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Houston Still Lacks A Comprehensive Plan For Growth

The greater Houston area is expected to grow by millions of people in the next decade and a half, creating more need for housing, infrastructure and services. 

Efforts to address the projected growth have resulted in a patchwork of initiatives aiming to improve walkability, transit and quality of life, but experts say that the city still lacks a big-picture plan that can weave it all together.

“Zoning is not the problem. Everybody talks about zoning. The problem is, we don't have a plan,” University of Houston Professor of Architecture Bruce Race said.

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The view south between westbound I-10 and southbound I-45 near Downtown Houston.

The city of Houston’s population was about 2.3 million people in 2020, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. The city itself encompasses around 670 square miles, making it markedly less dense than other major U.S. cities.

The broader Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land metropolitan statistical area was estimated to have more than 7.1 million people in 2020, spread out across nine counties and about 10,000 square miles. The Census Bureau is expected to release its 2020 census data for Houston later this year, providing a better snapshot of where the city stands. 

For all the population growth and corporate relocations that Texas is benefiting from, the city of Houston has seen a declining number of new people move to the city each year, according to city of Houston Chief Demographer Bala Balachandran. Instead, that growth has been going to the suburbs, where residential homes are cheaper.

The city of Conroe, 40 miles north of Houston, saw some of the highest rates of inbound do-it-yourself movers in the U.S. during 2020, according to a U-Haul analysis of its truck customer data.

More growth is coming. The region is expected to hit about 10.7 million people by 2045, placing further strain on infrastructure and services across Houston, according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

Despite all the projected growth, Houston still doesn’t enforce the most basic of planning policies: zoning based on use. The city’s land use comes down to three main strategies: large-scale initiatives to shape the public realm, a series of planning tools that act as zoning workarounds, and a complicated development code that contains a variety of tools other than use zoning.

For the most part, private developers have determined what gets built, and where, with limited direction from government. For that reason, it’s a popular place for developers, who have far more freedom to advance projects compared with other major cities, according to Race.

But the majority of Houstonians are in favor of better land use planning to guide development, according to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research Professor Emeritus of Sociology Stephen Klineberg. 

For the last 40 years, Klineberg has been performing the Houston Area Survey, where a representative random sample of residents are asked a wide array of questions that touch on everything from beliefs about the education system to the role of government.

The 2021 survey results showed that 85% of Houstonians want "better land-use planning to guide development in the Houston area.” That figure represents a significant jump from 67% in 2017, and an even bigger jump from the 45% that agreed in 1982, when the survey was first conducted.

Klineberg said the shift between 2017 and 2021 is partially the result of back-to-back years of flood events in Houston that culminated in the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

“In essence, the fact that they're shifting in their answers to that identical question over time tells us that there's more willingness to trust collective decision-making,” Klineberg said.

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Westheimer Road driving toward the Houston Galleria.

City of Houston Planning & Development Department Director Margaret Wallace Brown told Bisnow that Texas is a property rights state, and Houston is the poster child for it. As a result, development in the past has been almost entirely market-driven.

The Houston Planning & Development Department provides census data to partner agencies, to help them understand the population composition of different areas in Houston. However, that data has always been backward-looking, because the department did not have a mandate to do population projections or forecasting.

“In fact, Public Works has asked us a number of times, can you help us identify where we need to really be focusing some of our drainage or infrastructure improvements. And we've been in a position up until recently saying, we really can't,” Wallace Brown said. 

That’s starting to change, as the department is now investing in the skills and databases that are necessary to begin performing population projections.

“It's taking us a little bit of time to get our feet, to get grounded on this, but I intend that this department will be a central point for population projections and a deeper knowledge about the future of Houstonians and where they're living and how they're living, within a year,” Wallace Brown said.

To handle the anticipated influx of people to the region, Houston needs to focus on infill development rather than continued outward development growth, according to Race.

The sprawling nature of the city has already made financing infrastructure harder, as the city’s budget is stretched over much more land than other major cities. According to Race, Houston spends about $7M per square mile in the city budget, compared with $20M in Los Angeles, $38M in Chicago and $304M in New York City.

Infill development is a priority for Wallace Brown. To her, the goal is to keep working on creating neighborhoods that facilitate incomes of all levels, have greater density and walkability, and offer more public transit options that will attract more people to live within the city of Houston, rather than the outer areas. 

To help encourage this, the Houston Planning & Development Department created its Livable Places initiative, where a mix of industry representatives, subject matter experts, community leaders and other agencies work to identify and remove barriers against infill development. The initiative is touted as the next step to advance the community’s preferences that have been identified through action steps in several previous planning efforts, such as Plan Houston and Resilient Houston.

“I want population increases in the city of Houston to far exceed our counties,” Wallace Brown said.

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The METRORail in Downtown Houston.

There are plenty of policy initiatives proposed by different groups that strive to improve the long-term planning and direction of development activity in Houston. The problem is, there hasn’t been a successful attempt to marry all of them into one comprehensive plan.

“Everything is very, very siloed, in terms of the kinds of investments and discussions,” Race said.

Race pointed to the METRORail, the 22-mile light rail that began operation in 2004, as just one example. According to Race, the city has spent more than $1.3B on building the light rail, but without a proper land use plan.

“That would not be a good business model in most places, but we've done it. And we're hoping the market gets dragged by the access opportunities,” Race said.

Wallace Brown agrees that Houston has plenty of plans, but has had less success in making them happen in reality.

“We are, to some extent, a pretty well-planned city. We've got plans all over the place,” Wallace Brown said. “What we're not so good at all the time is implementing those plans.”

Transit and walkability are two areas that the city of Houston is aggressively looking to improve, buoyed by community feedback, partnerships and joint efforts. But without a single comprehensive plan for the city that includes all the various layers of urban planning, Houston still faces real challenges.

“If you don't do land use planning, and you don't back that up with zoning, then it's very difficult to have an outcome that reflects community values,” Race said.