The Irony and Tragedy of Houston

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From the Washington Post:

Houston is a city that for the past eight years led the nation in growth, and although transit was considered to have its place, the city’s backbone is the oil industry, which relies heavily on new highways to get around town. When the city spread out into Harris County — which has 6.5 million people to the city’s 2 million — the connections were roadways. …
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Rapid development over the past two decades — and the sprawling networks of accompanying roadways, subdivisions and parking lots — have left Houston especially susceptible to major flooding, said Samuel Brody, a Texas A&M University urban planning professor who leads the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores.Such surfaces leave little return path for floodwaters to go into the ground or drainage channels. … 
The sheer scale of the immediate recovery is daunting.
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“It is really difficult because we’re so spread out and highway- dependent,” said Kyle Shelton, ­director of strategic partnerships at the Kinder Institute, an urban- research think tank at Houston’s Rice University. “We just have so many streets and so many roads and so much other infrastructure to make sure is okay and bring back online. That’s going to take weeks and months.” …
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“This is a city that was built, in large part, in defiance of nature,” said Christof Spieler, an urban planner who is on the board of Metro.
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“Basically, developers just treated this as a big empty canvas and just spread out across it. We tend to sort of ignore the natural underpinnings of the city. When this amount of rain falls, suddenly that natural geography reasserts itself.”
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6 thoughts on “The Irony and Tragedy of Houston”

  1. Thomas Beyer said:

    So, more subways and buses would have helped ?

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    • I looked around for comparison of Houston to other cities. Houston is notable for its sprawl. Here is an article comparing some american cities:
      http://oldurbanist.blogspot.ca/2011/12/we-are-25-looking-at-street-area.html

      Houston, TX
      Surface parking: 21.3%
      Garage parking: 3.7%
      Street area (including sidewalks): 39.7%
      Total area for rights-of-way plus off-street parking: 64.7%
      Park space: 2.6% (1.1% excluding Discovery Green)

      Washington, DC
      Surface parking: 1.1%*
      Garage parking: 0.0%
      Street area (including sidewalks): 43.3%
      Total area for rights-of-way plus off-street parking: 44.4%
      Park space: 2.53% (5.00% including Ellipse)
      *Much of this is the large lot to the east scheduled for redevelopment as CityCenter

      From the article:
      “Still, it is difficult to conceive of a more wasteful pattern than modern Houston’s, where redundant wide streets, and their associated infrastructure, are paved and maintained to serve dozens of vacant parcels. Each new office tower, meanwhile, spawns hundreds of acres of tract housing on the city’s periphery, as lots a few blocks away sit vacant on high-rise speculation.”

      If Houston were more transit oriented, it would have less sprawl and fewer streets and surface parking lots. Therefore more natural surfaces nearby to absorb flood waters. .

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      • bob tanner said:

        There would less sprawl & more jobs where people live if transit was funded by a tax on employers based on the distance from work that employees live.

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  2. “In general, developers run this city and whatever developers want they get,” Browne said. His group sued Houston last year in federal court, demanding more holding ponds and better drainage..
    http://www.vancouversun.com/houston+drainage+grid+obsolete+just+unbelievable/14436173/story.html

    I guess Vancouver and Houston aren’t that different after all.

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  3. Alex Botta said:

    Houston filled in and paved over its extensive wetlands. The trouble is, water still wants to go where it always went. Large natural wetlands absorb and regulate storm water. The sprawling urban form blows all that away. Now with climate change affecting the intensity and duration of storms, it’s addng up to a catastophic failure of plannng to deal with it.

    Very sad.

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  4. Honest Ed said:

    Topography also plays a part. Hey! Topography plays an enormous part!

    Houston is located in the Gulf Coastal Plain biome, and its vegetation is classified as temperate grassland. Much of the city was built on marshes, forested land, swamp, or prairie, all of which can still be seen in surrounding areas.

    The flatness of the local terrain, when combined with urban sprawl, has made flooding a recurring problem for the city. Downtown stands about 50 feet (15 m) above sea level.

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