Throughout history, location-specific climate, topography, hydrology, geophysical factors and biospheres have shaped — and sometimes threatened or destroyed — built environments worldwide. This is why many cities look different, why overall urban form, architecture and housing can differ considerably from city to city.
Most of us rarely think about the influence of Mother Nature on the history, culture, design, character and livability of places we occupy. When people consider where to settle, they usually start with a geographic choice — city or suburb — often based on personal familiarity, employment opportunities, family proximity and cost of living.
Residential real estate decision-making follows and typically focuses on other variables: perceived social and visual characteristics of neighborhoods; transportation accessibility; availability and quality of schools, shopping, entertainment, cultural resources and community facilities; house or apartment building curb appeal; dwelling interior functionality; and dwelling affordability.
It’s easy to take for granted natural conditions that have affected land-use patterns; delineation and layout of neighborhoods and street networks; size and landscaping of streets and civic spaces; architectural composition and material attributes of buildings; and the three-dimensional composition and appearance of various housing types.
Comparing Washington to Houston and Boston, places where I have lived, helps illustrate city differences driven, enhanced and constrained by Mother Nature.
Born and raised in Houston, I left to attend college in Boston, a city I had never visited. The striking contrasts between Houston and Boston were clear during the approach and landing at Logan International Airport, and then while I was being driven to campus.
Built on a flat, coastal plain, Houston’s easy-to-navigate grid of wide streets serves and interconnects the city’s downtown and sprawling, low-density subdivisions. Boston has hills, higher density and lots of narrow, winding, traffic-choked streets.
Houston’s subtropical climate is extremely hot, humid and rainy for much of the year, with relatively cool, short winters and hardly ever snow or ice. Being outdoors in Houston for more than a few minutes during the long summer is torture. Such days in Boston are few. Washington, too, has hot and humid days, but only for a couple of months.
On the other hand, Boston must endure months of frigid temperatures and frequent winter snowstorms producing piles of snow and icy conditions. Although wintry weather afflicts Washington, its duration and severity are much less than in Boston.
Given Houston’s climate, typical homes in subdivisions have long been ranch-style, one-story, slab-on-grade houses under shallow-pitched roofs with projecting eaves. Such houses are rare in Boston, where steeply pitched roofs on multistory houses allow snow and ice to slide off. In the past, some ranch-style houses were built in Washington subdivisions, but most housing in Washington is similar to that of Boston, not Houston.
Houses in Houston rarely have basements because of frequent flooding, the result of the city’s flatness, intense rainstorms and slow, inadequate drainage. In Boston and Washington, basements are common.
Unlike in Houston, most of Washington’s center city is not dead flat and drains reasonably well, the exception being the reclaimed, flood-prone areas near or adjoining the Potomac River. Nevertheless, because of existing topography, Pierre Charles L’Enfant was able to superimpose a street grid pattern on most of the gently sloping landscape chosen by President George Washington for the nation’s capital.
In automobile-dependent Houston, houses typically have a two-car garage accessible from the street, whereas in Boston and Washington, many houses, including detached homes, have no garage. Additionally, some neighborhoods in Boston and Washington have service alleys, which are scarce in Houston.
Boston’s Charles River and ocean-facing waterfront contribute to the city’s character. Likewise, Washington’s identity stems in part from its relationship to the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. But Houston lacks a waterfront identity, despite multiple shallow drainage bayous and an industry-lined ship channel that connects its port to the Gulf of Mexico.
Except for air conditioning, Houston would have remained a small Gulf Coast city, its thinly insulated buildings relying on minimal heating systems. Inhabitants used to depend on natural ventilation, electric fans, window shades and roof overhangs to cope with heat and humidity. Because of air conditioning and cheap energy, Houston became habitable while tropics-style building design in response to the city’s climate became less necessary.
With affordable, energy-efficient HVAC systems, most new and renovated housing in Houston, as well as in Washington and Boston, is air-conditioned. Moreover, to conserve energy and reduce heating and cooling costs, most new homes in all three cities are well insulated and offer high-performance windows. Thus, because of modern technology, residential buildings in these three diverse metropolitan areas are today more alike than they were in the past.
Finally, take note of botanical differences between cities. Houston’s oppressive subtropical climate, so disagreeable for humans, is ideal for perennial, tropical plants bearing year-round colorful flowers that cannot survive in Boston or even Washington. Given Boston’s long winters, its dominant northern vegetation is flower-free and colorless for months. Fortunately, Washington’s four distinct seasons enable many southern and northern species to survive, making spring and fall especially colorful.
It’s easy to take Mother Nature for granted. But thinking about Mother Nature could inform your feelings and decision-making about where to settle and what to buy or rent.
Roger K. Lewis is a retired practicing architect, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland and a regular guest commentator on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU (88.5 FM).