Study Says Houston Sprawl Isn’t So Bad


In fact, the report argues, the metro area has made progress in recent years. Today, it's something of a model for other cities.

Map of Harris County

In fact, the report argues, the metro area has made progress in recent years. Today, it's something of a model for other cities.

Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. could all comfortably fit inside the city limits of Houston. But in sprawling Houston, there's a growing push for walkable urbanism, and some areas of town are already seeing density comparable to East Coast cities. Still, its reputation persists.

Between 2010 and 2016, Houston actually got less dense, when it came to average neighborhood density, according to an analysis by Jed Kolko, senior fellow at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley.

In fact, Kolko argued, most major metropolitan areas got less dense in that time frame, led by cities like San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and Houston.

But by other measures, Houston is actually leading the shift away from sprawl. That's according to a new analysis of the 178 largest metropolitan areas by University of Pennsylvania city planning professor John Landis, published in the journal Housing Policy Debate. Landis sought to not only track sprawl in the largest metropolitan areas between 1990 and 2010 but to also determine whether any specific policies were tied to density outcomes.

Using a variety of indices to measure an area's growth management, infrastructure and containment policies, Landis found that, for the most part, "formal state- and metro-level growth policies and programs are either beside the point or ineffective," when not implemented in coordination. One of the strongest indicators of sprawl, he concluded (unsurprisingly) is the relative availability of developable land. Yet it turns out, Texas -- where urban core neighborhoods have grown faster than elsewhere -- emerges as something of a model.

Comparison of 2010 Portland and Houston census tract-level density, using data from the National Land Cover Database. Courtesy of Housing Policy Debate.

"As a newer generation of Americans seeks more diverse development forms, planners, taking a page from Texas, should look for ways to loosen overly prescriptive land-use regulations," wrote Landis. Though he acknowledged that growth is continuing outward in places like Houston, leading to the declining average neighborhood densities tracked by Kolko, he said infill and redevelopment are also picking up, driving higher density gradients, that measure how quickly density dissipates as you move away from the central business district.

He also used the paper to call out what he's named sprawl control leaders and laggards as well as the most- and least-improved metropolitan areas.

Sprawl Control Leaders: The big obvious cities make the list of sprawl control leaders, including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington, D.C. But there are other small cities, many of them college towns, that also make the list, like Ann Arbor, Colorado Springs and Madison. Notable about this list; it isn't confined to just one region. And though Landis noted that sprawl control leaders tended to be "united by their aggressive use of land-use regulation to limit development," there were not united by "any single regulation."

Most Improved: Houston, Dallas and other Texas cities, including Corpus Christi and McAllen, were all identified as some of the "most improved" metropolitan areas when it comes to sprawl. Here there was more of a regional trend in that they were "much more likely to be located in the West." They also tended to have younger populations and higher rents, according to the report.

Least Improved: The list includes Kansas City, Memphis and Montgomery, Alabama. The metropolitan areas that showed the least progress in combatting sprawl also tended to have more local governments per capita within each metropolitan area, "reinforcing the notion that increased municipal fragmentation is a barrier to smart growth." These cities also tended to have higher percentages of African American residents.

Sprawl Control Laggards: Places like Tulsa, Tampa and Nashville ended up on this list, which tended to include cities with older populations and fewer foreign-born residents.

"Sometimes," noted Landis, "the conventional wisdom is right. In the case of sprawl, the conventional wisdom is that metro areas with more immigrants, more young people, and a better educated population should sprawl less." Landis also concluded that population growth and a shortage of developable land are also linked to a decline in sprawl. In the end, he asserted that demographics and markets mattered more than policy, with the important caveat that, if applied strategically, land-use regulations could be effective.

"Adopting anti-sprawl regulations will have little effect," warned Landis, "unless there is also the local will and capacity to implement them in a purposeful manner."

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