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How Houston’s Urban Planning Made A Catastrophic Storm Even Worse

Houston was never designed to quickly bounce back from storms like Harvey.

How Houston’s Urban Planning Made A Catastrophic Storm Even Worse
[Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images]

Hurricane Harvey, the strongest hurricane to hit the United States in a decade, pummeled the coast of Texas this weekend. Thirty inches of rain has fallen in the Houston area, and flood waters have inundated the city and surrounding suburbs. Conditions are only expected to worsen over the next few days. The storm itself is unprecedented, and humans contributed to its severity–not only through climate change but the way the region was developed.

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Scientists, experts, and policy makers have been predicting a storm like this for years, and warning about the destruction it could yield. In 2016, ProPublica and the Texas Tribune published a three-part story on why Houston is especially vulnerable to catastrophic storms and flooding. One segment, “Boomtown, Flood Town,” focused on how urban design and policy has contributed to worsening flood conditions and put more people at risk. It’s a harrowing and detailed warning, and it’s worth returning to for its explanation of the role planning played in the disaster.

In a nutshell? Unchecked sprawl, fueled by developer-friendly laws with little regulation or enforcement, has crippled the region’s ability to handle floodwaters.

[Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images]

Sprawl “Choked” The Region’s Natural Flood Defenses

The Greater Houston metropolitan area measures over 10,000 square miles, which is larger than the entire state of New Jersey. It’s also one of the fastest growing regions in the country. The city of Houston–the fourth largest in the country–is famous for having no formal zoning code and being very developer friendly. This policy has kept the cost of living in the area low, as home builders construct acres of new subdivisions over prairie land. As ProPublica writes:

Scientists, other experts and federal officials say Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems, and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes.

While the prairie seems “empty” to developers with dollar signs in their eyes and policy makers who need to keep their constituents in affordable homes, it’s a critical part of nature’s own flood-absorbing infrastructure. The root systems for these grasses grow up to 15 feet deep, which essentially turns the land into a sponge during flooding.

The suburbs northwest of Houston once had over 937 square miles of this type of prairie–by comparison, the city of Houston is 627 square miles–but that’s been reduced to one quarter of its orignal size, according to a Katy Prairie Conservancy statistic ProPublica cites.

Building in these areas is problematic for two reasons: It puts people who live in these houses in harm’s way, and it also puts people downstream–meaning in more densely populated areas of Houston–at risk for more intense flooding due to the lack of absorbent prairie.

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[Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images]

Policy Makers Are Building The Wrong Things

Since 2010, over 7,000 homes have been built in 100-year flood zones. Developers claim that they can compensate for the loss of flood-absorbing land with man-made infrastructure, like retention ponds to catch runoff and elaborate pumping systems–which require repair and upkeep.

“[T]he fundamental problem is that Houstonians have assumed they can simply engineer their way out of flooding,” ProPublica‘s story states. In allowing developers to build houses on risky land and build infrastructure to compensate for natural floodplains, the city is essentially in denial about what infrastructure can do.

[Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images]

No One Wants To Pay For Resilient Infrastructure

Houston is no stranger to hurricanes. Local and state officials discussed the need for a comprehensive plan after Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Allison–Houston doesn’t even have a levee system like New Orleans–but few agree on who is responsible for overseeing and, more importantly, paying for the infrastructure.

For years, the Army Corps of Engineers–a federal agency that oversees civil engineering projects–has not had enough money to commence a five-year study how to protect the Houston region, ProPublica explains. The state of Texas agreed to fund only half of the $20 million study, and the Corps is lobbying Congress for additional funds.

As jurisdictions squabble, they gamble on the livelihood of their citizens.

Extreme weather is becoming more frequent, and while cities can’t control when and where a hurricane or storm strikes, they can impact how quickly they rebound; that’s the very definition of resiliency. Unfortunately, the actions of policy makers–starting with the agenda set by the federal government under Trump–is making our country less resilient. He’s already rolling back federal flood protections.

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The city we normally associate with Trump is New York, but in spirit he’s more simpatico with Houston, a metropolis free of regulation and for sale to private industry. If his administration continues with its plans to ignore climate change, offer little federal funding for capital projects (also known as leaving it up to the states and private business), and let the forces of capitalism take over, more cities might face their own disasters.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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