The center of population is one way the Census Bureau follows migration and growth trends at a 30,000-foot view. It’s a calculated metric meant to show the center of gravity, so to speak, around which the population is perfectly balanced.
The center of the population tells a story.
On the national level, for example, the center’s move from the east coast to Missouri from 1790 to 2020 tells the story of the nation’s westward expansion and the growth of Sun Belt populations.
In Texas, the population center story reinforces the strength of the Texas Triangle and the pull of the Houston region as the dominant force of population growth. It has been just south of Temple since at least 2000, edging slightly southeast over 20 years, essentially the weight of the Houston region pulling away from the combined weights of Austin, San Antonio and Dallas.
In Harris County, the center tells the story of the county's suburban expansion, a well-documented trend we have touched on more than a few times on this blog. Houston itself is rivaled by the rest of Harris County in terms of total residents, many of whom live in unincorporated areas. If the population distribution were a game of tug-of-war, Harris County’s suburbs might have won this round.
The center of Harris County now falls right along West 34th Street near Ella Boulevard on the edge of the Oak Forest neighborhood—a suburb from another era of expansion, making it an appropriate nod to the city’s past and the region’s future. (All the more appropriate because Oak Forest was unincorporated at the time development began in the late 1940s.) This spot, according to Census calculations, is Harris County's center of gravity, sitting amid a very Houstonesque collection of businesses. There's a bus dealership, a commercial auctioneer, a traffic sign installer, and vegetarian Indian restaurant nearby. Down 34th, there are new coffee shops and restaurants cropping up at new strip centers across the street from a Baptist church, a pawn shop and a used car lot. Oh, and a there's a Shipley Do-Nuts.
Since 2000, when the center of the population was in the Heights (at 12th and Ashland streets, if you're wondering), Harris County’s population has grown by about 40%, while its unincorporated population has grown more than twice that rate, with 900,000 new residents. You can see the growth in the before/after satellite image above, with development led mostly by new subdivisions in the west, north and northwest parts of the county (Katy, Spring and Cy-Fair).
Outward and onward
The Census does not publish population center points for cities or metropolitan statistical areas, but we do know that the outlying counties around Harris County have been growing at a rapid clip as well.
Indeed, the Houston metro area has experienced a uniquely profound suburban/exurban expansion. Of the top 5 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in the US, the Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land MSA, a nine-county region, has seen far more growth outside the central city over the past 20 years than any other—118% more people lived in the metro area outside Houston city limits in 2020 than they did in 2000. The city’s population grew by “only” 18% in the same period.
To put it another way: The Houston MSA’s population outside Houston city limits grew 7 times faster than the city itself. The next fastest-growing outlying area was Dallas-Fort Worth, where the population outside Dallas and Fort Worth city limits grew 54%. The remaining top three metro areas had outlying growth of around 9%.
The proportion of the Houston metro area’s residents living outside the city limits has increased from 54% to over 67%. Interestingly, by this measure, Houston still has proportionally fewer outlying residents than Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles, which have around 70%. (Remember, we’re just talking about populations, not density.)
Make way for more
The Urban Reform Institute, which advocates for market-oriented city planning, recently argued that the new models for American city living are developer-designed suburb and exurb communities such as The Woodlands, Bridgeland and Cinco Ranch, and there are a lot of reasons to suggest they are right. Development ever outward will almost certainly continue, particularly in Houston where there are no constraints and plenty of land.
Adding to the expectation for further suburban expansion are the evolving norms around remote/hybrid work, meaning long commutes will be less of a drawback for some workers. Looking even further forward, technologies such as autonomous vehicles could actually encourage more sprawl, which researchers are beginning to anticipate.
The pandemic certainly accelerated this trend. Based on our estimates from USPS data, tens of thousands more Houstonians left the city than moved here in 2020, and most of the move-outs stayed in the metro area, opting to live in one of the suburbs instead.
This also occurred after a period when Houston added thousands of new housing units but also lost residents. A variety of factors are in play there: displacement of families, a lack of housing choices at affordable prices for varying income levels, new units not being built fast enough to displace demolished properties, and shrinking household sizes.
But the city is far from being an afterthought, and there are really interesting things happening as Houston redevelops its core into more dense, walkable urban areas. Declining needs for office space could mean new opportunities for central city residential development, and new rules to encourage “missing middle” housing could unleash some creative neighborhood solutions. Rising property values in places like Oak Forest, where the average price-per-square foot have gone up almost 75% in 10 years, demonstrate there is deep interest and deep pockets for living near, if not inside, the Loop.
The challenge for Houston’s planners and developers is how to bring more people back to the city through more housing options in safe, walkable communities, or making some areas even more “car optional.” Many of those conversations have been underway as part of the Livable Places committee, but even if Houston gets its policy mix just right, it is more or less at the whim of developers to design its future.
Then again, so are the suburbs.