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Houston's Zoning Wasn't the Problem

With a few tweaks, the city’s relaxed land-use regulations might be an advantage during recovery and rebuilding.
As the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey recede, Houston must think about how it rebuilds. Maybe the city's famously relaxed zoning could help.
As the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey recede, Houston must think about how it rebuilds. Maybe the city's famously relaxed zoning could help. Charlie Riedel/AP

Hurricane Harvey brought an estimated nine trillion gallons of water into the streets of Houston, bringing America’s fourth largest city to its knees. In the wake of the disaster, many urbanists asked: To what extent did Houston’s unconventional approach to planning make the damage worse?

Before the rain stopped falling, more than a few writers laid the blame for some of the damage at the feet of Houston’s lack of zoning and the region’s startling horizontal growth. Others pointed to Houston’s rapidly spreading impervious surfaces, often in the form of surface parking lots and roads, which prevent water from soaking into the ground, adding to runoff and increasing the speed of flowing water. Since 2010 alone, area officials have approved the construction of over 7,000 houses in 100-year floodplains. Much of this development also occurred in prairie wetlands, reducing the region’s capacity to absorb the extreme amounts of water dumped onto the city by Harvey.