Monday, September 22, 2014

What motivates sprawl?

Cort McMurry at Houstonia gives a bit of a confusing shout out to myself and Opportunity Urbanism (a followup to his previous piece I linked to last week). Confusing, because it seems like it's not in a good way at first, but then we don't seem to fundamentally disagree on too much.
"There is a wide difference of opinion on whether our messiness is a good thing. Some of us find it distressing. Tory Gattis and the other evangelists of “Opportunity Urbanism” disagree, painting Houston as a sort of libertarian paradise, a place where fully actualized men and woman can work out their destinies through grit, brains, and good ol’ trial and error. Master plan? We don’t need no stinking master plan.  
Surveys indicate that the majority of Houstonians are quite content to live in this Sue Ellen Mischke of metropolises: we love “the whole free-swinging, freewheeling attitude” of the place..."
I think his core issue is that he believes too many people give up the hard work of living in the messy and diverse urban core (in many cases out of imagined fears) and opt out for the easy life in the sprawling suburbs, and in the process they become detached from Houston and being a Houstonian. My comments:
A key theme of Opportunity Urbanism is letting the market (i.e. people) decide how they want to live - whether suburban or urban - not govt telling them how they should live. Houston is thriving with both the fringe and the core. The densification going on inside the loop is simply incredible, and not happening in most cities in the country because their zoning doesn't allow it. I myself love living in a dense, walkable part of Midtown. Let the city have a wide variety of neighborhoods that appeal to everybody's different preferences - don't try to force a "one right way". The key to our long-term vitality will be keeping employers in the core instead of them fleeing to the outer burbs, as they have in Dallas, LA, and others - and our core is so vibrant and appealing to young people, I think we've got a good shot at that as long as we have good express bus HOV/HOT lane transit from the far suburbs. 
I'm always amused a bit at the predictions that Houston will sprawl halfway to Dallas. Fun fact that might blow your mind: at our current density (3,662/sq.mile), we could hold the population of the NYC metro (20m, 3x what we currently have) in a circle only 41 miles in radius - basically downtown to Conroe. Not really that far when you think about it... and it means the Grand Parkway is likely to be the last loop we ever need (famous last words, I know). 
I do wish the Exxon project were closer in, but I still think we're more unified than most metros our size - most of us still think of ourselves as "Houstonians", not our various suburbs. More on this here.
I worry somewhat about the Balkanization too - it's happening in every city in America. I don't think it's unique to Houston. School quality is a big driver. There is much more emphasis on edu quality in the 21st century than what you describe decades ago. I don't know what the solution is. Possibly vouchers, which would open up more quality school options in the urban core.
Anyway, check out the piece and its comments, and I'd love to hear your own thoughts in my comments here...

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At 8:49 PM, September 22, 2014, Anonymous LocalPlanner said...


I like the fact that you brought up schools in your response. The more I examine things, the more I realize that a huge driver of where our sprawl occurs is the desire of educated middle and upper income family households to put their kids in the zoned public school (therefore guaranteed admittance) that has a minimum of the poor and working class , of any race or ethnicity. Educated professionals, basically, do not trust poorer folks, at all. The article's author said this directly too.

Educated professionals equate "good schools" with "affluent demographics." I suppose school performance statistics largely bear that out. But somehow that has translated into the idea that if my child goes to school with working class or poor kids, he/she will get an inferior education and suffer academically. Is there a sound basis for this reasoning? It honestly drives a huge amount of the real estate landscape as we know it - and where educated professionals live ends up determining where offices, retail, etc. locate.

It plays out so openly in Houston because it can't be blamed on "wanting a new single family house with a yard." There are new single family homes with yards inside or near the Beltway, much closer to the urban core than most of the currently popular affluent newer suburban areas. Not to mention that most of the urban core was built as a single family suburb. But educated professionals skip right past them - often paying a much higher price in terms of commute time and certainly in home price - to know that their kids will go to school with the "right" other children. Thus these newer, closer-in single family homes have a pretty low price ceiling, which is counter to traditional urban economic models.

Even though families with children are a minority demographic, and educated professional families an even smaller share, they play an outsized role in how our metro area develops.

At 11:52 AM, September 23, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The cause of sprawl is obvious to the vast majority of America that has chosen to live in sprawl. The reasons for sprawl are only confusing to educated, childless urbanites.

The second group controls the media, and is thus baffled by it.

It's basic capitalism: people want the highest quality goods at the lowest possible price. In this case, people move to where they can get good schools and low crime at a good price.

Fort Bend County and Montgomery County are providing better schools and lower crime, and at a lower price.

When Harris County can provide Sugar Land quality schools and Sugar Land crime rates at Sugar Land tax rates, Harris county will gain residents.

At 1:27 PM, September 23, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Last loop we'll ever need." I agree with your point about the NYC metro density comparison, but even going to Conroe, the metro area could still use one more at that point. They're already planning the western leg of it roughly along SH36, but they're not calling it a "Loop."

At 9:09 PM, September 25, 2014, Anonymous Adam said...

Exxon's campus not being downtown is a true tragedy. It would have done more for that area than all the stadiums and rail combined.

At 1:36 PM, September 30, 2014, Anonymous LocalPlanner said...

Say what you will about the location of he new Exxon campus, but at this point it's actually an infill site - at some respects we're luck that it's still in Harris County. Back in the 1980s, the company very nearly moved its operations almost to Conroe, north of The Woodlands.

At 9:58 PM, October 05, 2014, Anonymous Rich Robins said...

It's nice to see vouchers mentioned. They seem great. Political candidate Dan Patrick favors them, by the way... Here's a free, informative resource on vouchers:


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