Houston’s infamous lack of zoning could become a climate-policy asset as the sprawling Texas metropolis attempts to steer a more sustainable course.
Of course, with a global outbreak of the coronavirus, it wasn’t meant to be.
Undeterred, Houston quietly adopted the Bayou City’s first citywide climate action plan on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. If city leaders can pull it off, America’s sprawling oil capital could end up teaching a lot to more traditionally green urban strongholds.
The plan includes plenty of mainstay climate-policy prescriptions, including calls to electrify the city’s fleet of vehicles, switch to renewable sources of energy, and improve energy efficiency in buildings. But then things become rather unique. The city’s first bicycle master plan, adopted in 2017, gets a lot of play, as does the MetroNEXT Moving Forward plan, a widely lauded $3.5 billion push to overhaul mass transit in the notoriously auto-oriented city. The emphasis on mobility makes sense, since nearly one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and Houston maintains one of the highest rates of automobile use in the country.
Toward this same end, one of the plan’s more innovative proposals calls on policymakers to eliminate minimum parking requirements by 2030. While Houston famously lacks zoning — meaning that it doesn’t segregate uses or restrict densities — it still enforces some conventional land-use regulations. These include minimum parking requirements, which mandate that developers build off-street parking for each project, regardless of actual demand. In Houston, this can mean up to two parking spaces for every apartment or four spaces for every thousand square feet of office space.
Thanks to the pioneering work of urban economist Donald Shoup, minimum parking requirements have lately come under fire from affordable housing activists and environmentalists. The former note that the construction of an underground parking garage can raise the cost of an apartment by as much as $34,000. The latter point out that mandating parking bakes in resource-intensive sprawl, foreclosing the possibility of a more urban, less car-dependent lifestyle.
In pursuit of less driving and more energy efficiency, the plan also calls on policymakers to rally behind infill. With the proposed “Walkable Places Ordinance” and “Transit-Oriented Development Ordinance,” a blend of improved sidewalks and light design guidance could soon improve the pedestrian experience in Houston’s potentially walkable nodes, reducing the incentive to drive. With minimum parking requirements gone, small patches of walkable urbanism could soon take root among some of the Sun Belt’s most notorious sprawl.