Urban Planning

I am reading, as we all are, of the hurricane survivors who are now left to find long-term shelter, get their kids in a school, deal with FEMA and insurance agencies and go through the day-to-day agony of hoping that each day brings them closer to returning home.

What is the most disturbing about Hurricane Harvey, and the destruction it has left in Houston, is the lack of urban planning is one of the reasons the destruction is so wide.  I could also point to the Governor of Texas who refuses to call a special session for Harvey aid because he won’t tap into the $10B that has been saved for a rainy day.  Why?  Who the hell knows.  Or the fact that the politicians in Texas voted against NY aid for Sandy and now find themselves in a similar place.  Their lack of empathy might come back and bite them in the ass.  But what is most important to focus on is the lack of smart urban planning post the 2005 flood in Texas.

Houston is a city with no zoning.  That means that if you own the land, you can build whatever you want, there is zero regulation.  You can have a home next to a gas plant or a retirement community next to an airport.  It represents the Texan mentality of the Lone Star State.

We are in the process of building in CA and NY.  There are restrictive rules in both areas that might be frustrating but they make sense.  In CA, they want to make sure that your water use is minimal and so you need a permit to do a full renovation of your garden.  In NY and CA they want to make sure that the plants in your yard are native to the area. There are strict regulations around size, setbacks, energy, location, windows, etc.  These are put in place so that if everyone building is making collective decisions so when there is a natural disaster, the urban planning has been put into place so that the destruction is minimal.  For instance, buildings in CA are built with earthquakes in mind, as they should be.

Climate change might have been the reason behind the storm of Hurricane Harvey but it has nothing to do with building a chemical factory in a flood zone when politicians opted to lobby for a delay in safety rules here.  Were the homes built forced to use certain materials that dry quickly?  Were the roads and parking lots built with the ability to soak up as much water as possible with smart run-offs if there was a flood? Did everyone have to use local plants when planting or allowed to use non-native plants that can wreak havoc on the system?  Were new homes raised above the water level when they were built? I believe the answers to all of my questions are no.

It takes time, energy, smart thinking, and laws around urban planning when planning for possible natural disasters. When the water settles and the research is done, we will find out that politicians opted against smart decisions around forward thinking urban planning.  It is the people without the means who will suffer the most.  FEMA will not be the savior here as I have learned first hand that FEMA is just an insurance company with the Government as the front end.  They just pay out 50% on the dollar is you are lucky without spending much time evening looking under the hood.

My heart aches for all these families whose lives have been uprooted but it makes me angry that the aftermath of this storm could have been less destructive.  Storms like these are natural disasters but humans have their fingers all over this.

Comments (Archived):

  1. awaldstein

    Listened to a long podcast over the weekend somewhere while biking about how the decision was made to forgo planning to grow the city at scale.I feel bad for the people there (donated to help save pets this time) but this is really a mess.Also 80% had no flood insurance.Repercussions of this will be generational.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Forgo planning to build a city to scale that has flooded in the past. Insanely inept

  2. CCjudy

    Where are you building in CA? Los Angeles?

    1. Gotham Gal


      1. Elizabeth Graham

        Wow!!!!!!! You are so awesome!! I could only aspire to do as much

  3. JLM

    .Let me correct two misnomers in your thought provoking article.When you say that Houston has no zoning, you are technically correct. Where that statement is in error is that much of what is in a zoning ordinance is in the Houston subdivision ordinance. Lot size as an example is in the subdivision ordinance rather than in zoning.Houston has a general “compatibility” standard which means that land uses must be compatible with neighboring land uses. I could not go acquire two blocks of residences, knock them down, and build a high rise building. The use would be considered incompatible.As to the flood itself, there is an entity called the Harris County Drainage Authority which oversees the bayous which intersect Houston and drain to Galveston Bay. A decade or so ago, they did a detailed analysis and found that half of their land mass was served by drainage which was slightly better than the 50-year storm.The other half routinely flooded in even 10-year events, but there was sufficient land mass to absorb the localized flooding. Houston has more park area than any other top 100 city in the US. Much of this land mass is adjacent to the bayous and is the land dedicated to absorbing routine flooding. If you saw pics of the flooding, you could tell that the bayous were adjacent to large green areas.The storm event which hit Houston was a 500 to 1000-year event. This is beyond the engineering science of hydrology to model and understand. Places in Houston that had never flooded were ten feet under water.The HCDA got an estimate for increasing the flood control system to absorb a 100-year event and it was a $30B proposition and would have entailed acquiring 30,000 acres of private property in a generally urban setting. The land was not in the numbers.Air bags in cars are not designed to protect the occupants from a train wreck. Harvey was that train wreck and there is nothing in any zoning ordinance on the planet which would have protected Houston.Having said that, there are a few places in Houston, like New Orleans post-Katrina, where maybe rebuilding should be prohibited.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. Susan Rubinsky

