Hurricane Harvey: How Houston’s Lack of Zoning is Affecting Regrowth and Cleanup

By: Alexandria Mormile

In recent weeks, we all have viewed the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey on Texas and now, Hurricane Irma in Florida. While the states are actively working to repair the damages, one city’s efforts are proving to be more difficult than others: The City of Houston.

Houston has notoriously been known to lack a zoning code.[1] In the aftermath of Harvey, some are questioning if this lack of zoning has exacerbated flooding in the City.[2] While some may be enticed by this purported freedom from regulations, it has ultimately left the city as a mess of urban sprawl. For example, while walking down a major city street in Houston, one may pass a school, a skyscraper, a residential home, and an amusement park all right next to one another. As one could imagine, when a street like the one just described is filled with a U.S. record-breaking 52” of rainfall, the cleanup is pretty difficult.[3]

The after effect of Hurricane Harvey was not the first time the City has experienced difficulties with flooding due to their peculiar landscape. Particularly, researchers at Texas A&M have noted in recent years that Houston’s increased urban sprawl has eliminated the presence of wetlands which are vital to flood absorption.[4] Those wetlands have been replaced with concrete and other impervious surfaces.[5] Therefore, when 52” of rainfall are dumped onto concrete, one could foresee flooding and runoff becoming an issue, as the water has nowhere to go.

Houston lawmakers argue that there is a bayou system in place to guide runoff out of the city, so the absence of wetlands and zoning has nothing to do with this increased flooding.[6] However, the fact that some are even questioning whether the lack of zoning has been a contributing factor to the devastating flooding seems to be the reason why cities and municipalities implement zoning regulations in the first place.

Zoning is implemented not only to establish uniformities amongst certain areas, but more importantly to promote and preserve certain land uses. Zoning’s importance is evidenced in cities that lack it. In Houston, for example, the lack of zoning in the city has left wetlands, that would normally be preserved through a particular zoning seen in other districts, covered in cement and skyscrapers. Why is this? Because there are no zoning laws that prohibit this kind of development.

While many people are drawn to Houston for its eccentric nature, critics are questioning whether this immense natural disaster has influenced lawmakers to finally implement zoning.[7] However, it may be too late. Houston is the nation’s fourth largest city, and like many U.S. cities, its population is growing at an exponential rate.[8] The buildings are built and the cement is intact. Additional regulations will not be able to remove the infrastructure that is in place.

While the particular zoning needed in Houston may be an unattainable goal this time, it is evident that lawmakers have to step up to implement measures in order to combat future natural disasters and ensure this current devastation does not happen again.

[1] Scott Beyer, Did Houston Flood Because of a Lack of Zoning? Forbes, (Aug. 30, 2017, 1:46 A.M.),

[2] Id.

[3] Doyle Rice, Harvey has dropped almost 52 inches of rain in Houston. Here’s where its moving next, USA Today, (Aug. 29, 2017, 9:40 AM),

[4] Nina Satija, et al, Boomtown, Flood Town, ProPublica, (Dec. 7, 2016),

[5] Id.

[6] Beyer, supra note 1.

[7] Id.

[8] Rice, supra note 3.





  1. This is such an interesting topic! I had no idea Houston had no zoning laws, I honestly didn’t think any municipality survived without them. Maybe there is hope for a conservation overlay district to save any remaining open space- if there is any left.

  2. In rebuilding Houston after the Harvey devastation, hopefully the City develops some sort of floodplain zoning ordinance to determine the types of development that can occur in critical areas.

  3. Through the implementation of regulatory guides such as the Green Building Code and similar tools, developers can be required to create projects that have strong on-site drainage. If the City of Houston is likely not to pass zoning laws, despite the impact of Hurricane Harvey, perhaps requirements for improved on-site drainage (and for less impervious surfaces) should be integrated into the City’s current Building Code?

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