Houston beats Houston Street

Houston is the land of dreams, says Joel Kotkin.

Joel Kotkin writes a mash note to Houston.

Other cities enjoy better locations for shipping, richer agricultural resources, or similar proximity to oil fields. The answer, I have come to understand as I have worked in Houston as a reporter and consultant, echoes something that the late Soichiro Honda once told me: “More important than gold and diamonds are people.” This critical resource, more than anything, accounts for Houston’s headlong drive toward becoming not only the leading city of Texas and the South, but also a player on the global scene: it is emerging as one of the world’s great cities.

If big and rich means great, then I’ll buy that.

The New Urbanist guru Andres Duany, whose city planning emphasizes cozy, walkable neighborhoods, seems horrified that Houstonians—driving SUVs across the sprawling distances of the city and its suburbs—appear to regard the galleria shopping center as Houston’s social center. Lauding Houston to urban planners is not much different than extolling red meat at a convention of vegans.

The last time I flew into Houston, my seatmate—unbidden—extolled its virtues. “It’s the greatest city in the world,” he said. “And what accounts for that?” I asked. “No zoning laws. You can do whatever you want. I could put in a nickel smelter next to an elementary school.” I’m not sure why you’d want to do that, but it’s an airtight argument.

Update: Fellow RBCer Michael O’Hare points out that Houston does have zoning, for those what deserve protection from nickel smelters overlooking the 16th fairway:

What is unique about Houston is that the separation of land uses is impelled by economic forces rather than mandatory zoning. While it is theoretically possible for a petrochemical refinery to locate next to a housing development, it is unlikely that profit-maximizing real-estate developers will allow this to happen. Developers employ widespread private covenants and deed restrictions, which serve a comparable role as zoning. These privately prescribed land use controls are effective because they have a legal precedence and local government has chosen to assist in enforcing them.