Photo: JWSherman.

Survey results suggest attitudes about density are connected to attitudes about diversity, hinting at the Houston's future.

This post is the first of a series of five articles written by Rice University undergraduate students who participated in the spring semester Kinder Houston Area Survey course.

Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States, is famous for its urban sprawl and automobile-dependency. An oil-and-gas hub, the city’s far-reaching freeways connect largely suburban neighborhoods spanning nine counties and covering more than 10,000 square miles, a geographical area almost as large as the entire state of Massachusetts. The influence of the back-to-the-city movement, the nationwide trend of younger and more affluent Americans moving into previously neglected urban cores, has led to the recent proliferation of dense urban housing developments in the Inner Loop. While Anglo residents often feel tethered to their large lawns and vehicles, growing numbers of younger homeowners seem to prefer denser developments, smaller living spaces, and more walkable neighborhoods.

The 2016 and 2018 Kinder Houston Area Survey asked Harris County residents about their living preferences: “If you could choose where to live in the Houston area, which would you prefer – a single-family home with a big yard, where you would need to drive almost everywhere you want to go, or a smaller home in a more urbanized area, within walking distanceof shops and workplaces?”

To determine what might account for differences in these preferences, we considered four potential predictors: life circumstances (age, number of children living at home, etc.), fear of crime, proximity to work and other conveniences, and comfort with diversity. Ultimately, that last potential predictor was the one that stood out as the most closely associated with the preference for high-density living. The most powerful predictors were attitudes toward Houston’s burgeoning ethnic diversity, assessments of the impact of immigrants on the American economy, and support for gay couples being legally permitted to adopt children. The survey results strongly suggest that area residents who are more comfortable with diversity are also more likely to prefer living in a high-density more urbanized area, compared with those who are more uncomfortable with all the ongoing demographic changes.

As indicated in the accompanying chart, 47 percent of the Anglo respondents who believe that Houston’s increasing ethnic diversity will become “a source of great strength” for the city prefer dense, urban living, compared with only 32 percent of those who see that diversity as a “growing problem.” A similar trend is found when the respondents were asked if immigrants generally take more or contribute more to the American economy: 54 percent of those who say immigrants “contribute more than they take” prefer dense, urban living, compared with only 33 percent of those who say they “take more from the American economy.” The relationship continues with regard to attitudes toward “homosexuals being legally permitted to adopt children”: 46 percent of those who approve of this policy prefer dense, urban living compared with 33 percent of those who are opposed to gay adoptions. Thus, on all three of these distinct measures, area residents who are comfortable with Houston’s burgeoning diversity tend to prefer a smaller home in a more walkable urban area.

Political party affiliation was also a significant predictor: Anglo Democrats (at 66 percent) were far more likely than Republicans (at 28 percent) to prefer a smaller home in a denser neighborhood. Both party affiliation and comfort with diversity remained as individually powerful and significant predictors of living preferences after controlling for all the other variables in the regression analyses.

These results make it clear that the preference for dense, urban living depends on more than just the types of buildings people call home or the circumstances of their lives. Living in a dense space inevitably means frequent interactions with neighbors and others who are sharing public spaces and are likely to reflect the diversity of the city. A preference for living within walking distance of shops, restaurants, workplaces, and parks reflects a willingness to share urban spaces and to interact with others who may be different from oneself. As younger Americans continue increasingly to embrace the city’s burgeoning diversity, it seems likely that Houston and other American cities will respond by building more urban density and walkability in the years ahead.