Hudnut, a former mayor of Indianapolis, was talking about Houston’s official seal, and was kind enough not to mention that it also pictures a plow. He was on a panel that met here recently to debate Houston’s urban planning (There’s an oxymoron for you). Needless to say, the panelists had a lot of suggestions for our sleepy fishing village on the bayou — win the World Series, cure cancer, put a man on the moon — the usual stuff. Lord knows we’re working on it.
More interesting were the experts’ predictions for Houston’s future: There will be a lot more of us. I mean a whole lot more. By 2015, the panel said, 1 million additional people are expected to settle in this eight-county region, a number which is greater than Houston’s entire population in 1960 (938,219). We are just as close to 2015 as we are to Sept. 11, 2001, which seems like last week if not yesterday. Ah, but wait. The experts’ predictions get worse, or better, depending whether you own several lots in Tanglewood. Three million — yes, 3 million — more residents are expected in this eight-county area by 2035. That’s a 27-year span. Where were you in 1981?
A couple of other stats we might consider: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Texas’ population increased by half a million in the year that ended July 1. As Phillip E. Russell, assistant executive director of TxDOT explained, “They make fun of us, but a whole bunch of people want to be Texans.” Houston has added 250,000 jobs in the last four years, ranking behind only New York City and Dallas in that category. Our town’s population explosion is nothing new. People blow up all the time around here, especially along the Ship Channel, but newcomers today trod a well-beaten path going back to 1836 when both the Republic of Texas and Houston were born. Texas didn’t vote to join the Union until 1845 (recount! recount!), so the first accurate census for Houston was in 1850, which showed a population of 2,396, or about as many of us who bicycle to work today (2,468). From 1850, our population tripled every 20 years until 1930, the year Houston became the most populous city in Texas with 292,352.
Not only do we have a constant flow of newcomers from the other 49 states and south of the border, we have been on the receiving end of special events. The evacuation of New Orleanians to Houston after Katrina was the largest mass migration in this country since the Great Depression. We still have 100,000 evacuees living here; it’s pretty clear they aren’t leaving.
Between the 2000 census and the summer of 2006, there was huge population growth:
Houston — 2,144,491, up 190,860
Harris County — 3,886,207, up 485,653
This eight-county area — 5,539,949, up 824,547
Let us take a break from all these mind-numbing stats to consider how we can get ahead of the needs of an additional million people. For example, where are we going to put all that extra garbage? The average Houstonian generates five pounds of garbage a day, or almost one ton a year. By 2015 that pile of trash will hit 6.5 million tons annually. We need a huge landfill. I suggest Arkansas.
We use 393 million gallons of water a day. With another million dirty bodies around, where we will get more water? Speaking of water, more houses, malls, streets and jails mean less ground to absorb our rain which means more flooding. We could just leave new streets unpaved as they were in 1836. Call the subdivisions RetroWoods and History Hollow. We must ask ourselves a very basic question: Why is our population increasing so rapidly? For one thing, we’re a bunch of sex maniacs resulting in full maternity wards. Then there is our climate. Some urban historians give less credit to Spindletop for the sudden rise in Houston’s early 1900s population than to the advent of air conditioning.
So our climate is bad, but how bad? There had long been a rumor that the British government considered Houston to be a hardship post because the city’s temperatures were similar to those of Bombay (now Mumbai), India and Accra, Ghana. Diplomats here did not get hardship pay, but three years in Houston counted as four towards retirement. A British consulate general once exclaimed, “My, God, haven’t you people ever heard of air conditioning?” (Incidentally, the British consulate here used to put up a little sign in late June, “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we will be closed on the Fourth of July.”).
We have conquered our heat and humidity with air-conditioned stadiums, tennis courts, malls and tunnels. We have connected office buildings and parts of the Texas Medical Center with enclosed, walkways. We are, indeed, a world glass city. All the newcomers will assimilate, just as they have for 172 years, because we can and will accommodate new Houstonians. As for the locomotive on our logo, it’s the little engine that can.