“As a young man, when I took the bus from the Northside to downtown, walking the streets of the city of Houston, I remembered what my mom said, and I began to dream big” – Mayor Sylvester Turner
The nation’s fourth largest city, Houston stands as one of the biggest boom towns in American history. Big dreams had motivated the Allen brothers, born in New York – to seek a Texas location in 1836 for a “great center of government and commerce”. They named the town after the hero of The Battle of San Jacinto, Sam Houston. While the town grew in fits and starts – battling everything from yellow fever to excessive gambling and prostitution in its early years – eventually citizens making investments in themselves turned Houston from just another sleepy town to Space City.
Those investments – along with a little geographic luck – sparked a boom that especially took off as intermodal commerce, fueled by refined oil, began post-WWII. By then Houston had already connected itself with the ports at nearby Galveston by rail and highway. The city of Galveston, devastated by a massive hurricane in 1900, found itself slow to recover, as money and power began to shift inland to Houston. Later, the development of the Houston Ship Canal facilitated the city to grow into the second largest port in the United States.
Oil – “Texas tea” as it was famously called – has had a tremendous impact on everything from economic growth to national security. Houston, as the nation’s Big Oil town, sits often at the intersection of money and politics in the United States. After a brief downturn in oil prices in the mid-1980s, the city and state of Texas have since largely boomed, evidenced in the billions invested in refineries, rigs and gleaming corporate edifices for companies such as Phillips 66, Marathon Oil, and Chevron. During this era, Houston has also grown as a major financial hub, home to the largest medical center in the world and has developed not one, but two major airports. This led to massive population shifts which saw Houston grow from under 45,000 in 1900 to 2.1 million in the city alone by 2010.
Worries, however, persist that this growth cannot continue forever. In a bid to grow, the city adopted extremely relaxed policies around zoning and development restrictions. This has sometimes led to a feeling that Houston, from a planning perspective, lacks a long-range vision for its neighborhoods. While the city has made investments in public transportation over the years, the city’s many nodes often lack connection to one another. Recent stresses on the oil industry, due in part of an over-abundance of supply globally, have cut some growth prospects. Whether this is a mere short term stall, or if the gas is truly running low for Houston’s long range economic engine, remains to be seen.