Comment of the Day: They Only Call Houston Sprawling Because There’s Not a Whole Lot Else To Notice — Yet

COMMENT OF THE DAY: THEY ONLY CALL HOUSTON SPRAWLING BECAUSE THERE’S NOT A WHOLE LOT ELSE TO NOTICE — YET Drawing of City with Dense Urban Core“Sorry, but Houston is no more sprawled than any other large metros. Look at aerial imagery of any of the big ones. Just because Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix, LA, Chicago, etc. all have organized sprawl (zoning), doesn’t mean it’s any better than our non-zoned city sprawl. My point: sprawl is sprawl. I think cities like Houston get called out more when it comes to sprawl because of our lack of density in our core. As the inner loop core keeps densifying and gains a more wide spread identity, I think the sprawl argument against Houston will level out. . . .” [Ed, commenting on New ‘City with No Limits’ Slogan Will Be a Catchy, Fun Way To Promote Houston’s Legendary Sprawl] Illustration: Lulu

8 Comment

  • Yes, Houston has no zoning, and Texas counties have very little land use power. But there are 35 separate communities in the Houston metro area that DO having zoning ordinances, and they constitute a sizable percentage of the developing and developable urban area in the Houston region. That is a big reason why the pattern of development across Houston is similar to other large cities with more significant land use controls.

  • agreed, i think the term sprawl should be disbanded and we should stick to population density metrics. as such, we’re just a bit above atlanta and phoenix in density, a little below dallas and way behind anything of the likes of LA, chicago or miami.

    one important thing to note here though is that population density is also very highly correlated to average incomes. the more creative class types you can pack into a area the higher the average income for all residents regardless of education level.

  • I lived in LA and believe me everyone commented on its sprawl. I disagree that Houston gets any worse criticism than any other sunbelt city –you hear the exact same arguement in Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, Charlotte, LA–and really who cares–look at the cities that are growing all are sunbelt cities and all have sprawl issues–and I get tired of all this blather about Houston lacking a “core”–of course it has a core, it holds all the performing arts, most of the sports stadiums, county, state, and federal government, the vast majority of the skyscrapers, the central library, the convention center, the big hotels –I mean give a break, if this isn’t a core I don’t know what is!

  • Blaming Houston’s sprawl on our lack of zoning gets things just about exactly backwards. Just about everything we associate with sprawl was either directly caused or heavily incentivized by city ordinance or regulation.
    The sewer moratorium during the 1970’s essentially halted medium-scale multi-family development in areas close to Downtown, forcing multi-family developments further away. And until 1998, you couldn’t build a single-family residence on less than 5000 s.f. of land. Only now are areas like Midtown and Montrose started to achieve sufficient density to be considered walkable.
    Other characteristic styles of development we associate with Houston’s brand of sprawl: Strip centers, caused by our ridiculous 25-ft setback requirement (if you need to leave 25 ft between the building and the right of way, might as well put cars in that space). Giant surface parking lots, caused by our minimum parking requirements (of course Home Depot and Central Market need the same number of spaces per 1000 s.f.).
    Even today, the most common response among those that oppose higher-density residential development (Ashby Highrise, Alexan Yale, Morrison Heights, pretty much every townhouse project) is: “I wish we had zoning”. Today’s zoning proponents all seem to want a way to prevent residential density. In a growing city like Houston, there’s another word for forced low-density development: SPRAWL.

  • Agreed, except for Chicago. Chicago has a very dense urban core. And it hasn’t really sprawled as much as it has caused what were previously independent small towns to grow so much that they met Chicago’s outward expansion. Elgin, Joliet, Naperville, Aurora and others have been around since the early to mid 1800s. They are not inventions of sprawl developers, like The Woodlands or The Colony in Dallas.

  • LA has triple the average density across its metro that Houston does.

  • I agree with the proposition that “sprawl” as a label should be substituted by a metric to describe density. However…it is insufficient to compare the City of Houston to the City of Dallas or Harris County to Dallas County or the Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land MSA to the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington MSA. Although these cities are similar economic entities in very relevant ways, the political boundaries are so completely dissimilar that a comparison is farcical.

    In comparing Houston to a city with natural barriers to growth that exist within a political boundary, it is insufficent to make that comparison without removing the dead area. So, for instance, you’d have to remove the land area taken up by mountains in the case of Los Angeles.

    An alternative would be to draw concentric rings outward from a downtown area, but some parts of Houston are very much a doughnut with a hole in the middle, whereas mid-ring apartment ghettos can be profoundly dense. So that doesn’t mean very much. And it wouldn’t engender an easy comparison to seaside cities like Miami or, again, Los Angeles.

    So what to do, what to do?

    There is one data set that is almost good enough, and that is the Census’ classification of Urban Areas, which are by definition: “Core census block groups or blocks that have a population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile (386 per square kilometer) and surrounding census blocks that have an overall density of at least 500 people per square mile (193 per square kilometer).”

    It’s not a perfect data set to go by. Houston gets broken up a little bit where dense block groups are not contiguous so that The Woodlands, Texas City, and Galveston are each their own urban area. Even still its better than any of the political delineations. Its boundaries stop where development stops, and that’s how it works with every other major city.

    In that light, the densest city of all is none other than … Los Angeles! Its population density is 6,999 people per square mile. San Francisco is 6,266, San Jose is 5,820, and New York City is 5,319. Houston tops the list for density out of other Texas cities, at 2,979. San Antonio is 2,945, Dallas is 2,879, and Austin is 2,605. Atlanta is 1,707, the second least dense of the forty most populous urban area in the United States.

    Actual density, then, does not correlate very well with the perception of density or necessarily with perceptions of quality of life.

  • The complaint against sprawl as it applies to density particularly amuses me. If LA is in fact three times the density across its metro as one poster suggests, then each person has 1/3 the space and is likely getting charged as much as twice as much for that smaller piece of pie. My grievance against sprawl has always been less walkability, longer drives/traffic, and having to spread out infrastructure investment and repair dollars over a larger area, hence ending up with lower quality infrastructure.