Things I Envy About Houston: Really? Really.

The Urbanophile for some reason has re-posted a six-month-old piece from Keep Houston Houston, a high-quality heterodox urbanist blog that I wish I saw linked to more places. In it, KHH makes a number of interesting claims about population density that I should really check out on some of the NYT’s Census maps (There are pockets of 20k+ people per square mile neighborhoods in HOUSTON? Denser, in other words, than pretty much every neighborhood in the Midwest outside of Chicago and Milwaukee?), but the broader and more important point is about the regionally (and locally) beneficial consequences of large municipal borders. While some sort of neighborhood-level responsiveness is important, of course, when there are no empowered political bodies at the regional level, you get a bunch of people pursuing their own (perceived or actual) provincial self-interests, which often includes things like exclusionary zoning and dumb economic development turf wars, and leads to a general failure to coordinate necessarily regional services like transportation between jurisdictions. Not to mention the waste involved in having dozens of administrative bodies each doing their own police departments and trash pickup, instead of one centralized body.

Anyway, one urbanist tendency is to look at the municipal borders of a place like Houston–which, at over 600 square miles, is twice the size of New York and nearly three times bigger than Chicago–and scoff at the travesty of sprawl. A better reaction would be to envy their much more rational form of political organization.

4 thoughts on “Things I Envy About Houston: Really? Really.

  1. Interesting point. I’ve read about the incredible number of political entities in Chicago and many other Midwestern metro areas. I recall it was a major theme in Caught in the Middle. Still…. I wonder if the problems associated with the plethora of political entities might be overstated – at least for some Midwestern cities. For example, in the Milwaukee metro area, in spite of the large number of separate entities, highways, flood management, wastewater treatment, and water supply are largely handled on a regional basis. These represent a big chunk of the essential services for which economies of scale can be achieved. Garbage collection in nearly all cities is handled by private contractors, with efficient large scale operations that handle disposal of wastes in two major landfills and which operate large scale highly efficient recycling centers. For schools, I think the local control and the multitude of school districts is a positive. In fact, a topic for debate is whether Milwaukee Public Schools would be more effective if broken into 5 or 6 smaller districts. Milwaukee has a multitude of business improvement districts – another type of local government unit. But this is not a problem in any way that I am aware. In fact, BIDs have been an essential component of nearly every neighborhood that has seen significant improvement over the past 20 years. I’m playing the devil’s advocate to some degree, but it occurred to me that the problem of the multitude of separate political entities may be somewhat overstated and in need of more in depth analysis.

    1. Whoa, you’re really digging into the archive. (Awesome!) Yeah, maybe. I’m not super sold on hyper-local school districts, for reasons of equity as well as efficiency. And I think there’s evidence that there’s a lot of waste and miscoordination, and even self-defeating competition, in polymunicipal (to coin a word) metro areas – one of my professors wrote a book on it recently, Chris Berry, though I can’t remember (and a quick Google search fails to find) the name. Anyway, the thesis is that this phenomenon is in fact a problem, and the lecture he gave based on it was at least somewhat convincing. But I’m afraid I personally can’t be any more convincing than that at the moment.

      1. Yes. I just discovered your blog a few days ago, and everything I have read so far has been well written and very well thought out. I suspect I will read through your full archive over the next few weeks. I found you via Burgh Diaspora, which has also been a revelation. My city of greatest interest is Milwaukee, which seems to be somewhat neglected in the urban blogosphere. Hope to publish some articles of my own the next few months (but remain amazed at how much time this takes). Kudos for all of the effort that I know must go into maintaining this blog.

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