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:

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.

A Thought, Deserving of More Time Than I Will Give It Here

The timing of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ discovery of Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto is opportune, since I just re-read the book about a month ago. (The first time was in high school, for a research paper on the history of segregation in Chicago that was my first academic investigation into what appears to be my future career. Memories!) The book is an absolute tour de force, and one of those histories that fundamentally changes your understanding of how things came to be the way they are. That is to say, if you haven’t read it, you must.

One of the main themes–perhaps theme Number One–is white territoriality, both from a sort of traditionalist community-integrity sense and a capitalist economic-efficiency sense. (Or, in other words, a territoriality that spans the white class structure.) TNC picks out a passage that highlights what that territoriality looks like from the black side of the equation:

Unable to do anything to alter the plans that shaped their lives, Chicago’s blacks responded viscerally, charging the planners with conspiracy and reviving an old strain of nativism in response to their ethnic antagonists. The dimensions of the conspiracy varied. Some believed the “plan” was to drive all blacks out of the area between 12th and 63rd streets; others stretched the territory to be “reclaimed” by whites down to 67th. The same new governmental agencies and powers that frightened white ethnics similarly affected blacks – only the latter saw no communists or subversives. “Land-grabbing” realtors, bankers, businessmen. and institutions provided explanation enough.

There were as many reasons for the perceived conspiracy as there were villains: Blacks were to be pushed out of their desirable inner-city locations and herded to the outskirts of the city or to undesirable suburbs such as Robbins to make way for Loop workers (there was at least some truth to this – not all conspiracies were fantasies); the dispersal of black population was designed to dilute that community’s political strength; the use of eminent domain was intended to reduce black property owners to tenancy.
All of which leads me to say that one of my reactions to re-reading Hirsch’s book was to reconsider how I feel about the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, under which virtually all of the public housing in the city has been torn down to make way for mixed-income developments. (Or, as the case may be in this post-2008 market, vacant land.) The standard liberal line here, or so it seems, is that the Plan was fundamentally necessary to end a spectacularly failed policy of warehousing the poor, even if it has been inequitably carried out, so that many if not most people displaced by redevelopment haven’t seen their former public units replaced with new ones. That had pretty much been my opinion, too, and it may still turn out to be the right one; but considered in the greater context of Chicago’s long war over potentially valuable land, it’s very hard not to feel the ground shifting under your feet, so to speak. Is this not, actually, just another state-sponsored exile of the poor? Might doing nothing have been more just? Or, more compellingly, might there have been other options? Recently I saw a link to an article about the transformation of New York’s public housing; I need to go back and read that.

Transit, energy efficiency, yuppies

Is this post from the Freakonomics blog pretending to be more clever than it really is? Yes. Does it employ an annoying, I’m-pissing-off-both-sides-I-must-be-such-an-impish-devil angle? Yes. Must it die? Yes.

Its conceit is that, measured in terms of how much energy it takes to move a human body a given amount of space, public transit—especially buses—is not necessarily more energy efficient than private cars in contexts where it’s not used very much, and therefore spends most of its time running around half empty.  (This is, incidentally, ground that the Straight Dope covered more thoroughly years ago.)

“It is not clear that moving around large and largely empty vehicles is much of an improvement over moving around smaller ones. In fact,” our Freakonomics correspondent concludes, “it could be worse.”

This is not true. In fact, in the way of blog posts with cutesy counterintuitive ledes, the writer admits it’s not true somewhere towards the middle of the piece: if you include the energy spent building vehicles and infrastructure, even buses are more efficient than cars, and trains are much more efficient.

But even this misses the larger point, which is that public transportation doesn’t have to move people as far, because it allows people to live more densely, and therefore closer to work and stores.  It’s nice if it’s more efficient on a per-mile basis, but even when it’s not, you usually get fewer carbon emissions because people just don’t have to travel as many miles. If you’ve built a neighborhood that’s dense enough for people to walk to school or a corner store instead of driving, you’ve reduced the number of miles traveled even further.

Of course, if you build and run transit in such a way that you are not encouraging—or allowing—people to live more densely, you lose that benefit. This is why people like Ryan Avent are up in arms about laws that specifically prohibit people from building bigger apartment buildings, or even more tightly spaced houses, near public transportation when there’s demand for it. (Actually, he’s more upset about the economic consequences of that, as am I, but the causal idea is the same.)

Anyway, this reminds me of an insight somebody had—I forget where I read this—about the fact that most American public transit projects at the moment are either commuter-style light rail that goes way into the suburbs, or very short streetcars that circulate around a popular central district. Neither of these is ideal from a user perspective—the commuter rail is usually surrounded by a giant park and ride lot, and is useless for getting anywhere other than downtown; and no one is going to use a mile-long streetcar for anything, especially when the frequency is so low that you could walk to the end of the line before the next trolley came—but they’re even worse when you consider that they’re failing all the environmental tests, too. They don’t really encourage people to live densely, since the light rail just chases sprawl farther and farther away, and the streetcars are too short to be a primary mode of transportation; plus, because they’re so unuseful, they’re likely to spend much of their time running around mostly empty. (Consider that none of the seven commuter rail projects to open in the U.S. in the last ten years serve over 6,000 people a day, and three carry fewer than 2,000, even though on average they reach 30 miles outside of downtown. More traditional light rail systems are generally above that, but still have pathetic riders-per-mile numbers.)

It’s not hard to figure out why we’re building such nonsensical things, though: That’s where the middle class people live. With American cities moving towards a sort of donut-shaped geography of poverty—wealthy districts at the very center and in the suburbs, buffered by working class and poor urban districts and inner-ring suburbs—the political momentum for building the kind of tight but comprehensive in-city transit networks that are ideal from a user and environmental point of view is pretty limited. This is a major reason to be skeptical of urbanism as “creative class” catnip: It tends to skew planning away from what density and transit is actually good for, not to mention what is economically just.

(I feel the need to note, as a postscript, that on this count, the CTA deserves credit—its major projects, like BRT on Jeffrey, Western, and Ashland, are exactly the sort of mid-range workaday operations that will increase mobility and allow greater density outside (as well as inside) gentrified central districts. Neither wacky extensions to the suburbs, nor pointless circulators downtown, are among its shortcomings.)