I had come to Houston because, for those of us who dream of concrete, it is the ultimate city. In the 1990s, Houston built its way out of congestion, creating so many freeways the people were happy, their urge for mobility satiated. Houston is also a city without zoning.
As zoning is the major cause of the corruption of the NSW Labor Party, I wanted to see how a big city could thrive without it.
I was not the only person from Sydney in Houston last week. Brian Houston was there, too. The pastor of the Hillsong religious operation (churches at Norwest Business Park in Castle Hill, and in London, Kiev and Cape Town) was appearing at Lakewood, the largest church in America. Located in the former arena of the Houston Rockets basketball team, it sits 18,000 at a service.
Incidentally, Marcos Witt, a Lakewood pastor, will be the guest artist at this year’s Hillsong conference at ACER Arena in Sydney. These constant global tours of star Pentecostal preachers, backed up by books, CDs, DVDs, and television and internet broadcasts, are in interesting contrast to the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day, also to be held in Sydney in July, and possible only due to an enormous government subsidy.
Pastor Houston was in Houston to inspire the city, but I think he would have been inspired by it, too. It’s a city that believes in its ability to solve problems. It is, after all, the place from which humans reached the moon. Its urbanised area contains about the same number of people as greater Sydney, but each year it adds almost as many to its population as all of Australia does. People want to come to Houston, because it offers the chance of a better life.
This includes average housing that costs less than three times the average income. This is quality of life. It is progress. It is the ultimate gift to families.
It is the great failure of Australia’s political class that it has failed to do this. In Sydney the average house costs 8.6 times the average household income. That figure represents an enormous toll in stress, and the harming of family life from the many hours, indeed the many years, parents have to labour.
The reason the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, talks about working families so much is because, thanks to the failure of our politicians where housing is concerned, all we do is work.
Houston and its surrounding area shows there is another way. Houston believes in sprawl, and as a result this is what you could buy last week for $US138,000 ($144,000) in Shady Woods, a pleasant outer suburb – a two-storey house built in a cul-de-sac in 2005 and consisting of 171 square metres plus double garage.
There are three bedrooms and 2½ bathrooms. It’s the sort of house maybe half of Sydney’s population would be happy to live in, the difference being that here you would be paying two or three times as much.
I spent over a day driving around Houston and its suburbs, and saw only a few foreclosure sale signs. Because the city kept housing costs down, its home owners have been relatively unaffected by the subprime crisis.
There’s another difference between Sydney and Houston, which is that Houston has done a much better job than us at decentralising employment. Because there is no zoning, when land in the original CBD became too expensive, developers built their office towers elsewhere. That means that today Houston has maybe half a dozen large business centres that are widely dispersed. Sydney, in comparison, has only two, city/North Sydney and Parramatta. To live in an outer suburb in Houston does not put you as far away from most jobs as it does in Sydney.
The idea of a city without zoning might imply anarchy. Houston avoids this through protective covenants. All the home owners in a neighbourhood can band together and agree that no development can take place without the approval of the community. These covenants cover a large proportion of the city, but they don’t cover vacant land, so they don’t impede development and growth. In effect, they provide privatised zoning, but at a local level and without the interference of government and all the corruption that brings with it.
Houston’s other great achievement has been to connect its pieces together with one of the world’s finest road systems. Many people think roads benefit private car travel only, but buses travel on roads, too, so roads are also a public transport issue.
Between 1982 and 1997 Houston increased its freeway lanes by 75 per cent, while the population increased by only 30 per cent. The miles driven increased by 62 per cent. This suggests it isn’t true, as some anti-road activists claim, that if you build more roads they will just fill up. You can build your way out of congestion, provided you build enough roads.
Houston doesn’t provide all the answers to Sydney’s problems. There are some important differences between the two cities, starting with geography: Houston is on a bigger plain than Sydney, and doesn’t have the attractions of a coastal fringe that influence many Sydney property prices.
But it still offers some big lessons about how to make a better city. It is the modern city unbound, relatively free of politics and ideology, the closest thing to the way most people want to live now.