Stop Blaming Houston’s Libertarian Zoning For Hurricane Harvey’s Destruction

Stop Blaming Houston’s Libertarian Zoning For Hurricane Harvey’s Destruction

The media is determined to blame Houston's urban developers for the hurricane's devastation. That isn't a comprehensive, balanced understanding of the situation.
Gracy Olmstead
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As floodwaters have finally started receding from the Houston area, leaving disaster and dilapidation in their wake, many have attempted to explain why and how such catastrophe happened. There’s the more obvious answer: Hurricane Harvey was a downpour of monumental proportions. Twenty-one trillion gallons of water had fallen on Texas by Tuesday night. Just shy of 52 inches of rainfall had covered Cedar Bayou, Texas, by Tuesday—breaking the record for rainfall in the continental United States, and nearly surpassing the overall U.S. record for rainfall set by Hurricane Hiki in Kauai, Hawaii, in 1950.

This was a big storm. It was inevitable that it would wreak havoc on the inhabitants of Houston and surrounding small towns.

But that’s not the explanation most media outlets are offering. Instead, they’re pointing to Houston’s libertarian-minded urban planners as the culprits for Harvey’s damage. Perhaps one of the most pointed instances of this blame game was found in Tuesday’s episode of the New York Times podcast, The Daily:

Michael Barbaro: Richard, what kind of zoning is there [in Houston]? And I guess we should define that word, but the notion that there’s a pretty centralized system of thinking about what gets built and where and rules that govern it?

Richard Fausset: The city of Houston famously, or infamously, doesn’t have zoning the way most cities do. And so one of the hallmarks of Houston life within the city is the sort of block that has the strip joint next to the Baptist church next to the quickie mart. So this idea that Houston is not zoned is relevant to the disaster unfolding in that it reflects a kind of laissez faire and libertarian streak in Texas consciousness. But really, the broader issue is that greater Houston now encompasses so much more than the city of Houston itself. There’s this patchwork of town governments and city governments and county governments. Floodwater doesn’t care what municipality you live in. So you can have a poorly planned neighborhood 10 miles from you that may be the reason why your house in the city of Houston is flooding, and there’s very little you can do about it.

Barbaro: Just how irresponsible has this building and planning been? I mean, I feel like this had to have been some sort of a calculation about, you know, the economic benefits of just letting a place grow really fast, versus an awareness that it could all come home to roost.

Fausset: Well, people have been grappling with it and ringing alarm bells for many many years. … The problem is that Houston’s success, in so many ways, is based on the fact that it’s just decided to go and go and grow limitlessly. That means you can buy a house for very little money. This is one of the reasons it’s been so difficult to put a break on all the construction.

There’s a problem with the way Fausset’s response is worded: mixed-use zoning—the ability to construct “a strip joint next to the Baptist church,” as he puts it—has little to do with building in wetlands and prairies. Buildings are buildings. Pavement is pavement. As a friend put it, “Water doesn’t care what kind of sign is on the building it’s flooding into.” (Or, as Gov. Greg Abbott wrote on Wednesday, “Zoning wouldn’t have changed anything. We would have been a city with zoning that flooded.”)

The Media’s Narrative About Hurricane Harvey

Zoning is, of course, much larger than just building use. It does involve land use, and laissez faire zoning could foster unmitigated expansion (and its consequences). But as Henry Grabar notes in an article for Slate, “Most of the growth in the region has occurred outside the city limits, in places like Katy, Texas—which, by the way, is zoned, much of it for single-family homes.” Ironically enough, Katy is the town that Barbaro and Fausset zeroed in on during their podcast, using it as the primary example of careless expansion in the Houston area.

