Matty G has a short post up on the economy of Breezy Point, Queens and my first reaction is “right, this is reason #763 why Houston is so prosperous.”
Mostly it has to do with annexation. At one extreme end you have a city like Philadelphia. Philly isn’t all that bad of a place, but when you look at the massive growth of NYC and DC, you have to consider the city’s development trajectory to be a failure. Philly lost population during the nineties and was flat during the aughts, and the city largely coasts on the infrastructure of previous generations. Roadway expansion (e.g. double-decking the Schuylkill) and transit expansion (e.g. Roosevelt Subway, Swampoodle Connection) have both gone nowhere. Taxes are high, services are low, and what little growth has occurred mostly takes the form of cancerous exurban development which has consumed productive farmland without much housing to show in return. Detroit follows the same pattern.
But if you look at the city boundaries this all makes sense. The place is hemmed in on all sides by small boroughs and townships. In some directions you can go from Center City to out-of-the-city in less than four miles.
The fun continues outside the city boundaries. There are no big suburbs outside Philly; instead, counties are a bouillabaisse of boroughs and townships of a couple thousand acres each. This is about the size of your basic Sunbelt master-planned community, so it isn’t particularly surprising that the local governments function more like homeowners associations. Exclusionary zoning is the norm, and most residential subdivisions are required to include large swaths of “open space” which is mostly about maintaining the visual deceit that you live in the “country” and not a suburb.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the annexation distribution you have a city like Dallas. Dallas goes out about eight to ten miles, plus Far North D, which is like an extended middle finger of garden apartments sticking into the adjacent cities. An east-west trip across Dallas is about 20 miles. But while Dallas is in the middle of the “city annexation” distribution, DFW as a whole is hardly in the 50th percentile in terms of prosperity and quality of life.
There is a reason for this: Where Dallas ends, the mega suburbs begin. Arlington and Plano are respectable cities in their own right, holding about 360,000 and 270,000 people, respectively. Carrollton, Frisco, Irving, and Grand Prairie each clock in well above 100,000. Large suburbs are not always favorable to “urban” things like mid-rise and high-rise structures, or LRT and other rail transit. Frisco in particular opted out of the DART taxing area, using sales tax money to subsidize commercial development instead. But large suburban jurisdictions generally tend to have coherent transportation planning, well-developed park systems, and a variety of housing types, including multifamily and small-lot single-family.
Big suburbs also make more effective use of land. The easiest way to measure this is population density. Bellevue, Washington clocks in at 4000 people per square mile. Plano “sprawls” at 3800, Arlington at 3900. Irvine, California holds 3200 a mile, and has what is perhaps the most coherent bike network in SoCal, combining near-100% arterial bike lanes with continuous off-street paths.
Meanwhile, back outside Philly, Exton – a major Amtrak and SEPTA stop – contains fewer than 1400 people per square mile, while neighboring East Whiteland township contains fewer than 1000. Density scarcely improves as you get closer in. The major corporate centers and edge cities of King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting straddle multiple townships which each contain fewer than 2000 people per square mile. By contrast, even Frisco – which is exploding in population and has annexed a lot of vacant land in anticipation of future development – is already at 1900 people per square mile.
Which brings us to Houston, the opposite extreme. Houston’s expansion knows no geographic or political boundaries. When other cities incorporate, it just goes around. Suburbs like West U, Bellaire, and the Villages become enclaves. Strategic annexations of roadways and other tracts of land extend Houston’s reach even further. A cross-section of strategic Houston annexations from Prairie View to Lynchburg measures 65 miles across. A trip from Willowbrook to El Dorado is forty.
When your city is this large, it leads to some interesting paradoxes. Houston’s nominal population density of 3600 people per sq. mile is surpassed by many of the enclaves. West U, in particular, is north of 7000. But Houston is scattered with pockets of density above 10,000/sq. mi, and portions of Gulfton and Gulfgate check in north of 20k. Houston’s 3600 is also almost exactly 30% higher than Phoenix, which pursues the exact same transportation and annexation policies but with Euclidean zoning.
Really rough back-of-the-metaphorical-envelope calculations tell me that if you drew a line at Beltway 8, you’d come out with a population density in the 6000s. (Note: see followup post.) Which is really incredible. That’s higher than Portland or San Jose, and almost to Minneapolis and Seattle, both of which have more constrained geographic boundaries. And this density is achieved in a relatively young, Sunbelt city, that grew up almost entirely around cars.
The reader may note that the title of this blog post said “prosperous,” while an earlier paragraph on Dallas mentioned “quality of life.” This because the two are indirectly related. Prosperity is inextricably linked to population; you need people to have an economy, you need people with skills to have clusters, the more people you have the more skills there’ll be and the more clusters you’ll get. Likewise, life is typically more enjoyable if there’s more stuff. What the stuff is doesn’t matter – it might be restaurants, museums, churches, or death metal. People do stuff and the more people you put in reach of yourself the more stuff there is and the more likely it is you’ll find stuff you like.
Now there’s two ways to gain access to people and stuff. The first is you can put people closer together. The second is you can build faster transportation so it’s easier to get to them. The Chicago “L” is a slow loris, but at 11000 people per square mile citywide, it’ll still take you to a lot of places. The intersection of North and Halsted affords a view of a set of three successive 10mph corners on the Ravenswood and Evanston Ls. But as you can see there’s also a whole of stuff built there. On the other side, Phoenix is not particularly dense, but you can always hop on this thing and go wherever. Of course the best option is to combine density with high-speed transportation infrastructure which gets you the spur through Midtown or perhaps Roppongi.
Both of these things, land use and transportation, are more easily accomplished in a larger governmental jurisdiction. The primary opposition to land use is NIMBY – “I don’t want to look up at the Ashby high-rise while I’m mowing my lawn.” The primary opposition to transportation infrastructure is, again, NIMBY – “I don’t want to live next to this freeway.” The latter is somewhat more understandable, since freeways generate noise and pollution externalities that residential towers don’t. But in both cases you’re pitting NIMBY concerns against regional concerns. The larger a city you have, the more diluted the NIMBY voices are within the overall governmental framework.
About the only way to screw this up is to devolve decision-making authority to sub-units. DC and NYC do this with zoning decisions, which is sort of exactly why DC and NYC have ludicrous zoning policy. By contrast, Houston’s super neighborhoods are strictly advisory bodies. If you had any doubts you can check out the official site which uses the words “stakeholder,” “plan,” and “priority” twice each in the span of three paragraphs. Anytime you see those words, you know that no actual, real decisions are being made. And that’s the right way to do it.
This post originally appeared in Keep Houston Houston on November 1, 2012.