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Houston (pronounced /’hju-stən/) is the largest city in the state of Texas and has the fourth-largest population among cities in the United States. As of July 1, 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the Houston population at 2,144,491, in an area covering more than 600 square miles (1,600 km²). Houston is the county seat of Harris County and part of the Houston–Sugar Land–Baytown metropolitan area, the sixth-largest metropolitan area in the U.S., with a population of more than 5.5 million.
Houston was founded on August 30, 1836 by brothers Augustus Chapman Allen and John Kirby Allen on land near the banks of Buffalo Bayou. The city was incorporated on June 5, 1837 and named after then-President of the Republic of Texas, former General Sam Houston, who had commanded at the Battle of San Jacinto which took place 25 miles (40 km) east of where the city was established. The burgeoning port and railroad industry, combined with oil discovery in 1901, has induced continual surges in Houston’s population. In the 20th century, Houston became the home of the Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest concentration of healthcare and research institutions, and NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.
Houston’s economy has a broad industrial base in the energy, aeronautics, and technology industries; only New York City is home to more Fortune 500 headquarters. The Port of Houston ranks first in the United States in international waterborne tonnage handled and second in total cargo tonnage handled. Houston is also home to Rice University, one of the United States’ leading teaching and research universities, and the University of Houston, Texas’ third-largest public research university, with more than 36,000 students from 130 countries.
Houston is a multicultural city, with a large and growing international community. The Museum District is home to many cultural institutions and exhibits, attracting more than 7 million visitors a year. Houston has an active visual and performing arts scene and is one of five U.S. cities that offer year-round resident companies in all major performing arts.
In August 1836, John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen, two real estate entrepreneurs from New York City, purchased 6,642 acres (27 km²) of land along Buffalo Bayou with the intent of founding a city. The Allen brothers decided to name the city after Sam Houston, the popular general of the Texans at the Battle of San Jacinto. Houston was granted incorporation on June 5, 1837, with James S. Holman becoming its first mayor. In the same year, Houston became the county seat of Harrisburg County (now Harris County) and the temporary capital of the Republic of Texas. In 1840, the community established a Chamber of Commerce in part to promote shipping and waterborne business at the newly created port on Buffalo Bayou.
By 1860, Houston had emerged as a commercial and railroad hub for the export of cotton. Railroad spurs from the Texas inland converged in Houston, where they met rail lines to the ports of Galveston and Beaumont. During the Civil War, Houston served as a headquarters for General John Bankhead Magruder, who used the city as an organization point for the Battle of Galveston. After the Civil War, Houston businessmen initiated efforts to widen the city’s extensive system of bayous so the city could accept more commerce between downtown and the nearby port of Galveston. In 1900, after Galveston was struck by a devastating hurricane, efforts to make Houston into a viable deepwater port were accelerated.
The following year, oil discovered at Spindletop, an oil field near Beaumont, prompted the development of the U.S. petroleum industry. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt approved a $1 million improvement project for the Houston Ship Channel. President Woodrow Wilson opened the Port of Houston in 1914, seven years after digging began. By 1930, Houston had become Texas’ most populous city.
When World War II started, tonnage levels at the port decreased and shipping activities were suspended; however, the war did provide economic benefits for the city. Petrochemical refineries and manufacturing plants were constructed along the ship channel because of the demand for petroleum and synthetic rubber products during the war. Ellington Field, initially built during World War I, was revitalized as an advanced training center for bombardiers and navigators. The M. D. Anderson Foundation formed the Texas Medical Center in 1945. After the war, Houston’s economy reverted to being primarily port-driven. In 1948, several unincorporated areas were annexed into the city limits, which more than doubled the city’s size, and Houston proper began to spread across the region.
In 1950, the availability of air conditioning provided impetus for many companies to relocate to Houston, including Continental Oil, Prudential Insurance, Mobil Oil, Gulf Oil, Texaco Oil, Tidewater Associated and Sunray MidContinent, resulting in an economic boom and producing a key shift in the city’s economy toward the energy sector.
The increased production of the local shipbuilding industry during World War II spurred Houston’s growth, as did the establishment in 1961 of NASA’s “Manned Spacecraft Center” (renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in 1973), which created the city’s aerospace industry. The Astrodome, nicknamed the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” opened in 1965 as the world’s first indoor domed sports stadium.
During the late 1970s, Houston experienced a population boom as people from Rust Belt states moved to Texas in large numbers. The new residents came for the numerous employment opportunities in the petroleum industry, created as a result of the Arab Oil Embargo. The population boom ended abruptly in the mid-1980s, as oil prices fell precipitously. The space industry also suffered in 1986 after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch. The late 1980s saw a recession affect the city’s economy. Since the 1990s, as a result of the recession, Houston has made efforts to diversify its economy by focusing on aerospace and biotechnology and by reducing its dependence on the petroleum industry. In 1997, Houstonians elected Lee P. Brown as the city’s first African American mayor.
