This is a Guest Post by Wellington Architect and regular reader Guy Marriage

For quite some time now, Demographia has been touting Houston, Texas, as the way forward for New Zealand, and especially Auckland, to copy their stunningly low housing construction costs. While not in any way wanting to take advantage of the Houstonian’s current miserable flooding dilemma, it is at least worthwhile looking at some of the reasons which are only now coming to the surface.

Yes, of course there are differences, massive differences, in geology and geography. Auckland is a city riven by two large harbours, almost cutting the island in two (in fact, a canal linking the two has been seriously proposed in the past – would that mean that the North Island would become two islands?). Auckland is also famously covered in 50 volcanic cones, is surrounded by islands to the east, ancient kauri forests and rocky beaches to the west, and has a deeply indented coastline. It rains, often, and the hilly nature means the water runs off, fast. By contrast, Houston is very different.

I’ve been to Houston only once, many years ago. All I remember of it was that it was extremely hot, and very flat, with inhospitable tall buildings in the centre, and many miles of low suburban housing on flat land surrounding it on all sides. Leafy trees to shade the houses and timber dwellings, not unlike New Zealand. There was no street life in the CBD in way that we have it here, as shopping was all done in indoor malls like the vast shopping mall the Houston Galleria (it has an ice rink at its centre, so you can imagine that the whole complex is sealed off from the intense heat outside). The granite-clad facades of buildings descend to the sidewalk but have no shops opening onto the street: Houstonians drive from air-conditioned home to air-conditioned mall in their air-conditioned cars. Of course, being Kiwis, we did not do that – we opened the windows in the car, in the hotel, and walked, like the poor people do, in the street. And that is the thing – Houston has incredible wealth, but also has incredible poverty. In Houston, developers rule, and scant attention is paid to those pesky rules and red tape that New Zealand seems to revel in. This helps keep property development costs down, creating new subdivisions very cheaply, while ignoring the uncomfortable facts they are building on a floor plain. The events of Hurricane Harvey are bringing that all home to roost in a most tragic manner.

It turns out that my memory is indeed correct: Houston is very hot and Houston is very flat. So flat in fact, that it slopes only about one foot in one mile, meaning that the 80 trillion gallons of water that has landed in Harvey will take a long long time to find its way out to the sea. It turns out, in fact, that Houston is the most flood-prone city in the United States, beating even New Orleans by a long margin. It also has the least-regulated drainage policy in the United States, so this “hands-off” deregulation of those pesky local authority rules has come back to bite Houstonians, big time. The big wonder therefore is that why is anyone surprised? Combine the most flood-prone city with the worst flood-drainage policy, in a dead-flat city where it has heavy rains, on the edge of a vast gulf of water in a region of massive storms, and then add global climate change to increase the amount of moisture in the air. Houston has been a city waiting for its disaster, and now it has had one. But here’s the rub: Expect more.

The Chicago Tribune notes in an article on 29 August that lax control over developers is a leading cause of the problem. “…elected officials allowed subdivision after subdivision to expand outward…  But mostly the problem comes down to helter-skelter development in a county with no zoning, leaving lots of concrete where water doesn’t drain, and little green space to absorb it…  Local politicians are simply unwilling to insist in the local code that developers, who are among their biggest campaign donors, create no adverse effects, said Ed Browne, chairman of the nonprofit Residents Against Flooding… “In general, developers run this city and whatever developers want they get,” Browne said. His group sued Houston last year in federal court, demanding more holding ponds and better drainage.”

Yes, we have issues with too much regulation in New Zealand, especially since the imposition of, frankly, quite silly attitudes towards scaffolding on building sites caused by our recent Health and Safety changes. But clearly Houston has been saving on the hassles of over-regulation, by ignoring rules where they simply don’t want to comply with them. Lower regulatory compliance equals lower building cost, but at some point, the consumer still pays. In the case of Houston, some people are paying with their lives, but for the most part, the insurance industry is paying a very massive bill.

