Houston's Ship Channel
Houston's Ship Channel


Tokyo at Night
Tokyo at night

Some years ago, I sat in a meeting of environmental historians. They spoke of cities and farms and were completely agreed that cities increase consumption. My jaw dropped; I rose to object. Cities don't increase consumption. They reduce it.

It seemed so obvious, and yet I was talking to a wall. So let me try it on you. How do cities relate to consumption? Clearly, we consume more goods and energy per square mile in a city than on a farm. But consumption per square mile isn't important. What kills us is consumption per person.

Consider how people in New York and Tokyo use their resources: they ride mass transit, they live and work in centrally heated buildings, and they take a lot of their food in centralized dining facilities and waste less food. The huge power plants that supply cities are far cleaner per kilowatt hour than wood-burning stoves or kerosene lamps. City dwellers carry out every function of daily life more efficiently. And yet we let the sheer magnitude of the city blind us to how well it sustains and nurtures it occupants.

Pasadena, TexasTake Houston, Texas: itís easy to live and work here with very little conception of the cityís aorta, its Ship Channel. We know its universities, high-tech industry, superb arts community, medical center, parks, malls, skyscrapers — but remember: no automobile can be more beautiful than the engine under its hood.

Eiffel, who built his tower before we first had skyscrapers, reminds us that a building's beauty rests upon its steel frame. And, to see the engine, or the steel frame, of this great city, we must go down to its wharves. The Ship Channel runs for fifty miles from the tip of Galveston Island all the way into the city of Houston. It makes our inland city the second busiest port in America, tenth busiest in the world, and handler of more international traffic than any other American city.

Ride the ferry across the Channelís mouth. Clouds of gulls swirl about during its pause to let the 76,000 ton MSC Alessia pass by. Almost a thousand feet long, thatís one of the largest container ships. More incoming ships round the horizon in the Gulf to the east. The Stolt Inspiration, an eye-catching bright-yellow Danish-built tanker, is half the weight of Alessia, but she still takes our breath away at close quarters.

Next, letís do a boat tour of the inner Ship Channel. There are those ships, lined up at dock after dock. The Stolt Inspiration towers over us. Three huge military transport ships, each over 600 feet and moored end to end, look like beached whales just arrived from Planet Krypton. Cargo has already been unloaded from the deck of the 600-foot, bright-blue Norwegian ship Star Eagle. But no Alessia here. Ships of her size berth nearer the mouth of the channel where the water is deeper. And we never see the largest ships of all, the great supertankers, a quarter-mile long and carrying, perhaps, 300,000 tons of oil. They offload far from shore.

Ibises roosting in a storage yard near the Houston ship channel
Ibises roosting in a storage yard near the Houston ship channel

What we do see are dry-docks, tugboats, scrap piles, warehouses, cargo ships — so many cargo ships — carrying automobiles, dry goods, food, building materials. A vast parking lot holds new VWs and Audis, just north of the channel. The port currently does around a hundred billion dollars worth of business yearly. Now when I have to wait at a rail crossing for a 200-car, westbound train to pass, I view it with new respect. This efficient flow of matťriel sustains not just Houston but all of America.

The last time I walked Galveston's shores and saw wheeling pelicans, cormorants, and gulls — dolphins breaching and plunging in the warm waters — I thought again about efficiency, sustenance and cities. The fact that we allow ourselves to see those ships as no more than colorful backdrop to a genteel bucolic world is a most remarkable, and a most troubling, trick of perspective.


The Port of Houston. Nov./Dec. 2008. (Magazine of the Port of Houston.)

Click here to see a Google Earth image of the ship channel.

Click here to see a Google Earth image of the entry to the channel.

See Episode 2335.

Images: All photos by John H. Lienhard, except for Tokyo HDR image courtesy a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Gierszewski.

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