Rising amid the rain-soaked coastal plains of Southeast Texas, Houston wouldn't seem real if it didn't, in fact, exist. Despite being nearly 50 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, it now has one of the nation's busiest ports. And when the city was slammed with some of the worst flooding in U.S. history in 2017, it didn't lose population—on the contrary, it gained roughly 30,000 new residents. It's also the only major U.S. city without zoning.
Unlike every other big city in America, the Bayou City makes no pretense at trying to comprehensively segregate land uses or control densities. There are no single-family zones, no height limits, no arbitrary distinctions about where shops can open up. When the zoned American lands in Houston, they are liable to be struck by parking lots reinventing themselves as apartment buildings, by postwar subdivisions transforming into dense new townhouse districts, by old strip malls being reimagined as new satellite business districts. In the zoned city, any one of these developments would be a major ordeal, the subject of endless permitting and raucous public hearings—in Houston, it just happens.
Far from the doomsday predictions made by the zoning pushers in bygone eras, unzoned Houston works just fine. Between 1970 and 2020, the city nearly doubled in population from 1.2 to 2.3 million, assuming the title of America's fourth-largest city. Attracting a blend of working- and middle-class Americans and international migrants seeking opportunity, Houston is now our nation's most diverse city.
Thanks in part to a lack of zoning, Houston builds housing at nearly three times the per capita rate of cities like New York City and San Jose. It isn't all just sprawl either: In 2019, Houston built roughly the same number of apartments as Los Angeles, despite the latter being nearly twice as large. This ongoing supernova of housing construction has helped to keep Houston one of the most affordable big cities in the U.S., offering new arrivals modest rents and accessible home prices even amid seemingly endless demand.