Traffic on U.S. 290 at Beltway 8 on Friday, May 17, 2013, in Houston. ( Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle )

Texans, like Aucklanders, like their petrol-powered vehicles: even more so and certainly bigger sized, it would seem. But at least Aucklanders are more prepared to listen and to understand that changes need to be made, and that you can’t keep on building outward forever. Trump’s denial of global climate change and that the fault lies with humankind (and, primarily, America) goes hand in hand with the deletion of Science Advisors who believe in (and understand) anthropogenic climate change. Hurricane Harvey is not caused by Trump, but his attitude will not, long term, be helping. Short term, of course, neither petrol cars, diesel trucks, nor plug in hybrids can work in six feet of water – but then again, highways are, by their very nature, highly impermeable structures, causing water to run off rather than be absorbed. The large increase in housing and roading has had a huge effect on the amount of land actually available for water absorbtion – while prairie grasses like switchgrass can have root systems extending over 3m underground, capable of absorbing large volumes of water, the switch to prairie housing rather than prairie grass has, evidently, been having massive effects on the environment.

Climate scientist Michael Mann is quoted in an article on Slate, where he notes that Harvey’s effect has been aggravated by climate change: “it exacerbates several characteristics of the storm in a way that greatly increased the risk of damage and the loss of life.”   There is the tragic irony of the “oil capital of the world being drowned by an atmosphere teeming with greenhouse gases”. Not that unlikely really, when you consider that the reason Texas is so flat and so close to sea level is that in the not too distant geological past, this vast plain would have been underwater too: last time the waters rose globally. Those same geological reasons are probably why there is so much oil there in the first place: decayed plant matter transforming into oil deposits over millions of years. Take away those plants and replace them with asphalt and what do you get? Well, Houston, for starters.

New Zealand should not be so smug, however. We are, after all, the country happily living with our capital on the top of a savage, well-known fault line, and our major population boom is sited on the remnants of a very recently active volcanic plateau. May I remind you that Rangitoto last erupted only 600 years ago and that when Captain Cook first set eyes on it, it was still black with lava, not green with pohutukawa. Most of Auckland is safely above sea level, but much of Wellington is only just cresting the high tide mark, while most of Napier and much of Dunedin are actually below sea level, and survive only with the help of giant pumps and an uninterrupted supply of electricity. Napier’s new suburbs, promoted by developers and agreed to by the Council, are all tragically just as prone to flooding as those in Houston. Better, cleverer use of zoning beckons. Michael Lewyn notes in Planetizen that whereas most cities have maximum suburban height requirements, “single story houses are death traps in a flood-happy city like Houston, because people cannot flee to higher floors when a flood comes.” He advocates for a minimum of two stories height, and a lot less surface provision for car parking.

Better zoning will not automatically save the land from flooding, but it certainly will help the neighbourhood survive better when it does flood. Think about Auckland’s recent developments in the bottom of disused quarries or on productive farm land like Pukekohe: does it really make sense to waive the requirement for red tape at this time? Or should we be doubling down, producing better, quality housing that will last the distance, in neighbourhoods we can be proud of? Will Demographia still point to Houston’s untrammelled low-cost growth as the answer to Auckland’s housing woes? Somehow, I think not.

Lessons for New Zealand? Many, including the obvious one: don’t build houses on a flood plain. Lessons for America? Well, perhaps one obvious one is that “a well-regulated militia and the right to bear arms” might be the wrong regulations to pay attention to.

Houston 1891
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  1. Thanks for your comments Guy. I haven’t ever visited Houston and it certainly isn’t on my bucket list. It is certainly one of those cities, which from a distance, just has no appeal. As a tourist, I prefer places that I call ‘walkable’ and with a more appealing history and architecture. And I have always guessed Houston has just plain got its design all wrong.

