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Land Use In Houston: Zoning Research Paper

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Updated: May 22nd, 2020


Houston, North America’s only major city that lacks proper urban planning represents a traditional free market philosophy under which land use definitions remains a gross violation to private property rights. As the city executes their free market economic and land use development policies, government infrastructure systems and land subdivisions systems remain the only process of land use that draws control from authorities. Due to these systems of non-zoning controls, Houston stands out as the thriving city without land use zoning systems. Some scholars argue that despite lacking zoning systems, Houston’s development process thrives in the same level as cities with zoning plans. This phenomenon emanates from the ability of markets to provide economic incentives for differentiation in land use, thus producing patterns of development usually present in zoning plans (Qian, 2010).

Houston’s’ Indirect Land Use Control Systems

Rules confining single-family houses to use at most five thousand square feet of land ensure that such residents live in areas with insufficient supply of public urban utilities such as shopping malls, petrol stations, and bus stops. Such a system ensures that the inhabitants depend on personal cars. This system helps in regulating urban population growth trends, thus reducing the rate of increasing informal settlements present in most zoned cities.

As Speyrer (1989) denotes, even though the city land use remains devoid of zoning, there exists strict parking regulation to create an automobile dependency tendency. Under the city’s code, every structure that comes up must include sufficient parking lots. For example, apartment developers include a 1.25 and 1.33 parking lots for every proficiency suites and bedchamber respectively. All commercial, business, and industrial developments must adhere to this code in order to create massive parking lot navigations problems for the walking residents. In turn, discomfort in walking within the city encourages driving.

This means that in order to stay in the urban center, personal cars become basic, thus regulating the number of city residents. On the same note, high numbers of parking lots take up land that would otherwise provide resource for development of residential houses; this indirectly reduces the population in the city, hence leading to a less compact and more auto dependent setting in Houston. The designs of the Houston City Streets help reduce the influx of pedestrians in the city. City code demands that major streets develop 100-foot right-of-way, while residential streets hold at least 50-foot right-of-way. This implies that most of the city streets remain at least 100 feet wide (Houston et al., 2008).

Houston Systems versus Dallas Systems

There exist great differences in land use control systems in the cities of Houston and Dallas. As Dallas relies on zoning to control development initiation and regulate land use practices, Houston embraces a free market system without zoning structures. However, Houston control land use practices through a series of subdivision restrictions. Even though choice of land use strictly lies with the developers, they establish these restrictions simultaneously with creation of subdivisions.

In Dallas, zoning process often adds at least four months to development processes in comparison to the time taken in Houston through the statutory public hearings on the proposed development on land. It is at this time that the planning commission and the city planners develop documentation for the zoning request. This implies that the cost of land development in Dallas remains higher than in Houston due to the bureaucracies involved in land acquisition and change of user plans. Even though subdivision controls fail to protect buyers against unwanted land use changes on adjacent lands, just like zoning, it protects the buyers from unwarranted changes in land use within the areas that the restriction covers. Inadequacies in control of the adjacent land uses sometimes diminish the value of a buyer’s own property, thus leading to major costs associated with absence of zoning in Houston (Mincey et al., 2013).

Advantages of Zoning

Proper zoning acts as cheap incentive for private developers to build sustainable cities. In order to focus on promoting economic development with sustainable land use systems, developing clear and hard rules on land development and division remains necessary. Good zoning rules and regulations set out rules that ensure proper control of land use systems while guaranteeing that the private sector enjoys a stable legal framework under which development takes place (Byun et al., 2005).

Zoning helps local government to provide adequate services and facilities to residents. Execution of this priority areas work well through the definition of acceptable land use patterns for various parcels of land depending on the viability and needs of the residents. Byun et al. (2005) go further to explain that through zoning, there exists stability in land use practices. In this prospects, individuals enjoy the ability to develop better future land use plans within a given area.

Similarly, zoning enables developers and investors to understand the standards of expected land use patterns within an area and, at the same time, anticipate the standard expectations from the rest of the members of such community. In as much as zoning regulates coalition of land use patterns within specific areas, it helps to prevent premature urbanization within the rural settings. Such urbanization trends often cause unprecedented demand for public urban utilities, thus levying increased taxes on the locals. In such a circumstance, zoning helps in controlling tax level in developing areas.

Disadvantages of Zoning

Comprehensive planning requires people to execute; the implementation process requires a collective approach. The process of developing zoning regulations remains hectic and time consuming. Despite the fact that this initiative helps in attaining most viable and publicly acceptable zoning programs, time consumption in bureaucracies involved in setting out zoning plans often act as disincentive to investors and developers. In some cases, zoning restrict the gratification of private property rights and freedoms of land use.

Restriction of landowners from establishing specific types of business on their lands based on the inability to conform to the regulations within the land zones controls the provision of public utility service by the private investors. This factor coupled with restrictions in permits required for development of nonfarm buildings are impediments to development projects in comparison to areas without zoning (Byun et al., 2005). For instance, public hearings required in the change of user and improvement of land use systems in the areas under zoning reduces the speed of development.

Many developers, local officials, investors, and communities are familiar with traditional development designs. These predispositions make unzoning the best method for development. In order to curb this, community sensitization and education on the need for proper planning, land cluster and zoning is indispensible for different groups of people in a given setting to comprehend the advantages of land zoning in growth planning.

