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Big – huge – and getting bigger. The rapidly growing Houston area continues to rank the fourth largest metro area in the United States behind New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago and the 5 year growth rate of 11 percent places it well ahead of the top three. Not only is the population huge, but the area includes 10 counties covering some 900 square miles and spreads some 50 miles in each direction. As if it weren’t big enough already, the Federal OMB combined two other smaller metro areas, Galveston-Texas City to the southeast and the so-called “Brazoria” (Brazoria County) into the metro complex in 2005.
Houston is a national and world center for the petroleum and petrochemical industry, but also shines as a general corporate center; local companies include Continental Airlines, Browning Ferris Industries, Waste Management, MinuteMaid (owned by Coca-Cola), and American General (insurance). There is a considerable amount of banking and general commerce and trade in the area, driven in part by the large port facility and the petrochemical industry. The Enron debacle gave the city and it’s freewheeling pro-business ways a bit of a black eye, but it remains one of the largest and strongest corporate centers and centers for corporate employment,
The city grew in a fairly haphazard manner, with skyscraper complexes downtown and satellite corporate centers on the periphery. To the west along the I-610 inner beltway, the commercial center and satellite downtown area known as the Galleria contains a gigantic mall with over 300 stores and large office complexes. Both of these core areas feature a very modern skyline and the latest in transportation conveyances. Together downtown and the Galleria contain 6[bf]1/2 miles of underground tunnels and malls, and a new light rail system just opened primarily serving the downtown area. So much commercial activity is actually done on the periphery that downtown – if you can get there – is relatively pleasant, uncrowded and attractive.
Suburban growth has enjoyed no finer hour than it has in the Houston area, and so have growth, sprawl and its related problems. Growth has spread in all directions, and traffic on the area’s spider-web of freeways, many undergoing their second reconstruction, can slow to a crawl anywhere, anytime. Air quality is among the country’s worst Suburbs spread in all directions and particularly to the west, southwest, northwest and north. Areas southeast are older, more built up, industrial, and constrained by Galveston Bay. Sugar Land (two words) is the emblematic Houston suburb with gigantic new planned unit subdivisions and a planned town center developed in an old sugar company town long since overtaken by the advancing sprawl. The population of Sugar Land has doubled in 15 years to some 80,000; residents enjoy high incomes, excellent schools and home values, and plenty of retail and other infrastructure seemingly tailored for family life. It is almost as if Sugar Land is overcompensating for the haphazard land use practices in the past, and it is big in a Texas way.
The story is repeated elsewhere Katy some 25 miles west with 175,000 residents, in North Houston to the northwest and other areas far north near the George Bush Intercontinental Airport. For the most part, the area has filled in between these nodes with endless suburbs, retail and commercial, and some industrial centers. The heavier industry is east and southeast in a 25 miles industrial corridor towards Texas City. Baytown, to the east and at the head of Galveston Bay, is a major oil refining and petrochemical center dominated by Exxon-Mobil. Galveston offers an interesting mix of antebellum commercial history and beach resort on Galveston Island just southeast of Texas City, and is a favored weekend getaway in an area that doesn’t have very many. Farther west along the coast lies the industrial center of Freeport in Brazoria County, an enormous petrochemical and mineral processing center, with numerous beach houses built up on stilts up and down the coast and a corridor of small towns and residential areas spread back north towards Houston.
Cultural amenities are excellent and include performing arts, museums, and a variety of entertainment options from the sophisticated to the bawdy. With the new NFL team, the Houston Texans, the Houston Astros (MLB), the Houston Rockets (NBA) and the University of Houston and Rice University teams, the city offers a full slate of sports entertainment. The Texas Medical Center is a leading-edge facility including 39 centers and employing 50,000 healthcare professionals. Although there are some lakes and the Gulf is 50 miles away, the area is notably lacking in outdoor recreational opportunities and the landscape is relatively featureless. Cost of living at 86.3 is a notably low for a big city, and excellent housing is available, with good family homes in the low $200s in the best suburbs. It is little wonder that the area became a favorite refuge for New Orleans Katrina refugees (by one research report, some 40,000 new residents came to the area) but they got their scare when Rita roared onshore mainly east of town a few weeks later.
Bottom line: Residents trade off some major downsides—congestion, long commutes summer heat, high crime, and limited outdoor recreation—for a low cost of living, good housing values, strong buying power, career opportunities, plenty to do (mostly indoors) and mild winters. The negatives have gotten stronger, and the employment picture has weakened somewhat, hence the diminished ranking.
The Houston landscape mainly is a flat, treeless plain crossed by several small streams and rivers, with a little more relief and some wooded areas to the north and northeast. The climate is humid subtropical with a marine influence. Summers are hot and sultry with daytime temperatures in the 90s and occasionally over 100[dg]F. High relative humidity makes these temperatures uncomfortable—air-conditioning is a must. Winters are cloudy and mild with abundant rainfall. Clear dry days are most common in the fall. Heavy thunderstorms and tropical storms occasionally pass through the area.