How Overregulation Creates Sprawl (Even in a City without Zoning)


Numerous commentators have suggested that the spread-out, automobile-dependent urban form (often referred to as “sprawl”) that dominates metropolitan America is at least partially caused by government regulation of land use. But at first glance, the fate of Houston, Texas may seem to rebut that theory. Houston is America’s only large city without a formal zoning code. Yet Houston is as automobile-dependent and sprawling as many cities with zoning. It could therefore be argued that automobile-dependent sprawl is the inevitable result of the free market.

The purpose of my article is to rebut that theory, by showing that land use is almost as heavily regulated in Houston as in cities with zoning, and that Houston’s land use regulations have the same sprawl-creating effect as similar regulations in other cities. Specifically, I point out that:

*Houston reduces density (and thus increases automobile dependency) through minimum lot sizes and minimum parking requirements.

*Houston requires that shops and offices both provide off-street parking and be set back from the street, thus requiring pedestrians to walk through parking lots to reach commercial destinations.

*Houston requires that right of ways on major streets be 100 feet wide, thus impairing pedestrians’ ability to cross streets.

*Houston requires that intersections on major streets be 600 feet apart, thus giving pedestrians few opportunities to cross streets.

*Although Houston does not directly require separation of commercial and residential uses, the city government does subsidize enforcement of private covenants that seek to create such separation.

*Houston has invested in sprawl-producing highways to a greater extent than other American cities.

In sum, sprawl is as much a result of government regulation in Houston as in other cities.


Land Use Law

Date of this Version

June 2005