This post was originally published on 2/4/2009.
Street View is really a wonderful thing. It provides the means to waste hours of your life by virtually cruising around major world cities. I was looking for architectural inspiration in the low-rise areas of Tokyo when a thought occured to me: where had I seen this urban form before? Oh, right:
The “superblocks” around Araiyakushimae Station range in size from 250×350 to 500×600. Within the blocks, numerous privately-maintained driveways and accesses connect interior lots to the outside world. The rapidly-developing Washington Avenue corridor is being built out at the exact same scale – in lot size, building coverage, and building height. In fact, if you flip the Tokyo image around (so the cars drive on the right side of the road), the transition is nearly seamless.
So why does an aerial photo of Rice Military look just like Tokyo?
A few things set Houston apart from most other American cities here. For one, American cities have long had a prejudice towards public streets. Development regulations stipulating that “every lot must have X amount of frontage on a public street” date to the 1800s in most American cities, well before the age of zoning. Interior lots reached through shared access easements are a common feature of rural and exurban development, but Houston is relatively uncommon in allowing such arrangements in a high-density setting. This results in narrow alleyways more characteristic of cities in Japan and, on a larger scale, Great Britain.
We also lack the setback regulations typical of American metropolii. Minimum front/side/rear yard requirements, typically based on a single-family home on a 5000 square foot lot, entered almost every city’s zoning codes in the 1920s and 1930s. They still exist today. Houston, however, never had such regs – side and rear yard are limited only by fire safety issues, which in practice means a 4-5′ gap between wood-frame buildings, or zero-lot-line with a partition wall of concrete, brick, or masonry. We *do* have a 10-foot front yard requirement and a 15-foot corner “sight triangle” requirement, but these are often waived for smaller projects.
Thus does the inner loop rapidly densify, passing many “smart growth” cities – and all without the “regional district subarea framework plan” or the 37 different stakeholder committees or the 20-year property tax abatements. Nope, in Houston it just happens. Pretty cool.