      In both Texas and Louisiana, much of the land has been abused and degraded by the oil and gas industries. In Louisiana, the data confirms that these industries have not restored coastal lands that act as buffers — including marshland, bayous and rivers — to their original conditions. In particular, the vast network of oil and gas industry canals through these buffer zones have dramatically reduced the ability of the natural ecosystems to sustain floodwaters. Because of the abuse to the land without proper restoration by these industries, the majority of the Gulf coast has been put at higher risk. In addition, because of the damage caused by these industries, these areas now are eroding faster. A 50-year old study is not at all indicative of current conditions.Here is a piece from the NYT which exposes the ways in which industry and politicians are allowing this continue from behind closed doors. Greed is at the heart of it.”‘What took 7,000 years to create has been nearly destroyed in the last 85.'”The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever – https://www.nytimes.com/int…You may also want to check out this book, “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America” – http://www.johnmbarry.com/_

      1. JLM

        .The Houston floods were not storm surge floods; they were a rainfall event and thus the issue of what has or has not happened with the barrier islands is not relevant.Having said that, I agree completely with the proposition that the damming of tributaries and the building of levees has constrained the particulate load of the Mississippi River and thereby starved the silt deposition on the barrier islands in the vicinity of the Mississippi Delta.This is further exacerbated by the desire to use the Mississippi River for deep water access and navigation which requires deeper cross sectional areas which means faster moving water which means the silt is being carried beyond the coastal depository zone. It is blowing past the barriers and ending up in the middle of the Gulf.It has nothing to do with the Houston situation. Houston is quite a bit inland.Barrier islands — uninhabited grassland island in particular — are a continuous environmental concern. They are being impacted by a great number of things including the close to shore energy system.Not nearly the impact that the article suggests because of the advent of directional drilling and offshore drilling. They are not operating in the near coastal zone and haven’t been for years. The pipelines cuts and navigation cuts can be fixed and should be, but the dredge spoil which was supplemented by the silt coming from rivers is a problem. There is nothing to fill them with without creating deeper near shore water depths which allows stronger waves to come closer to shore which creates more powerful erosion.It is a wack-a-mole game.I was in the Corps of Engineers myself and a guy who I tutored in calculus became the Chief of Engineers during the Katrina time. I went to several briefing given by the Corps and remembered his telling Chuck Schumer, “You give me fifty billion dollars and New Orleans will never flood again.”You are a very well informed commenter and it is a true pleasure to discuss things with someone who is as smart and as knowledgeable as you. Thank you. I hope that doesn’t sound condescending. It is not meant that way.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

      2. JLM

        .The study was 10 years old. The study referenced the 50-year storm.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    2. Susan Rubinsky

      You may also want to check out how the insurance industry is starting to advocate for environmental restoration. Here’s a good overview from Harvard Business review – How the Insurance Industry Can Push Us to Prepare for Climate Change – https://hbr.org/2017/08/how

    3. Nathaniel Goetz

      ^^^The Ashby High Rise is a classic example of how the Texas Court of Appeals disregarded your claim of the “compatibility” standard being a city ordinance, by claiming the legality of building a high-rise in the middle of a residential neighborhood, where residents have spoken out and claimed that this will degrade their quality of life by negatively contributing to the health, safety, and traffic conditions in their neighborhood and the elementary school 2 blocks from the proposed high-rise. Yet the City and State governments ignored the opposition to the lives of people who will be affected by this action daily, in the support of increased urban growth and economic prosperity for the development community. http://www.houstonchronicle

      1. Gotham Gal

        Nothing can ever be swept under the carpet. It always comes out. The aftermath of who made these decisions will be amplified in the months to come

    4. LE

      Air bags in cars are not designed to protect the occupants from a train wreck. Harvey was that train wreckAnd in fact we would go broke trying to fix in advance all of the ‘maybe maybe’ events that could happen. A fully loaded jumbo jet slamming into a building is one of those events.Most people, when they have to make their own financial decisions, rarely will spend money to protect against 25 year events let alone 500 year events.The congestion trying to get out of Florida is another example of what the mass of people will do when they confront a likely event but decide (personally) to wait until the last minute so they don’t have to put in effort to beat the crowds.When it’s ‘everyone’s’ money or they don’t actually have to make a decision they always operate much differently.There simply isn’t enough money to go around to protect against everything.