  2. Lessons for New Zealand? Don’t listen to Hugh Pavletich/Demographia. Looking forward to seeing a reply from him to this article.
    I agree we should not be smug. NZ is projected to have 4m vehicles by the end of the year – more motor vehicles than adults – very similar to the US. And their average fuel economy is slightly worse than the US (10l/100km vs 9.4 for the US).

    1. Robert – that is rather extraordinary that our fuel economy is that bad. Especially as the US has such a love for V8 engines. But I guess it is the age of our fleet that is the rub. Our fleet must be on average at least 5-10 years older than the US’s.

        1. Well, that’s true ! California actually has very good mileage, as they have very high standards for new vehicles. Not so with Texas I think. But I was on the East Coast a couple of years ago, and went past a giant Chevy dealership. Was amazed to see that they had only 2 models on the lot – a lineup of about 30 Chevy pickup trucks, and on the other side, a lineup of about the same number of Corvettes. Presumably nothing but V8s in any of them. Extraordinary lack of empathy for the planet in that country.

  3. Cheers Warren. In the 80s, it was an exciting place to visit – I got to drive the biggest cat I’ve ever driven, wiht room for 8 passengers in comfort, and to be frank, there was no option – it’s so big that we just had to motor everywhere. Walkable it is not. Ice-skating at the Galleria while the others were shopping was also good fun.

    Its a spectacularly bad example, therefore, for Demographia to keep on bringing up Houston as an example for Auckland to follow.

  4. Interesting article, thanks Guy. I had not been exposed to Demographia before but have had a perusal: “By the early 1980s, the area had managed to develop the worst traffic congestion in the United States … they set about to solve the problem and in fact built enough new roadway capacity to make things better now than they were in the middle 1980s … the program included expansions and improvements to arterial street system … The urban area has recently opened a light rail line … Its role is to consume money and to give the local “railigious” an altar at which to burn incense.” I pity you, Guy, if you’re having to read this moonshine for work.

    1. Heidi – hell no – not for work – its just for fun ! Hugh Pavletich from Demographia is a curious man. The annoying thing is that our lack-lustre media view him as the only true word on urbanism, and indeed you will see that every time they have an article on urban sprawl in NZ, they go to him for comment and treat his word as gospel. I have a different point of view that doesn’t interface so seamlessly with the view that “sprawl is good”. Then idiots like David Seymour start parroting him as well.

      1. The most fun thing about the Herald is their regular phone offers. I need to regularly think up new reasons for not wanting 5 weeks (or sometimes I think it’s been 3 months!) of free papers delivered. Hence my lack of exposure to a few things, like Demographia, for better or worse. It would be good in the worm farm, but there’s so much coloured ink and I’m just not convinced it’s good… 🙂

  5. My experience of Houston was a 1-hour stop there on the “Sunset Limited” Amtrak train journey back in 2013. Being early October, the temperature was not too bad.

    What got me was the similarity between Houston’s Amtrak station and Auckland’s own long-distance facilities at The Strand. A single platform alongside a few sidings, some rudimentary shelters and a small pre-fab station-building. Totally incongruous for a city of 2.3 million and a sorry shadow of the grand Southern Pacific station that once existed, but in-keeping with the mere 3 trains a week each way that now serve it – just like Auckland’s!

    Immediately to the south rear-up the concrete-and-glass sky-towers of the CBD while immediately overhead pass the 8 lanes of Interstate 45 plus various slip-roads on a series of concrete viaducts under which the station nestles. Everywhere – concrete and cars, with only the weeds and scrub beside the tracks to provide some green relief.

    It could be – ought to be – so much more, just like Auckland. But both cities long-ago fell victim to the scourge of Autopia and although both have made good progress in reviving rail transport (after a 20-year battle Houston finally managed to get a light rail system underway which has seen huge passenger growth), both have a long way to go to fully rid themselves of the Demographia syndrome.

