Houston: Texas-Sized Sprawl, No End In Sight

Interstate 10 passes by Houston's version of Mount Rushmore. i i

hide captionMount Rush Hour: Interstate 10 passes by Houston's version of Mount Rushmore — giant busts of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and two founders of modern Texas: Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin.

Nicole Beemsterboer/NPR
Interstate 10 passes by Houston's version of Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rush Hour: Interstate 10 passes by Houston's version of Mount Rushmore — giant busts of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and two founders of modern Texas: Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin.

Nicole Beemsterboer/NPR

Mapping A City's Changes

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

Houston is the latest stop on the Urban Frontier, Morning Edition's occasional look at how cities change and grow.

Houston is a swiftly growing city; it has added a million residents this decade. No doubt, some of those newcomers drive on Interstate 10, which roars in front of Houston's own version of Mount Rushmore — giant white busts of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and two founders of modern Texas, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin.

Since it overlooks the freeway, the spot is known as Mount Rush Hour. And it reminds visitors of a couple of things about Houston: one, that it's a little quirkier than you might realize; and two, that it is huge.

The highways radiate out to a giant seaport, oil companies, skyscrapers, and miles and miles and miles of suburban neighborhoods.

On a ride outside the central city, Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University who has studied Houston for decades, tells NPR's Steve Inskeep about the city's sense of scale.

"The city of Houston covers 620 square miles," he says. "You could put inside the city limits of Houston, simultaneously — I kid you not — the cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit."

That phenomenon was noted in a study of American cities and their environmental impact, co-authored by Edward Glaeser of Harvard University.

The study shows that Houstonians use far more energy than people in other cities, like New York or Los Angeles.

And with few zoning rules and a diverse economy, Houston is, in a sense, "the great growing region of the Sunbelt on steroids," Glaeser says.

Noting the addition of a million people in 10 years, Glaeser says the city succeeds "by providing middle-income Americans with a really astonishingly high quality of life."

Among the town's advantages are an average work commute of less than 30 minutes and low housing costs. The National Association of Realtors puts the city's average home price at around $150,000, Glaeser says. Other perks include a lack of state income tax and a vibrant restaurant scene.

All of that taken together means that Houston has weathered the nation's economic crisis fairly well, he says.

But Glaeser notes that there are problems with Houston's sprawl: It takes a large amount of energy to make the area's humid, hot climate comfortable, and the city is built around the use of cars.

"Houston is among the five worst American metropolitan areas, in terms of its carbon emissions," he says.

And he acknowledges that for people who are concerned with environmental issues, Houston presents a picture that is beyond dismaying.

"I think horrendous wouldn't be too strong a word," Glaeser says.

"I got a tremendous amount of heat every time I've said anything positive about Houston."

Still, when compared to places like New York City, which has a limited amount of land, or California and Massachusetts, which have much more regulations, Houston enjoys an inherent advantage, Glaeser says, thanks to its lack of rules.

"It's a funny chronicle, where often well-meaning people in the coastal states of this country, often thinking that they're doing environmental good, have actually enacted a set of rules that have made it enormously difficult for middle-income people to live in their areas, and as a result, have pushed people toward less environmentally attractive places, like Texas," Glaeser says.

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