  4. Susan Rubinsky

    Did you happen to read this article: “Harvey Wasn’t Just Bad Weather. It Was Bad City Planning” – https://www.bloomberg.com/n…This summer I completed a resiliency project for much of coastal Connecticut which deals primarily with informing our municipalities and the public on creating zoning laws and action plans regarding global sea rise and the increase in extreme weather due to global warming. I am now working on a similar project for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Post-Sandy NY has already put into place these plans and there are some great resources out there to find out how to properly plan man-made environments. As we saw during Hurricane Sandy, even inland places like Vermont were hit badly with extra destruction due to the rainfall and rising in of rivers and groundwater. In the past I have also worked on hazard mitigation planning projects here in Connecticut. There are building methods that do work in helping mitigate the effects of extreme weather — the public needs to demand their implementation from their legislators and elected officials. And we have to stop commercial entities from buying their way out of regulation. The people in places like Texas and other places with little regulation should come visit cities like Detroit and Bridgeport and others where we now see urban blight as the result of little regulation during the industrial age. People complain about the taxes and the high cost of living here in the Northeast but the way I see it is that you can pay now or you can pay later. And we all know that when you pay later, the interest and devastating impact is much higher.Or maybe people should look at India where catastrophic flooding has killed thousands this summer – http://www.npr.org/sections…People talk about 100 year “once in a lifetime” events as reasons not to put together the proper plans and regulations. In reality this is creating your own self-fulling prophecy. The religious right is getting their own Noah’s ark situation due to utter lack of common sense, not because of any god/s. We now live in a time where these floods are happening multiple times in our own lifetimes.The data is real. The seas, worldwide, are rising. In my own lifetime, mean high tide in the neighborhood I grew up in is higher than it was when I was a child. I can see that high tide is higher with my own eyes — the daily high tide now is higher on the little bridge I fished from as a little girl. I see it and the data also sees it. This is data, this is fact. In the United States we are now beginning to see the first-hand the results where shifts in our climate are intersecting with people, municipalities and utter lack of proper planning. We will continue to see more of this and it will not be in 100 years. It may even be this week as Hurricane Irma barrels toward islands just North of the Caribbean, and possibly into FL (some models are showing a direct hit to FL in six days. We will know more in the coming days.)

    1. Gotham Gal

      Thanks for this. I know someone else who looks at this stuff. Really interesting

    2. JLM

      .Coastal hurricane flooding and inland rain flooding are two entirely different things, though similar.Coastal hurricane flooding is always driven by the storm surge which is a function of the winds driving water inshore and the coincident tidal conditions. If a storm strikes at low tide, it is entirely different than high tide.The antidote to flooding is drainage. The force multiplier for drainage is wetted cross sectional area, slope, and roughness. Big wide highly sloped concrete bayous will drain a lot of water.In the case of Houston, they have great bayous and almost no slope. They have to create their flow with depth of the drainage structure rather than slope. The civil engineering involved is very direct.In ATX, we had a creek, Shoal Creek, which flooded continuously. It drained an area of mature homes, but the upstream watershed was developed and the retention times of pasture land (long) and the developed area (short with lots of impervious cover) meant that the upstream flood was arriving at the same time the local drainage was filling — hence floods.The City of Austin went upstream and drilled a huge tunnel under the creek (30′ in diameter through solid limestone) and diverted the entire upstream flow directly to the outfall of Shoal Creek at the Colorado River (Town Lake). Presto, no floods.The event in Houston was in the 500-1000 year storm neighborhood. It is a very difficult decision to make as to what level of protection to build.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  5. Sierra Choi

    My impression of Texas, esp Austin and Houston is that is it mainly a dry, flat land, and they are continually in a water-saving drought mode, so this hurricane is completely out of the context of their normal weather patterns. Imagine if we had a hurricane in Arizona, it would make little sense to for the city to plan for an event they normally don’t forsee; although Galveston is sometimes prone to tempestuous weather, Houston is not. Houston is also built on a higher sea level, than say, all of California.I think what could be built is a way to utilise the rainwater for hydroelectric power, perhaps through tunnels and drainage systems that capture the water into a power station. I’m not sure if urban planning in the case of Hurricane Harvey would’ve prevented any of its destruction, since Houston isn’t prone to hurricanes.