Is This The Densest Sprawl In The Country?

A veritable fiesta of posts today!

Going off my last one, I was poking around Houston on the NYT’s lovely Census maps and discovered this gem: Census Tract 421402, at the southwest corner of Renwick and Gulfton in Houston, with a population of 3,440 and a population density of 55,254. Fifty-five thousand! For comparison’s sake, that’s nearly the population density of Manhattan. And it looks like this:

The thing that jumps out at me right away is the land coverage of that tract (and the ones around it, which vary from about 18,000 ppsm to 37,000 ppsm); buildings cover a waaaaay bigger percentage of the land inside the arterial roads than they do in an average Chicago neighborhood, where there are small yards and alleys and so on. The other thing, obviously, is that we have reached Paris-level density with what appears to be highly pedestrian- and transit-unfriendly planning, not to mention–at least as far as one can tell from Google Streetview, and in my own fallible opinion–a certain lack of aesthetic charm.

In fact, we have Paris/Manhattan-level density–surrounded by Chicago/Brooklyn level density–with virtually no visible pedestrians in the area. An incredible achievement! Probably the tiny sidewalks smushed up against a major fast-moving thoroughfare play some role. Moreover, though there is a bus route nearby, it appears to come only every 20 minutes and stop entirely at about 9:00 pm.

This is interesting, I think, because it raises all sorts of questions about what constitutes a city, and what “urbanism” is about. It forces you to ask what exactly matters here: Does form matter more than density? Does this kind of auto-centric density promote social justice, in creating a more compact city that promotes physical proximity to jobs? Or is it an island of people packed into apartments because they can’t afford to live elsewhere, surrounded by sprawl that makes access to those jobs more difficult? What are the environmental tradeoffs: Does the energy saved by living frugally, as far as land goes, count more than the energy saved by replacing driving trips with walking and public transportation? What kind of community and human interaction, both locally and regionally, does this sort of city promote? (Worth noting that many of these questions are empirical and are not meant to be rhetorical. There are answers, I’m just not equipped to provide them.)

Even more fascinating is that this is actually a mixed-use community: right at the northeast corner of the tract is a commercial center that should be an easy walk for tens of thousands of people. Instead, judging by the street layout, I’m guessing pretty much everyone who goes there drives, and the ones who do walk certainly don’t have an easy or enjoyable time of it. So many urbanist boxes checked, and yet so far!

Much more to say about this, and maybe I will later. I leave you with a snapshot of a neighborhood in Chicago with the same population density, in Lakeview:

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