I get tired of the articles that ascribe Houston's economic success to its lack of zoning
That being said, I admire the palpable energy in Houston and its humidity being even worse than DC has strengthened my ability to deal with Washington summers as Houston's are far worse.
And there is no question that when it is easier to develop, development happens faster and costs less in administration and overhead. On the other hand the ability to sprawl reduces property values and deconcentration fosters blight and increases the cost of transportation.
The difference between city and suburbs in other areas vs. Houston is that liberal annexation practices have allowed Houston to absorb adjacent lands that in other places would be suburbs, although this helps stabilize the local government's revenues as well.
For example, the City of Houston itself is about 1/3 the size of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties in Metropolitan Detroit.
Success and the City: Houston's pro-growth policies have produced an urban powerhouse—and a blueprint for metropolitan revival" are misleading, because the reality is that Houston's continued success is financially dependent on oil.
As long as oil continues to be the primary energy source in the world as well as a feedstock for chemical production, the Houston metropolitan region is well placed economically.
Interestingly, a Houston court recently ruled that adjacent property owners may be entitled to financial compensation and other mitigation measures when properties are developed in ways "out of character" with the neighborhood or district ("Court Case Could Challenge Houston's Hands-Off Approach," Governing Magazine).
But the fact that many pieces of land can be developed without restrictions (many properties come with deed restrictions which do limit development regardless of the lack of zoning) is not the driving force in the local economy.
It's oil. Pure and simple.
Houston's economy ("Occidental Petroleum splintering and moving its headquarters to Houston," Houston Business Journal; "Chevron says it will move 400 jobs from San Ramon to Houston," San Jose Mercury News), like Alberta's ("Alberta's Economy Sizzles. The Rest of Canada's Fizzles," Businessweek) in Canada or the recent rise of North Dakota is driven first and foremost by oil production, processing, and distribution.
Houston's success makes it the poster child for the sprawl development paradigm and is the result of its place as the center for all things oil industry--management ("Houston energy companies spending millions on corporate campuses," Houaton Business Journal), service firms, refineries, chemical manufacturing, and shipping of chemicals and oil.
In a droll way, it's an illustration that oil is even more important to enabling sprawl than automobiles, hence how Houston has superceded Detroit in terms of overall economic success.
Simpler processes for development approvals there are merely a sweetener, but not a substantive factor in the economic success of the region.
Wikipedia photo of the Houston Ship Channel, which is bordered by manufacturing plants and tank farms.