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Environment / Climate change

How a lack of zoning messed up Houston in more ways than one

No matter what city in you’re in, in pretty much any part of the world, there will be a similar structure of how buildings are laid out; skyscrapers close together, residential homes in certain areas, factories outside the centre, and so on. These very basic, very obvious rules are followed in most major cities because they help a) create a coherent flow that is logically easy to follow and b) keep cities from looking like pieces of shit.

But have you ever wondered what a city might look like if it said, you know what, why don’t we just build whatever we want wherever the hell we want?

Well, my friends, there’s no need to wonder. Welcome to Houston, Texas: America’s biggest clusterfuck and home to vast pockets of organisational monstrosities such as this:

Image: Metro Matt/City-Data.

You may be asking, who the fuck would let this vile set-up happen? To catch you up, the US (and most of the western world, really) has this thing called zoning laws, which are the rules and regulations around how a city or town is sectioned off. It creates zones where you can only put up a certain type of building or structure – for example, residential zones for homes or commercial zones for businesses. The US started to see zoning laws crop up around the early twentieth century, and now almost every major city has them.

I say almost, of course, because there is just one exception. You guessed it: Houston, the only major city in America that has zero, and yes, I mean ZERO, zoning laws.

A lot has been written about Houston’s lack of zoning, including this CityMetric piece from a few years ago. These pieces largely focus on how Houston shows the danger of not zoning because it creates sprawl: cities without a proper centre that seem to go on endlessly because there aren’t any rules forcing them to stop.

What these pieces often fail to show you is what an absolute mess this major American city actually looks like on the ground. Sure, Houston is insane because it’s pointlessly enormous – but the real freak show is found on the streets where you can witness these planning fuck-ups:

Image: Jim.henderson/Wikimedia Commons.

 

Image: Google Maps.

The lack of zoning means there are parts of Houston where homes sit next to skyscrapers next to malls next to factories. Placing buildings that should be miles apart be within a few metres of one another makes the city look terrible in more places than you would imagine.

That’s the other thing about zoning laws: not only do they select areas where only certain things should go, they also keep things that shouldn’t be near each other from actually being near each other. Like, for example, single-storey homes next to skyscrapers. Car parks next to playgrounds. Or, even, primary schools next to sex shops:

Image: Google Maps.

Behold one of Houston’s most famous no-zones nightmares. The Zone d’Erotica, a kink-friendly ‘adult’ store, is located in the car park of The Galleria shopping centre which houses a private pre-school as well as many other slightly more wholesome facilities. And not just that: many Houston residents have complained that it is directly across the road from a heavily populated residential area that is also packed with children.

It’s worth pointing out that Houston does have some land-regulation, that looks and smells like zoning. But you can tell it isn’t the real deal because of the endless municipal planning catastrophes.

Zoning is good and cities should have it. That’s my point here.

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