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.” http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-houston-drainage-grid-obsolete-20170829-story.html
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.
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.”
http://www.slate.com/articles/business/metropolis/2017/08/houston_wasn_t_built_to_withstand_a_storm_like_harvey.html 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.