Urban Development, Economic Growth, and
Personal Liberty: The Rhetoric of the Houston
Anti-Zoning Movements, 1947-1962
BARRY J. KAPLAN*
HOUSTON, THE FIFTH LARGEST CITY IN THE UNITED STATES, HAS BEEN
called the "hair shirt of the city planners" because it is the only
major American city without zoning.' In 1929 and 1938 zoning was
shelved by the city council, and in 1948 and 1962 Houston voters de-
cisively rejected zoning ordinances. These setbacks can be attributed to
the efforts of a small, well-organized pressure group that understood
and reflected the conservative political ethos of the city. Although zon-
ing opponents created a detailed analysis of zoning theory and practice,
their public campaign was heavily weighted with emotional argument.
They asserted that zoning violated private-property rights, retarded eco-
nomic growth, and was inherently corrupt, unfair, and un-American.
Profoundly conservative, the anti-zoning rhetoric elicited a positive
response among Houstonians, especially in 1948 and 1962, when zoning
opponents used scare tactics to influence public opinion.
Although fascinating in their own right, the zoning controversies and
the accompanying rhetoric offer the historian a useful tool in compre-
hending the values, ethos, and fears of Houstonians from 1929 to 1962.
While the nexus of the anti-zoning arguments remained constant, ex-
cept for 1929, and while remarkable continuity existed in the com-
position of the anti-zoning organizations, rhetorical shifts nevertheless
occurred between campaigns which illustrated the spirit of the times.
In 1929 and 1938 when the issue was before the city council, zoning
foes intimidated the council by packing its chambers with vociferous
opponents. Realtors and small property owners, who perceived zoning
to be inimical to their profession and to their economic interests, or-
ganized and led the zoning opposition. Without attempting to hide
*Barry J. Kaplan is an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston.
1Richard F. Babcock, The Zoning Game: Municipal Practices and Policies (Madison,
1966), 25 (quotation); Don E. Carlton and Thomas H. Kreneck, Houston: Back Where We
Started (Houston, 1979), 26.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 84, July 1980 - April, 1981. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101225/. Accessed January 31, 2015.