September 18, 2017

What Houston's Critics Get Wrong

Emily Hamilton

Research Fellow
Summary

Land-use regulations weren't to blame for Hurricane Harvey's destruction.

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Even as Hurricane Harvey's floodwaters were still rising, dozens of pundits strongly in favor of land-use regulation started blaming Houston's flooding on the Bayou City's famous lack of zoning. ProPublica, for example, argued that Houston's "utter lack of zoning" contributed to the severity of the flooding. If land-use planning made Houston more compact, the pro-zoning argument goes, it would be better protected from floodwaters by surrounding prairielands.

No land-use planning regime can protect a region of 6.5 million people from the largest deluge of rain in U.S. history. The idea that traditional planning could have reduced the toll caused by more than four feet of rain both overstates Houston's freedom from land-use regulation and mistakes the actual consequences of its unique approach to land-use regulation.

In practice, Houston's development policy isn't as different as advertised from that of other major American cities. In the ways it does differ, it may allow for denser urban development rather than causing more sprawl into flood-prone areas.

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