Situated on a flat, nearly featureless Gulf Coast plain, Houston sprawls out from its center in vast tracts of subdivisions, freeways, office parks, and shopping malls. In undisturbed areas you'll find marshy grasslands in the south and woods in the north. Meandering across this plain are several bayous on whose banks cypress and southern magnolia trees chance to grow. Many visitors, imagining the Texas landscape as it is usually drawn -- barren and treeless -- are surprised by such green surroundings, but, in fact, the city is at the tail end of a large belt of natural forest coming down through East Texas, and the climate is much the same as coastal Louisiana and Mississippi -- warm and humid with ample rainfall.
Houston is the fourth-most-populated city in the United States. If we compare the populations of greater metro areas rather than cities, then it ranks only tenth. Yet in geographical expanse Houston ranks second. The city is more than half as large as the state of Rhode Island and continues to expand outward. But in the past several years there has been a shift in residential construction toward downtown and the inner city. Town houses in the central part of the city are going up at a furious rate, and lofts, condos, and apartments are now a major part of downtown construction.
Houston is not usually considered a tourist destination; most visitors come for business or family reasons and are lured into playing tourist only after arriving. It's a business town, and the oil and gas industry remains the big enchilada, but other sectors have added so much to the local economy that oil and gas's contribution is now only about 50%. The Texas Medical Center is the largest concentration of medical institutions in the world. It's virtually a city within a city, with 14 hospitals and many clinics, medical schools, and research facilities. Construction and engineering companies also contribute much to the economy, and the newest big player is high-tech.
Houston's society is socially and economically wide open. Houstonians inherently dislike being told what to do, and this dislike cuts across the political spectrum: Opinion surveys show that gun control is highly unpopular but so is government control over reproductive rights. Among urban planners, Houston is famous (or infamous) as the only major U.S. city that doesn't have zoning, allowing the market to determine land use instead. On the plus side, this love for individual freedoms gives Houston a dynamism that is palpable and has brought a flood of newcomers from around the world, who have found here a welcoming city. Houston seems to be growing more cosmopolitan every day, as ethnic restaurants and specialty shops spring up throughout the city along with exotic temples and churches -- Taoist, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Russian Orthodox -- built much as they would be back in the mother country.
On the minus side, this is the land of Enron, the go-go company that preached to state and federal governments the gospel of deregulation and then abused its new freedom. Also, Houston struggles with an air-pollution problem that has the local government painfully considering unpopular regulations to keep the city in compliance with the Clean Air Act.
In the field of the arts, one can find proof of the city's dynamism. Houston has an excellent symphony orchestra, highly respected ballet and opera companies, and a dynamic theater scene that few cities can equal in quantity or quality. There are some excellent museums, too, and, if art isn't your bag, there's the world-famous NASA Space Center, which is like nothing else on this planet. While you're enjoying the attractions, keep your eyes open and you can appreciate another thing Houston is known for, its architecture, which stands out for its bold, even brash character. This is, after all, home to the first dome stadium -- the Astrodome -- which was billed at the time as "the eighth wonder of the world." Several buildings are striking for their dramatic appearance as well as for their irreverence -- one skyscraper is crowned with a Mayan pyramid, another wryly uses the architectural features of Gothic churches for a bank building, and a pair of towers in the Medical Center unmistakably represents two giant syringes. There is little that is staid about this city, and the more time one spends here, the more this is appreciated.
Early in the morning of September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike came ashore and passed directly over Houston. Though far enough inland to be protected from a storm surge, the city lies in an unprotected zone close enough to the Gulf to suffer the full force of a hurricane before it can weaken. Ike wrought widespread damage, and in a couple of instances probably generated tornadoes that produced heavy damage in highly localized areas. High-speed winds popped out the windows of a couple of the skyscrapers downtown, bringing heavy sheets of glass down on the streets below. Reliant Stadium's roof was seriously damaged, though the surrounding apartment buildings were left untouched.
At ground level, hurricane winds inflicted damage over a wide area, bringing down trees and power lines throughout the city. The damage was extensive, and recovery has taken a long time. It was 2 weeks before power could be restored to all of the city. Restoring traffic lights took even longer. And piles of debris are still being removed, months later. By late spring or early summer of 2009, even these signs of the hurricane should be erased. All that the casual visitor might see is the occasional closed storefront, where something such as a dispute over insurance has slowed renovation.