Houston, Texas, the fourth-largest city in the United States, has no zoning ordinance.

Every few years, Houstonians turn back attempts by local Texas "liberals" to enact zoning and land-use regulations, which many still view as one step away from socialism or communism.

Having been born and raised in Houston, and later having struggled with zoning ordinances in D.C., Maryland and Virginia as part of architectural and planning practice, I frequently look at Houston and wonder if its lack of zoning has resulted in a city whose form and function are unique, either for better or worse.

Houston is very different from Washington. It has an abyssmal semitropical climate -- usually too hot, sometimes too cold and always too humid. Occupying a flat, featureless coastal plain sliding out of the Gulf of Mexico, it has a network of shallow bayous, drainage ditches and a ship channel leading to one of America's major ports.

No more than an outpost nearly a century after L'Enfant planned Washington, Houston had a main street (still named "Main Street") centered in a grid of unpaved, muddy streets. Galveston had been the port city, but with the construction of the ship channel and the development of the oil industry after the 1930s, Houston clearly was destined to outgrow its original skin.

Under Texas state law, incorporated cities can annex surrounding county lands almost at will. Therefore Houston was able to increase its size and population dramatically by expanding its borders and encompassing subdivision after subdivision, even wrapping itself around already existing municipalities such as Bellaire.

This process of land annexation made Houston one of America's fastest-growing cities. With virtually no land use or zoning constraints, developers could acquire county land anywhere, subdivide it, construct on-site roads and utilities, build and sell houses, and then await annexation by the city.

Once annexed, residents then looked to the city for urban services -- schools, police and fire protection, trash collection and street maintenance. Many of these subdivisions began as self-contained water and sewer districts, as evidenced by the many free-standing, elevated water storage tanks scattered about the landscape.

With no zoning, developers themselves imposed restrictions through deed covenants. These restrictive covenants usually precluded commercial use of residential lots and prevented further subdivision. Prevailing building sizes and setbacks had to be maintained. In some neighborhoods, deed convenants openly (and illegally) restricted ownership by race and religion.

But any tract of land or lots without such covenants could be developed as their owners saw fit. Land use, land prices and density were determined by the free market alone.

Houston became the world's energy capital and home of NASA's manned space center. While "government" made D.C. run, oil made Houston run. Between 1950 and 1980, the city tripled in size and built a network of freeways. During the Seventies, a thousand people per week moved to Houston, it was boasted.

The economic boom spurred by the jump in oil prices and energy-related business produced record levels of home building, office construction and shopping center development. Unfortunately, it also produced the world's worst traffic congestion on freeways and major arteries.

Developers were able to acquire and assemble lots in older, closer-in subdivisions whose covenants had expired. These former residential lots soon contained millions of square feet of new commercial space, high-rise condominiums, hotels or shopping facilities, sometimes built next to existing single-family homes.

New downtowns appeared. The "Galleria," Post Oak Road district on the western segment of Houston's version of the beltway (the "loop") is comparable in to the combined area and building footage of Rosslyn, Crystal City and Tyson's Corner.

Houston's overall low-residential density and extraordinary area limited mass-transit possibilities. The bus system is used almost exclusively by domestic workers to get from one side of town to another. For most Houstonians, the automobile is indispensable, along with air conditioning. Recent attempts to plan and implement a citywide rail transit system were rejected by voters, who refused to approve needed taxes or bond issues.

Despite all of this, Houston's urban fabric is surprisingly like many other cities, especially those of the Sun Belt -- Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City or Los Angeles. The central business district is typical of many 20th century downtowns, with its skyscrapers full of offices and banks, its underground garages and shops, and its sidewalks deserted during evenings, weekends and summers.

Its sprawling suburbs are accretions of linear shopping strips, shopping malls, high-rise and low-rise office buildings, parking lots, apartment and town house complexes, and acre upon acre of subdivision homes. Excepting topography, parts of Houston resemble Rockville Pike, New York Avenue and segments of Arlington or Fairfax counties.

Interestingly, intermixing of land uses does not seem to be the disaster feared by so many in other cities. Contrasting, abutting uses coexist peacefully when intrusive nuisances are avoided. Thus one sees neighborhoods with apartments next to town houses next to patio homes next to single -- family homes next to branch banks and even service stations.

So, you might ask, why have zoning? To dampen growth? Zoning certainly hasn't mitigated or eliminated Washington's traffic and parking problems. Zoning doesn't ensure that beautiful buildings will be designed and built, at least judging from what we see on K Street, in Northern Virginia or at Friendship Heights. It hasn't precipitated more innovation in design and real estate development than in Houston.

Yet Houston has serious problems, and they stem partly from the absence of land-use planning and development controls. After booming decades of unconstrained, unmanaged growth, the oil-industry recession has created unprecedented vacancies in "see-through" office buildings, shopping strips and housing.

In addition to transportation and traffic problems, Houston suffers from water-supply shortages, inadequate sewage treatment capacity, poor drainage, periodic flooding and land subsidence (water table depletion and land settlement). Can anyone deny that some measure of comprehensive planning, regulation of growth and infrastructure development were lacking?

By comparison, Washington is a more mature city, whose traditions -- concerning its history, land-use patterns, building heights and styles, public tastes and sensitivities, and the respective roles of citizens and government -- are firmly established.

On the other hand, Houston is still manufacturing its identity while shedding remnants of an inferiority complex vis-a-vis older urban cultures of the Eastern Seaboard.

Can we learn anything from Houston?

Clearly, abdication of planning and regulatory initiatives to the private sector is questionable. Cities must shape themselves, coordinate and build needed infrastructure, and advocate the public's interests. Yet entrepreneurs must be encouraged to pursue concepts not envisioned by previously made plans or legislated zoning.

Perhaps D.C.'s Comprehensive Plan Act of 1984 eventually will prove to be a policy model for urban design and development in the nation's capital, a strategy that reconciles public and private interests more effectively.

It's too early to tell, but its 10 overlapping and interrelated plan "elements" -- on land use, downtown, preservation and historic features, public facilities, urban design, transportation, environmental protection, housing, economic development, and human services -- indeed may produce something other than a zoning code to map D.C.'s future form.