A decade ago, one of my professors suggested I consider becoming a planner. I told him I wasn’t interested in telling people what to do. A native of the Pacific Northwest, familiar with the zoning and regulatory frameworks of Seattle and Portland, I conceptualized “planning” and “zoning” as one and the same. Minimum and maximum lot size requirements, density caps, design review… this was something I wanted nothing to do with.

So I stuck with Civil Engineering, and I moved to Houston, because I thought living in the nation’s largest city without zoning would be an interesting contrast to the “smart growth” of Seattle and Portland. Several 24-hour taco joints and chicken fried steak dinners later, I had decided to stay.

Turns out Houston plans. Far, far in advance. A grid of major streets is drawn out on the prairie, five miles distant from the closest development. As this fills in, the grid of dashed lines expands. Houston has been doing this for over seventy years, and as a result has one of the most coherent arterial grids of any city I’ve visited. This isn’t limited to transportation, either. Sewers are dug out and replaced. Bayou capacity is improved. Water resources are enhanced. Houston simply has the infrastructure thing sorted.

Moreover, this ought to be replicable. While other cities will likely never go completely zoning-free, the combination of robust long-term planning and (crucially) implementation of infrastructure with relaxed land-use law should provide a template for the expansion and redevelopment of other cities nationwide.

As for me, well, as a consultant civil I get a lot of opportunities to contribute to our infrastructure planning. Not all of these I can write about. Thankfully there is LA, Tokyo, and a host of other places to also discuss. This, then, is a non-city-specific transportation and planning blog, written from the perspective of someone who thinks Houston basically gets it right.

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