This narrative—that libertarian-minded urban planning caused Houston’s devastation—has proliferated in recent days, showing up at multiple news outlets. Here are just a few accusations leveled at Houston’s urban planners:

  • The Washington Post: “As the country’s fourth-largest city expanded, replacing prairie with impermeable surfaces such as pavement and concrete, the land was rendered less and less capable of absorbing floodwater. Without proper adaptive measures, this made an already flood-prone place more vulnerable.”
  • The New York Daily News: “A big factor could be the lack of rules that helped develop Houston into the country’s fourth-largest city — and the biggest without a formal zoning code. Experts believe the lack of regulation, building in the federally designated flood area, and paving over wetlands might’ve contributed to the storm’s severity.”
  • The New York Times: “Though its breakneck development culture and lax regulatory environment have been lauded for giving working people affordable housing, many experts and residents say that the developers’ encroachment into the wetlands and prairies that used to serve Houston as natural sponges has inevitably exacerbated the misery that the city is suffering today.”

Houston’s Devastation Is More Complicated

Unfortunately for many of these pundits, the above narrative is too simplistic to fit Houston’s situation. As Charles Marohn—a licensed engineer and certified land use planner—noted over at Strong Towns earlier this week,

Houston has experienced some recent flooding events that were certainly made worse by poor land use practices. We can argue over whether or not Houston’s regulatory approach is adequate — I’d note that Houston has most of the regulations other major cities have, only they are administered differently (not as zoning, per se) and I’ll add that the land use pattern of downtown Houston is good and improving while that of suburban Houston is indistinguishable from what is found in most progressive American cities — but what I’ve experienced there suggests that it is not much different, in terms of outcomes, to what we see in most of the rest of the country.

Harvey is not normal times. We can’t look at this event the way we look at other flooding events. The devastation in Houston from Hurricane Harvey is not the result of the accumulation of many bad decisions. It was simply a huge storm. … Anyone suggesting that more wetlands or more pervious surfaces would have done anything to mitigate what has just happened is lacking a proper sense of scale.

And that’s being kind. To say that Houston is ‘paying the price for ignorance’ and is ‘drowning from its own freedom from regulations’ is the kind of snarky, reactionary rhetoric that’s sadly become all too familiar. Wrapping that kind of ideological cheap shot in the veneer of science discredits the meaning of science.

Houston’s approach to zoning is unique and libertarian, but it is not responsible for Harvey’s devastation. Ample parking lots and suburban sprawl may indeed make some flooding more likely—but that means Houston and its surrounding towns are similar to every other booming city in the United States, not different. And Harvey itself is unique: the last time Americans were so devastated by floodwater, Hurricane Katrina was ripping New Orleans apart.

As Grabar wrote for Slate, “No city is or should be designed to accommodate a one-in-a-million-year flood, which is what Harvey turned out to be.” (Both his and Marohn’s pieces are detailed, informative, and well worth reading.)

Houston Should Consider Some Changes

It’s true that Houston needs to consider limits. Just like every other major metropolitan area, the city must tackle the pros and cons of unmitigated growth. In the news article quoted above, the New York Times suggests Houston must consider “whether there are, in fact, limits to the Houston model of perpetual growth.”

Limits and prudence are very conservative ideas, worth considering in all realms of governmental and social action (like health care, federal governance, tax policy, rule of law, and countless other issues). It’s laudable that the New York Times might consider such virtues worth exploring in this instance—but sad that our discussions of limits only become important when a conservative city has (supposedly) not exercised enough centralized control over its inhabitants. Solutions to our problems should be more vibrant, innovative, and thoughtful than turning every American city into another San Francisco.

Houston and its surrounding communities should—and most likely will—consider better flood-control infrastructure and development patterns in coming days. They should do a better job preserving wetlands and prairies, even while they seek to expand and provide housing to greater populations. Like every other city in America, Houston must confront the frustrating balance between growth and preservation.

But the libertarian zoning that gives Houston its distinctive flavor—its churches and grocery stores all mixed up together, for instance—is not necessarily harmful nor detrimental. There’s a difference between a laissez faire approach to zoning, and improper expansion. Hopefully at some point, writers will learn to tell the difference between the two.

Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.

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