Effects of Zoning in Houston

Despite lacking zoning codes and regulations, Houston City stands out as any other city in North America. In the city, it is theoretically possible to develop a petrochemical project next to a housing unit; the likelihood of profit-oriented real estate developers makes it impossible to construct such industrial projects. Such privately initiated land-use control systems harbor legal precedence with local government taking roles in their enforcement. In the end, the liberal land use settings help to attract investors to areas with high land productivity levels for the specific project (Byun et al., 2005).

Fewer restrictions in land use systems in Houston City accord the residents in these areas the best freedom in land use practices. Due to this freedom, much innovative ideas exist within the land exploitation sector. Some scholars believe that Houston present the most affordable housing schemes in America. Lack of artificial zoning systems presents a better avenue for progressive land use designs such as “new urbanism” placing emphasis on pedestrian-friendly transit systems. This provides the opportunity for maximum use of light railway systems, thus increasing convenience of movement of goods.

Low Housing Costs versus Population Influx

Even though Houston enjoys success stories of development without zoning codes, pressure continue to pile over needs for defined systems of codes that regulate land use practices. For example, in 2007, a proposal for development of “Ashby High Rise” residential towers that aimed at single-family residences, created animosity between private developers, civil groups, and local authorities. Even though legal frameworks restricting such a development project are non-existent in Houston, local council planned to develop new laws to control such development projects. Such projects often present the complexity in balancing freedom of individual land use against land use control frameworks, thus resulting in tensions that derail development processes. Such developments would mean the influx of lower income earners in the city, thus jeopardizing service delivery in the public urban utility sector. These aspects coupled with the restrictions in street designs create the likelihoods of human vehicular conflicts (Cheng & Byun, 2008).

Incentives for Attracting Investors

Tax Amendments

Governments often use tax incentives to encourage investments with high degree of positive externalities. In order to maintain competitive market economies, authorities offer tax incentives similar to incentives offered in the neighboring markets and regions. In such circumstances, tax incentive competitions often arise. As a result, such regions register high influx of investors and developers, as they take advantage of the incentives. Increasing tax investment reduces investment cost, hence encouraging investments (Cooper et al., 2008).

Labor Force Training and Provision

Labor related incentives present adequate advantage in reducing the initial operating cost for new investors. Recruitment and training support, wage subsidies, and on-job training systems remain vital to attraction of investors. In this aspect, job centers offer highly qualified professional for newly established business and project franchises. Similarly, such centers take prospective employees to appropriate training measures in order to reduce chances of job failure in assignments. These systems coupled with wage subsidies shared with job centers offer relatively competitive and secure job placements, thus leading to high productivity.

Infrastructure and Site Assistance

Local authorities provide funds for development and improvement of infrastructure systems such as railway, road, electricity lines, and telecommunication systems to business projects with huge investment capital. Such grants act as investment support assistance; they aim at reducing the initial cost of projects. Such infrastructure subsidies target areas with huge development potentials, thus increasing their levels of attraction to investors.

Houston State versus Human Lives

Jiang et al. (2008) explain that in the current world informed by formal planning and zoning codes, Houston stands out as a city of mixed feelings. For example, locating a fancy restaurant opposite tattoo parlors or a dentist’s offices opposite a car repair shop is legal. Even though the conflicting land uses remain within the covenant of local property owners and subdivision restrictions, health hazards and risks that come with such conflicts remains unchecked. Inadequate sidewalks, school playing yards within busy commercial areas and high rise residential houses in neighborhoods designed for a four-story building represent a quackish system that requires adequate checks ad balances to control. The free market economy within Houston requires proper land management systems to ensure compatible land use.


Zoning makes business activities, land use practices, and housing projects more expensive. Even though zoning remains a moral act to some extent, and helps in controlling land use practices in a given area, it offers a given group of personnel in authority the pleasure of controlling the rights of local individuals on land use prejudices.


Byun, D. W., Kim, S., Czader, B., Nowak, D., Stetson, S., & Estes, M. (2005). Estimation of biogenic emissions with satellite-derived land use and land cover data for air quality modeling of Houston-Galveston ozone nonattainment area. Journal of Environmental Management, 75(4), 285-301. Web.

Cheng, F., & Byun, D. W. (2008). Application of high resolution land use and land cover data for atmospheric modeling in the Houston Galveston metropolitan area, Part I: Meteorological simulation results. Atmospheric Environment, 42(33), 7795-7811. Web.

Cooper, C. A., Knotts, H. G., & Brennan, K. M. (2008). The Importance of Trust in Government for Public Administration: The Case of Zoning. Public Administration Review, 68(3), 459-468. Web.

Houston, D., Krudysz, M., & Winer, A. (2008). Diesel Truck Traffic in Low-Income and Minority Communities Adjacent to Ports: Environmental Justice Implications of Near-Roadway Land Use Conflicts. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 2067(1), 38-46. Web.

Jiang, X., Wiedinmyer, C., Chen, F., Yang, Z., & Lo, J. C. (2008). Predicted impacts of climate and land use change on surface ozone in the Houston, Texas, area. Journal of Geophysical Research, 113(20), 28-57. Web.

Mincey, S. K., Schmitt-Harsh, M., & Thurau, R. (2013). Zoning, land use, and urban tree canopy cover: The importance of scale. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 12(2), 191-199. Web.

Qian, Z. (2010). Without Zoning: Urban Development and Land Use Controls in Houston. City Journals, 27(1), 31-41. Web.

Speyrer, J. F. (1989). The effect of land-use restrictions on market values of single-family homes in Houston. The Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics, 2(2), 117-130. Web.

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