them underground and put 6 to 8 story buildings on top?

    That one’s easy. Look what happened when George Lucas tried to replace one of these parking lots with a museum. “Forever open, clear, and free.”

  22. I was at a big box store in a Bavaria suburb today with a oddly sloped parking lot.

    I finally realized that the parking lot slopes towards the center with a deep ( nicely landscaped ) ditch in the middle.

    OMFG – this big box store was required to build a rentention basin on its own property !!!!

    Imagine if every shopping mall, every office park, and every parking crater in Houston had to create a retention basin ON SITE ?

    You better believe parking lots would be smaller

  23. There are many sites like this along the Chicago River, and elsewhere. Anyway, what’s the Superfund for?

  24. For some reason, I thought you were local. Here’s some background.

    “Forever open, clear, and free” is a statement codified in Chicago law way back in 1836 that says that Chicago’s lakefront is supposed to be held clear of development and open for use by the people as parkland for all eternity, It was emphasized in Burnham’s 1909 “Plan of Chicago” and reinforced by various legal codes as part of the civic work of Montgomery Ward, and it’s now a foundational aspect of the Chicago mindset. In modern interpretation, it means you’re not supposed to build anything east of Lake Shore Drive, as that’s all supposed to be park. The notion was recently tested when George Lucas tried (with the blessing of the mayor) to build his Museum of Narrative Arts on a parking lot in the middle of parkland between Soldier Field and the McCormick Convention Center, but the initiative resulted in a massive backlash and legal battle that lasted a couple of years and might have lasted a decade, except Lucas gave up and went back to, I think, Los Angeles. I’d link to an article, but there’s a million of them, so you should be able to find one if you want detail.

    So the parking lots you mention may or may not be a waste of space, but in the Chicago mindset, that’s okay. Most of us would love to see them replaced with actual, open parkland, but an 8-story condo building? Not a chance. It would be illegal, and nobody who lives here wants that anyway.

  25. Well, these parking lots were all built decades ago, so you’d have to go back and ask them. I suspect the belief at the time, though, was that the parking lots weren’t really “development,” and since they were meant to be used by the people to give them access to their lakefront, they were allowed. The stringency with which “open, clear, and free” is applied waxes and wanes through the years, allowing for the construction of things like the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, the McCormick Center, etc., along with all their attendant parking lots. But those inroads have only ever allowed one condo building, an ugly black glass monstrosity built in 1968, and the backlash over that was severe and long lasting enough to make it nigh impossible for anything like it to happen again.

    And like I said, almost everybody but Bears fans would love to see those parking lots go away. We’d just want them replaced with park land.

  26. Well, at least they know Houston exists. Even though 99 segment E is
    already built. One thing is right. We need a regional plan for flood
    management. Even if we attain Central City density what then. I often
    say put up barrier at Beltway 8 and only let public transportation and
    delivery pass it. Outrageous sure. Is it not outrageous though to
    build outside our city and have the water not be able to be stopped then
    released to flood downstream. Maybe we just build a death star here
    and put a huge moat around it. Still outrageous???

  27. Houston has no zoning but Houston does have minimum parking requirement though we also do have young planners and even old planners and we have city laws and permitting that allow a short time frame for neighbors to go to city hall and raise their voices if a development is going to cause a problem of even if a person just wants to spout conspiracy theories about anything they get a minute while any person speaking to an agenda item like a new development or building variance gets three minutes. The MUDs do provide infrastructure and normally also deed restrictions. The deed restrictions then have input from the home and business owners in their HOA – Home Owners Association. There is also the H-GAC – Houston Galveston Area Coalition which is 13 regional agencies that do address the regional drainage issues. There are also requirements for large developments to build retention ponds that offset development water runoff. Their is also the Army Corp of Engineers that should be thinking about the areas flooding as a system but instead you can see now that they dumped water from the reservoirs and others from the dams some of which are lakes that supply our drinking water but are also releasing and have flooded downstream homes with the dual purpose of not having the dams and levees break and flood the entire region. This all needs to be addressed. People go back to work though because the response is great to get the majority housed and homes repaired but the system just does not address the huge events that tend to happen on the gulf coast Home and land owners are also not want to or I think required to report flooding and in effect get away with fraud and perhaps even should be charged in the deaths when these types of events kill people. There is a lot more to this but rallying folks who are just trying to get their lives in order, get back to work and pay their bills. Open Data and moving the TEX tab at the top of this website might be part of the solution. It is currently not a regional solution either, is not open and the data is hoarded for profit by our universities.

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