Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Houston's great competitive advantage

Different cities have different competitive advantages, from climate to geography to industry clusters to amenities, but Houston has one that stands apart from every other major city in the world: our free market in land use. Brian at the Live Oaks blog makes one of the best short cases I've ever seen for property rights, limited land use regulations, and no-zoning. He starts out discussing the benefits Houston has enjoyed:
For more than 80 years zoning advocates have made dire predictions about Houston's future. Without zoning, we have been told, our city would become unlivable, we would not attract businesses, and we would collapse into a myriad forms of depravity. These predictions have not come true.

Houston's economy has grown steadily and consistently. Housing costs have remained stable. The cost of living has remained well below the national average. All of these economic benefits are the result of Houston's relative freedom.
Next he moves on to an even more compelling moral case for strong property rights. I wanted to do more excerpts, but almost every paragraph makes a good point that builds on the one before it. You just need to read the whole thing:
The Star of the Lone Star State
On an unrelated note, I'm traveling later this week to a conference in Austin, so the next post will be next week.

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At 3:33 PM, November 04, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this post goes to the larger point that zoning and tight land use regulation isn't needed to a livable community with good (I hate to use buzz words) "quality of life".

Houston is a city that has essentially been scolded over and over again by urban planners for bucking the trend.

I think we have turned our fine and will continue to be better off for not listening to these guys.

Urban planning has wildly varied in what they considered their optimal direction. In the 20s, the focus of urban planning and particularly new cities was completely automobile based with sectors catering to only one type of zone. The best example of this is Brasilia. A pretty yet very unlivable city until the zoning master plan was thrown away. Now commercial development can occur near residential development.

At 8:43 PM, November 06, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Something's just not right in the world when having the good sense not to blow your own brains out constitutes a competitive advantage. Going further, in a remotely sane world this would be a fleeting and unsustainable advantage. But of course in the actual world we live in Houston can probably enjoy this advantage as long as its people continue to have said good sense.

At 9:34 PM, December 22, 2008, Blogger Toure Zeigler said...

An an east coast planner I have to *surprise* disagree. Now I will admit I have never been to Houston but I have read a lot about Texas zoning and land use controls ever since I went to an APA Conference in San Antonio in 2006.

If Houston is like San Antonio, Dallas or Austin then I have to strongly disagree with your assessment that the lack of zoning works. From my perspective, Texas cities along with other southern and western cities continue to grow because of their economies and availability of land. They grow in spite of the lack of zoning in my opinion.

I also think southern and western cities had the advatanges of time and technology. I dont know the history of Houston but I do know many southern and western cities began with no sense of place and were created out of manmade travel routes. East coast cities were formed around strategic geographic points of interest. NYC would not be what it is if were not on the Atlantic and the Hudson River surounded by numerous Harbors. The same can be said of Philly, Bmore and Boston. I say that to say that the most important spaces of these cities was to be by the river or the waterfront. If you let free market dictate land use, they would have dominated all of those cities shorefronts. Without zoning, factories who were the cash cows at the time would have located themselves all along the waterfront. In cities like they Baltimroe they did, and it took zoning to push them away from the #1 attraction and now hub of the city, the Inner Harbor. Could you imageine if factories line up NYC's waterfront instead of the financial district? It would have looked like a giant Pittsburgh.

On top of that, southern cities known for their qaint charm and low densisty have some of the highest pollution rates and are not sustainable. If you take air conditioners and cars away from cities in the south and west they would crumble If you take cars away from Philadelphia and Boston those two cities would still be able to maintain.

Those are my comments for now. I would to debate this because I have never really had someone from Texas really convince me that there no zoning works...and I really want to believe what they are saying, I really do!

At 10:11 PM, December 22, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

BC: the ULI backs up our lack of zoning as a good thing. See here


and here


Other posts you may want to browse here:


At 9:38 AM, December 23, 2008, Blogger Toure Zeigler said...

The Houston Chronicle points out that ULI experts say that you need more "regulation." Call it want you want, it's all a form of governmental control to encourage a certain type of development.

From the article:
"When you don't want government involved, it's called 'regulation,' " Polikov observed, drawing knowing chuckles from the audience at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. "When you do want government involved, but don't want to admit it, you call it 'public-private partnerships' or 'special districts.' "

Polikov said the Houston region can achieve the positive effects of zoning through better urban design and voluntary "livability" standards adopted by builders.

Now that is very new urbanist. The problems with zoning controls now back east is that there are too many of them not that they are inherently wrong. Simple zoning codes that focus on what to allow rather than what to restrict is what many jurisdictions back east are doing and it is essentially what the ULI experts are recommending for Houston through better "liveability standards" for developers.

I also think that you guys abuse the fact that you are located in the sunbelt and are gaining jobs as if that is an excuse that you all must be doing something right. The rustbelt and east coast cities are not losing jobs because they are doing something wrong, jobs leave to move to some place that is cheaper to build and were wages are low. As soon as your city reaches a critical mass and property values go up, jobs will leave your city too. Florida and Vegas also are gaining a ton of jobs but does that mean cities should emulate Vegas design standards?

And for a word class city, the down town is small and covered with a ton of parking lots. Even you menton that, "...and a little walkable street life is usually not enough to overcome that preference." The free market determined how those spaces look and feel. If there were some from of control and regulation more would be done to make people want to live, eat and play in downtown Houston. Im not knocking Houston, the same could be said of downtown L.A.


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