Greener Houston Grapples With Diversity And Sprawl

Houston's downtown skyscrapers loom at the edge of the 20-acre Sam Houston Park, near City Hall. i i

The 20-acre Sam Houston Park sits alongside Houston's downtown skyscrapers near City Hall. telwink via Flickr hide caption

itoggle caption telwink via Flickr
Houston's downtown skyscrapers loom at the edge of the 20-acre Sam Houston Park, near City Hall.

The 20-acre Sam Houston Park sits alongside Houston's downtown skyscrapers near City Hall.

telwink via Flickr

Houston is where you find out what happens when a million people drop by your place.

And stay.

That's roughly what's going on now in Greater Houston. The metro population has increased by roughly a million this decade. People came as immigrants from Mexico and China. They came as job-seekers from California. They came as refugees from New Orleans.

So that's why Morning Edition traveled here: We're following the crowd.

Mapping A City's Changes

Click on the map to see Steve Inskeep's reports from Houston and where they took place.

Watching Cities Evolve

Houston is our latest destination on The Urban Frontier, our occasional look at how cities change and grow.

We've seen Karachi, Khartoum, Mumbai and the sprawling suburbs of America's East Coast. We zero in on places that are rapidly growing. There's no shortage: The world's urban population has increased by about 3 billion people in recent decades, much faster than the population as a whole.

If you want to know if we're building a more stable or sustainable world, visit a growing city.

In Houston, oil is the biggest industry, but no longer the only one. Eight of 10 jobs were once linked to the oil industry; now less than half are. People work in biomedical research, aerospace and more.

Greater Houston has around 5.7 million people. They're spread across roughly 10,000 square miles. That's a larger land area than New Jersey.

So many people, so many big air-conditioned homes, so many long commutes — that's the promise and the peril of Houston.

This week, we are learning how developers built a strikingly affordable and livable city. They work in a city with very few rules. Four times Houston voted on a zoning code; four times Houston rejected it.

Houstonians also consume far more energy than people in almost any other city. All that car travel and those cavernous cooled spaces on the Gulf Coast add up. The way you build a city can add to global warming — if you build a city like Houston.

The Challenges Of Urban Growth

Mayor Bill White has struggled to make Houston a more sustainable city. He championed green development and commuter rail lines. That stance hasn't quite satisfied environmentalists. They say Houston needs a more comprehensive plan — just what Houston has always resisted.

And White's city isn't just growing — it's also growing more diverse.

A few decades ago, Houston's demographics were normal for a Southern city: white-dominated, with a black minority. Today, it's just 37 percent white. Hispanics outnumber Anglos. There's a large black population. Thousands of Asian immigrants make Houston their first stop, as you can see at Houston's Hong Kong Mall.

Houston has welcomed diversity, though it leads to some tension.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman represents the Third Ward, a historically black neighborhood full of renters.

Coleman is worried about gentrification — he doesn't want the Third Ward's residents driven out by upscale professionals. So he's arranged to buy millions of dollars worth of land, specifically to keep it away from developers.

A Novelist's View Of Her Hometown

To see how Houston has changed, you could board a boat on Houston's Buffalo Bayou with author Attica Locke. Her new crime novel, Black Water Rising, explores the racially divided Houston of 1981. The main character is a black man who witnessed a murder on the bayou, but can't bring himself to tell authorities because bitter experience has taught him not to trust white cops.

Locke's personal story suggests how the Houston power structure has changed since 1981: Her African-American father is now a mayoral candidate in the very different Houston of 2009.

Sociologist Stephen Klineberg considers Houston "the most interesting city in America." He conducts surveys that show the profound changes in the city's population and its attitudes. He says Houston's diversity shows what the United States will look like in 30 years.

So we may be following the crowd to Houston, but we're also looking at the future of America.

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