Location and layout
The Houston metro area sprawls over 22,735 sq. km/8,778 sq. mi. in east Texas. Houston itself is 1,598 sq. km/617 sq. mi., double the geographical size of New York City.
Although it is about 81 km/50 mi. from the Gulf of Mexico, part of Houston's Harris County is on Galveston Bay. This location allows Houston to benefit from access to the Intracoastal Waterway, a 4,839 km/3,000 mi. U.S. shipping channel.
Houston's topography is mainly flat, at low elevation. Some areas of Harris County are subject to flooding, due to Houston's many lakes, rivers, and bayous that sometimes swell in heavy rains. Northern and eastern sections are more forested than other parts of the metro area.
Encircling the city are two highways. Closest in is Interstate 610, known as the 610 Loop. Within this loop is the heart of downtown Houston. Farther out, Highway 8 rings the metro area and is known as The Beltway or the Sam Houston Tollway.
Two enterprising brothers from New York founded Houston in 1836, paying little more than US$1.40 per acre and naming it after General Sam Houston. In 1861, during the Civil War, Houston seceded from the Union; it was reinstated nine years later in 1870.
Oil discovered in the Houston area around 1901 put the city on the map. An extensive project to deepen local waterways had lucrative results starting in 1915, when the first deep-water vessel sailed to Houston. This newly gained access to the Intracoastal Waterway shipping channel proved invaluable to the oil production companies and other Houston businesses.
Another of Houston's defining moments came in 1962, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) established its Manned Spacecraft Center there. Houston's place as a U.S. space center was cemented in 1969 when astronauts arriving on the moon uttered their first lunar word, Houston.
Since then, Houston has grown beyond oil and space. Facets of its reputation include the prestigious Texas Medical Center, the Houston Symphony Orchestra and Houston Ballet, and Texas Southern University, each more than 45 years old.
Houston's approximately two million residents - more than 5 million in the entire metro area - enjoy a low cost of living, five percent below the national average. In a recent study of large metro areas in the U.S., Houston's cost of housing, groceries, utilities, transportation, and health care were all below average.
Even better, salaries are slightly above the national average, and there is no city or state income tax, although the combined state and local sales tax is a high 8.25 percent. In general, Houston residents tend to get a lot for their money.
Newcomers expecting to be inundated by Texas stereotypes may be surprised. Houston seems to deliberately avoid the cowboy image some other Texas cities embrace. Transferees may find that their new Houston neighborhood is not unlike neighborhoods in many U.S. metro areas. Most developers build with the emphasis on residents' convenience rather than on the southwestern location. Planned communities and master planned communities - some of Houston's most popular neighborhoods - are nearly self-contained, with schools, shopping and entertainment built in.
Known domestically as an oil center and the home of NASA, Houston is positioning itself as an international business center. International business now accounts for a large percentage of the economy and is growing. Deep roots already exist in international industries like finance and oil and gas production.
Houstonians are very entrepreneurial. The city boasts the highest percentage of new businesses per capita in the country.
As the economy and population grow, Houston faces growing pains. For example, pollution caused by the number of cars on the road - and a lack of suburban commuter trains - must be dealt with. Traffic is a continuing problem. Mass transportation has undergone a modest expansion with the opening of a light rail system, METRORail, downtown in 2004. Further expansion of either the light rail or bus transit is proposed.
Many newcomers comment on the friendly natives. Houstonians have a reputation for being very welcoming, and should help their new neighbors quickly feel at home.