Houston: From Sprawl to City

Once wide open and famous for sprawl, the Texas city is becoming increasingly crowded and expensive.
February 2015
Houston's light rail. Houston Downtown Management District
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

I live in Houston and I don’t own a car. I know, I know: If there is a more hard-to-believe statement to make about any American city with a straight face, I don’t know what it is. But it’s true.

Last fall, after three decades of living in Southern California, I moved to Houston to take over Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. I had given up my car a few years ago, and now I was moving to the most sprawling, car-centric city in America, a place where well over 90 percent of all residents drive to work in automobiles. Houston is twice the size of New York City, with only a quarter of the population -- and that’s just the central city, not counting the suburbs.

Yet like so many American cities, Houston is changing. It’s a diverse and sophisticated place with a lot more urban energy than you might expect, especially inside the region’s core, the Interstate 610 “Loop.” In fact, the Loop sometimes seems like a different city altogether from the rest of Houston. It’s accessible, with an extensive bus system and a new light rail system that has very high ridership. It’s expensive -- some neighborhoods feature California prices. It’s dense and getting denser, containing most of the major job centers in the region and a growing number of walkable urban neighborhoods.

In other words, the Loop is where Houston’s suburban past is meeting Houston’s urban future. It’s a lot of fun to watch, because nowhere in America is a free-market approach to growth and development running head-on into a growing desire to up the city’s quality of life.

Just since I arrived, something like 40 multifamily housing projects have begun construction -- all market-rate, some high-end. The Texas Medical Center -- the largest medical center in the world -- proposed an enormous innovation campus in what is currently a surface parking lot. And an Urban Land Institute panel came to town to figure out how to turn the 350-acre Astrodome site -- with a parking lot visible from space -- into a more urban, 21st-century place. Most of these projects are located within walking distance of the light rail line.

Yet there’s pushback. Houston has a longstanding reputation for favoring business over neighborhoods and jobs over people, and of course it famously has no zoning. So a lot of people simply don’t believe that more density will mean better places. Neighbors are resisting additional density, only to find that there’s no way to stop it.

So that’s Houston’s urban challenge: How to manage urban growth in a way that makes the city better, but does it without the in-your-face government intervention you’ll find in New York and San Francisco. A lot of it actually will depend on the city government, which is preparing its first general plan. A lot will depend on the leadership of developers and architects, who will have to find solid market reasons to create better urbanism. And a lot will depend on public and institutional landowners, who will have to raise the bar themselves.

I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But it’s great fun watching it from aboard the light rail and local buses, tooling around on one of Houston’s shared bicycles or from the window of a newly legalized Uber ride.