    1. With its flooding potential, Houston will have to make some serious changes or I’d say it’s a lost cause. The boomtown-floodtown article is really enlightening. In particular, the arrogance: “The longtime head of the flood control district flat-out disagrees with scientific evidence that shows development is making flooding worse… He also said the flood control district has no plans to study climate change… ” etc.

    2. Did you use the Greyhound bus system? I found the people we met to be the ones who seem to do the work and the Bus stations were not really what I had expected. In the larger cities there seemed to be a lot of troubled people as well.
      It was an interesting way to get a look around North America.

      1. No, I have not used the Greyhound buses. I imagine the clientele would be quite different from the trains. I travelled through South America by bus and that’s quite an experience. Unfortunately long-distance trains in South America are as sparse as they are in NZ with many having been shut down in the last 10-20 years.

        At least the USA has retained the Amtrak network but again like NZ, most of it is run for the benefit of leisure travellers rather than as the mainstay PT network as in Europe, Russia, China, Japan etc

  6. I agree that Houston’s model has benefits, and we should modify it to get more.

    The build-first method seems reckless, but once you realize the alternative is homelessness and people priced out of our city it’s actually a pretty good way forward.

    The trick is to combine that with a zoning model that encourages dense development, making a transit & pedestrian friendly city that’s vibrant and busy.

    Conversely Houston has adapted that model to be suburban, forcing high parking requirements, high minimum lot requirements, minimum set back & road design requirements, etc, etc that all ensure Houston sprawls endlessly.

    Contrary to what free market advocates like Seymour (who I normally agree with on a lot of housing issues) would tell you, that sprawl is not natural at all.

      1. Significant liberalization of the regulations, yes.

        Ideally fairly high density along the Dominion Road corridor (w LRT) and around all the rail & busway stations. Fairly high density = allowing apartment buildings & offices of 4-10 floors and significantly loosening single family dwelling requirements (eg removal of minimum floorspace requirements).

        Those same ideas should be spread to a lesser extent city wide, especially in regard to single family dwellings, as well as small MDUs (eg 2-6 apartment buildings, duplexes, etc) and ADUs (eg granny flats).

        Some things should also be done everywhere in Auckland, like removing parking requirements, narrow lanes instead of highway sized roads for new suburbs.

        I’m also a believer of serious RMA & building codes reform within Auckland. I quite like the idea of compulsory construction insurance.

        1. Agree with the general drift of where you want design to head. The trouble I have is seeing so much design that squanders our shared resources and worry about how liberalisation of the regulations will make this worse, not better.

  7. There is another reason why I feel that Houston – and indeed America in general – is not the answer to NZ housing issues and that is shown quite clearly there in the big photo of route US 290 with the massive wide lanes and multiple overpasses. On the upper right hand side of the photo is what looks like a residential enclave, a tightly packed medium density set of condos or townhouses for the middle classes. Bottom left, there is an advertising billboard on a stick, that says “In a Second, You’ll feel right at Home”. (somehow, I doubt it). Just above that, there are a series of trucks backing into a series of doors, into what is possibly a Nordgreens shopping mall.

    To me, this shows the greatness and also the awful stupidity of America. Greatness because they have perfectly mechanised every single part of American life, and it all runs incredibly efficiently, given enough cheap oil and large highways. All those Kenworths backing their trailers in there – unlike here, where the trailer stays with the truck driver, over there I think they just back the trailer in and leave it there. No having to downsize to small trucks to get around small roads – everything is massive and so you drive your massive truck to the massive warehouse, along massive roads, using massive amounts of energy, but actually, it is quite efficient in a weird, energy snorting manner.

    Of course, the trick comes when the people in the condos want to go to the mall to go shopping. I’m pretty sure that they would be forbidden to cross over the 10 to 16 lanes of highway by foot, even if it is only 200m away as the crow flies. But can you figure out how they would get there by car? To navigate this junction would be living hell….

