By Ryan McGreal
Published September 16, 2009
In the ongoing debate over sprawl development, its defenders routinely argue that developers build sprawl because that's what the market demands, and hey, who are we to argue with what people want?
When critics point out that municipal zoning regulations *mandate* sprawl and actually forbid other land use models, the apologists pull out Houston, Texas as their trump card. According to received wisdom, Houston has no zoning regulations and is one of the most sprawling cities in the world.
Obviously, therefore, the market really does demand sprawl and zoning rules are just a formality.
Michael Lewyn of the Florida Coastal School of Law demolishes this assertion in a 2005 paper for the Wayne Law Review (Vol. 50), in which he demonstrates that Houston, like other cities, effectively mandates sprawl through a variety of regulatory controls.
The city mandates large minimum lot sizes - 5,000 square feet anywhere in the city until 1998, and in suburban areas (75% of the city) after 1998. Combined with regulatory restrictions on non-detached homes, this regulation enforces low densities that preclude effective public transit or walkability, render neighbourhood businesses economically non-viable and push new development out to the edge of town.
Minimum mandatory parking requirements - 1.25 spaces per bachelor apartment, 1.33 spaces per 1 bedroom apartment, 2 spaces per single family dwelling, 2.5-2.75 spaces per 1,000 square feet of office area, 4-5 spaces per 1,000 square feet of commercial area, 10 spaces per 1,000 square feet of bar area, and 2.2 spaces per hospital bed - mean every property must make room for parking lots.
Combined with the mandatory minimum setbacks - structures must be 25 feet back from thoroughfares - this all but guarantees that all buildings will be set far back behind abundant surface parking, making them difficult, unpleasant and dangerous to reach by foot or bicycle.
The space devoted to surface parking further reduces land use density, reinforcing car-dependent patterns of transportation; and the abundant "free" parking is a further regulatory subsidy to drive.
Houston also mandates very wide streets - 100 feet right-of-way for thoroughfares, and 50-60 feet right-of-way for other streets - with only narrow 4 foot sidewalks or no sidewalks at all. This is far wider than the American average street width.
Not only do wide streets encourage driving and discourage walking, they also make land use densities still lower by pushing buildings even farther apart from each other.
In addition to wide streets, Houston mandates long blocks - 600 feet to a side - that deter walking by giving pedestrians fewer choices of route to a destination and fewer safe places to cross.
Houston does not have explicit single-use zoning, but it does allow and even encourage lot owners to sue each other for violations of land use covenants that preclude the use of residential lots for business or commercial uses. City lawyers can also sue under these rules.
Finally, even more than most cities, Houston has build an extensive highway system that opens suburban land for development and provides another incentive to drive everywhere.
Lewyn's essay puts to rest the notion that Houston's famously (or infamously) low densities are the result of free market forces. Rather, it's due to low-density, single-use zoning by another name.
(h/t to Marginal Revolution for the catch.)