In June 2001, Tropical Storm Allison dumped up to 37 inches of rain on parts of Houston, causing the worst flooding in the city’s history; the storm cost billions of dollars in damage and killed 20 people in Texas. Many neighborhoods and communities have changed since the storm. By December of that same year, Houston-based energy company Enron collapsed into the second-largest ever U.S. bankruptcy during an investigation surrounding fabricated partnerships that were allegedly used to hide debt and inflate profits. In August 2005, Houston became a shelter to more than 150,000 people from New Orleans who evacuated from Hurricane Katrina. One month later, approximately 2.5 million Houston area residents evacuated when Hurricane Rita approached the Gulf Coast, leaving little damage to the Houston area. This event marked the largest urban evacuation in the history of the United States.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 601.7 square miles (1,558.4 km²); this comprises 579.4 square miles (1,500.7 km²) of land and 22.3 square miles (57.7 km²) of water.
Most of Houston is located on the gulf coastal plain, and its vegetation is classified as temperate grassland and forest. Much of the city was built on forested land, marshes, swamp, or prairie, which are all still visible in surrounding areas. Flatness of the local terrain, when combined with urban sprawl, has made flooding a recurring problem for the city. Downtown stands about 50 feet (15 m) above sea level, and the highest point in far northwest Houston is about 125 feet (38 m) in elevation. The city once relied on groundwater for its needs, but land subsidence forced the city to turn to ground-level water sources such as Lake Houston and Lake Conroe.
Houston has four major bayous passing through the city. Buffalo Bayou runs through downtown and the Houston Ship Channel, and has three tributaries: White Oak Bayou, which runs through the Heights neighborhood and towards downtown; Braes Bayou, which runs along the Texas Medical Center; and Sims Bayou, which runs through the south of Houston and downtown Houston The ship channel continues past Galveston and then into the Gulf of Mexico.
Underpinning Houston’s land surface are unconsolidated clays, clay shales, and poorly-cemented sands up to several miles deep. The region’s geology developed from river deposits formed from the erosion of the Rocky Mountains. These sediments consist of a series of sands and clays deposited on decaying organic matter that, over time, transformed into oil and natural gas. Beneath the layers of sediment is a water-deposited layer of halite, a rock salt. The porous layers were compressed over time and forced upward. As it pushed upward, the salt dragged surrounding sediments into salt dome formations, often trapping oil and gas that seeped from the surrounding porous sands. The thick, rich, sometimes black, surface soil is suitable for rice farming in suburban outskirts where the city continues to grow.
Despite over 150 active surface faults (estimated to be 300 active faults) with an aggregate length of up to 310 miles (500 km) within the city of Houston alone, the region is generally earthquake-free. Land in some communities southeast of Houston is sinking because water has been pumped out from the ground for many years and may be associated with slip along faults. However, the slippage is slow and not considered an earthquake where stationary faults must slip suddenly enough to create seismic waves. These faults also tend to move at a smooth rate in what is termed “fault creep,” which further reduces the risk of an earthquake.
Houston was incorporated in 1837 under the ward system of representation. The ward designation is the progenitor of the nine current-day Houston City Council districts. Locations in Houston are generally classified as either being inside or outside the Interstate 610 Loop. The inside encompasses the central business district and many residential neighborhoods that predate World War II. More recently, high-density residential areas have been developed within the loop. The city’s outlying areas, suburbs and enclaves are located outside of the loop. Beltway 8 encircles the city another 5 miles (8 km) farther out.
Houston, the largest city in the United States without zoning regulations, has expanded without land use planning. Voters rejected efforts to have separate residential and commercial land-use districts in 1948, 1962, and 1993.
Rather than a single central business district as the center of the city’s employment, multiple districts have grown throughout the city in addition to downtown which include Uptown, Texas Medical Center, Midtown, the Energy Corridor, Greenway Plaza, Westchase, and Greenspoint.
Houston’s energy industry is recognized worldwide—particularly for oil—and biomedical research, aeronautics, and the ship channel are also large parts of its economic base. The area is the world’s leading center for building oilfield equipment. Much of Houston’s success as a petrochemical complex is due to its busy man-made ship channel, the Port of Houston. The port ranks first in the United States in international commerce, and is the tenth-largest port in the world. Unlike most places, where high oil and gasoline prices are seen as harmful to the economy, they are generally seen as beneficial for Houston as many are employed in the energy industry.
The Houston–Sugar Land–Baytown MSA’s Gross Area Product (GAP) in 2006 was $325.5 billion, slightly larger than Austria’s, Poland’s or Saudi Arabia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). When comparing Houston’s economy to a national economy, only 21 countries other than the United States have a gross domestic product exceeding Houston’s regional gross area product. Mining, which in Houston is almost entirely exploration and production of oil and gas, accounts for 11% of Houston’s GAP; this is down from 21% in 1985. The reduced role of oil and gas in Houston’s GAP reflects the rapid growth of other sectors, such as engineering services, health services, and manufacturing.
Houston ranks second in employment growth rate and fourth in nominal employment growth among the 10 most populous metro areas in the U.S. In 2006, the Houston metropolitan area ranked first in Texas and third in the U.S. within the category of “Best Places for Business and Careers” by Forbes magazine. Forty foreign governments maintain trade and commercial offices here and the city has 23 active foreign chambers of commerce and trade associations. Twenty foreign banks representing 10 nations operate in Houston, providing financial assistance to the international community.