HOUSTON AFTER HURRICANE HARVEY: How urban planning (or lack thereof), contributed to the “natural” disaster
Since Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and other parts of the Gulf Coast in August 2017, a debate has arisen in the press and urban planning sites about the role of local policy in the flooding. While there was going to be massive flooding with a weather event of this magnitude, there is broad agreement among that enlightenedNew York Times, 11 NOV. 2017 urban planning and public policy could have lessened the severity of the environmental devastation to some degree.
Despite the appeal of unregulated growth in what has been called “free-enterprise city,” it is time for Houston and other large metropolises to reflect on their growth patterns and see how to conserve environments that contribute to resilience, while protecting residents’ lives, health, homes and real-estate investments. Ed Glaeser, the Harvard economist and author of “Triumph of the City” says that Houston could restrict housing in its flood plains and preserve more open space from development without substantially raising housing costs.
An excellent review of the lessons from Hurricane Harvey in Houston by Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times (11 NOV. 2017), from which the map above is drawn, also includes the following commentary:
The story of Harvey, Houston and the city’s difficult path forward is a quintessentially American tale. Time and again, America has bent the land to its will, imposing the doctrine of Manifest Destiny on nature’s most daunting obstacles. We have bridged the continent with railways and roads, erected cities in the desert, and changed the course of rivers.
Built on a mosquito-infested Texas swamp, Houston similarly willed itself into a great city. It is the country’s energy capital, home to oil and carbon-producing giants, to the space industry, medical research and engineers of every stripe. Its sprawl of highways and single-family homes is a postwar version of the American dream.
Unfortunately, nature always gets the last word. Houston’s growth contributed to the misery Harvey unleashed. The very forces that pushed the city forward are threatening its way of life.
Sprawl is only part of the story. Houston is also built on an upbeat, pro-business strategy of low taxes and little government. Many Texans regard this as the key to prosperity, an antidote to Washington. It encapsulates a potent vision of an unfettered America.
Harvey called that concept into question. It may have been an unusually bad hurricane, dumping trillions of gallons of water in a few days, even more to the east of the city than to the west, in the prairie, and setting all kinds of records. But it was also the third big storm to slam Houston in three years, dispelling any notion that Houston shouldn’t expect more of the same.