  8. Great, just the encouragement we need, a depressing look at sprawl and concrete.
    Why don’t we just use the Waitakeres to fill in the harbour and then make a flat motorway from CBD to NS,

  9. Whats that down the centre of US290, Beltway 8? An O-Bahn guided busway, just what Auckland needs as well, instead of all this rail nonsense, And look they are even building it in the new Beltway pictured below US290 with raised concrete tracks..
    Seems NZ road builders can create equal to Houston vertiginous flyovers or did the Waterview flyover designer previously have employ in Houston? One thing seems certain they made them suitably steep to keep those pesky light rail things off them. Rubber wheels rule!

    1. I dont know what your point is. Auckland has a very successful busway and there are plans to build more.

      The issues are capacity and the fact the most expensive part of any PT trip is the driver. Converting a busway to light rail will massively increase capacity while only requiring one driver.

      The Northern Busway is likely to reach capacity soon. So then you either expand it (which would realistically mean taking vehicle lanes away from the motorway) or you go to higher capacity vehicles. The double decker buses have allowed us to go down the second path but even that has limits.

      On routes like Dominion Road, the number of buses is already huge. Giving the buses their own ROW would increase through put, but the space needed for buses is substantially higher than rail because it is not on set tracks.

      So great that you love buses (so do Aucklanders with 70% of bus trips still on ordinary buses) but they have limits on what they can achieve. What do you see as the issues with rail? It is higher capex but lower opex than buses but otherwise deliver a similar service with greater capacity.

  10. Guy, I forwarded the link to your post to an English contact in Texas whose daughter lives in Houston. Here are her thoughts:

    “When they [daughter’s family] moved to Houston I thought that it was ‘the armpit of America’. From the highway it is the ugliest place that you can imagine. It turns out that there is so much money in Houston that the wealthy neighbourhoods are very elegant and, because the climate is almost tropical, there are beautiful gardens.

    Engineers have known for years that a flooding problem exists. Houston streets flood regularly. The problem is political. There is no zoning and developers get their way to build whatever and wherever they want. There is less and less land to soak up the water. The area where my daughter used to live is marshland and now it is covered in shopping centers and housing.

    All I can say to Auckland is that engineers can tell you what the problems are and they can recommend solutions. The solutions are usually expensive. Ignore them at your peril.

    There is talk of building another dam in Houston. It will cost so much to recover from this flood that I am not holding my breath.”

    1. Thanks Linda – appreciate that. Really good to have an actual account from someone who lives there. I wrote that piece a while back, when Harvey was actually happening, but of course since then the world has seen a series of devastating hurricanes slam into the Caribbean and destroy vast swathes of poor island nations out at sea. Harvey is hardly even making the headlines any more, but obviously the clean-up will take years, and millions. But at least they are a mainland state, and not Puerto Rico, and is so ruined it may never recover.

      We’re fortunate in NZ of having a piece of legislation called the Resource Management Act, which holds a certain power over who is allowed to develop, and where. For the most part it is working – because the developers are complaining that it is too restrictive. From my point of view that is a good thing. In an hour or two we’ll find out who the next government is going to be – and if it is National again, they will keep on working towards picking the RMA apart and allowing more untrammelled development on land that possibly really shouldn’t be developed.

    2. I’m another who has never been to Houston (made it to Dallas once) and like most non-Americans very happy to harp negatively about the American dream as it is actually lived. But having a vague memory that Houston was often mentioned in articles about the arts I checked Google.
      “”Of the 10 most populous U.S. cities, Houston has the most total area of parks and green space, 56,405 acres (228 km2). The city also has over 200 additional green spaces—totaling over 19,600 acres (79 km2).””
      “”The Houston Theater District, located downtown, is home to nine major performing arts organizations and six performance halls. It is the second-largest concentration of theater seats in a downtown area in the United States. Houston is one of few United States cities with permanent, professional, resident companies in all major performing arts disciplines: opera (Houston Grand Opera), ballet (Houston Ballet), music (Houston Symphony Orchestra), and theater (The Alley Theatre, Theatre Under the Stars).””
      And Houston produced musicians such as Beyonce, Johnny Copeland, Albert Collins, Kenny Rodgers, ZZ Top and even Sippie Wallace.

      Seems to compare quite favourably to Auckland. All that culture and cheaper housing.

      1. Bob, Houston has this “black gold” stuff called “oil” that sits just below the surface. Massive amounts of it was pumped out of the ground, through the hands of a concentrated few corporations, and a tiny portion of that was siphoned off to provide the dollars for the arts and music. Those corporations then get tax breaks if they spend their money on public arts programs. Hence Houston has, as you point out, a truly great public arts scene, for the very rich.

        This would be the same as if NZ had a similar great source of money-producing commodity – wait – we do! “White gold!” Milk! Cheese! Milk powder! If only Fonterra gave a large chunk of money annually to support the arts… the tiny amount sent through the Fonterra Grass Roots Fund shows that our corporations are not quite as altruistic as the Exxon, Chevron, Mobil, Texaco, etc corps that are over there.

    1. No, but any city which actually has slopes, or drains, would do a little better. Auckland sheds water quite well. I guess that the point is, neither the flatness of the city plain, nor the propensity for potential storms and flooding, should have come as a surprise to Houston. Why then, did they not insist that developers make adequate provisions?

    2. We can design for any amount of rainfall. Roeland, did you read Kent’s link from last Sunday?:

      Houston didn’t design for what they could reasonably expect. The boomtown-floodtown article explains the political and ideological reasons why. This article suggests that Harvey’s rainfall should have been expected:

      “On Tuesday afternoon, the Mont Belvieu industrial suburb east of Houston recorded 51.12 inches of water since Harvey’s arrival, breaking the highest previous record of 48 inches for a single storm, from Tropical Storm Amelia in Medina, Texas, in 1978.”

  11. Very interesting read, thanks Guy, and sad for the people of Houston, with recent events.
    In terms of sprawl, I was out visiting friends at Clarkes Beach last night. A road and drive I don’t relish, particularly on a rainy night, but no other transport options.
    I was amazed at the amount of new subdivision going on and was informed there are at least 1000 houses planned for the Kingseat hospital site. Apparently both the Drury and Karaka onramp areas are heavily congested in the mornings these days.
    With so much sprawl occurring, that ongoing southern motorway widening ain’t gonna fix that issue.
    Maybe a reinstatement of the Waiuku train may help but what can you do for decent public transport options for the Kingseat/Karaka area?

  12. what impact have the waterview tunnels had on auckland’s traffic issues?

    people seem to be saying traffic has eased since they were opened?

    if so is this an indication that more motorways is in fact what we need to solve this issue?

    1. But check out the latest post on GA regarding the SH1 widening. It took time but those travel time savings have been lost already.

      It is impossible to “fix” congestion unless you completely destroy the city so people leave, like Detroit. You can only give temporary relief or move the congestion to a new point on the network.

    2. Tunnels have created a new congestion spot leading up to the harbour bridge turn off on the northwestern that backs up up to the Newton on-ramp from at least 3:30 pm. This didn’t exist before.

    1. Interesting to note from a Herald article today: “Air New Zealand now flies five times a week to Houston year-round. From March 25 to October 27 next year it will increase to a mix of daily services and six services per week, boosting the number of seats by 16,000.
      The new 787-9 Dreamliner will be the first to regularly service one of Air New Zealand’s North American routes.
      Demand for travel between New Zealand and Texas continues to soar after the airline started flying there in 2015.
      Air New Zealand’s chief revenue officer Cam Wallace said demand was strong from both ends of the route.”

      1. I doubt there is much demand for travel to Texas itself, more like demand to transit to the Eastern Seaboard, Carribean and Central America.

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