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Session at the Urban Affairs Association conference highlights Kinder Institute’s efforts to encourage scholars to study Houston’s pressing issues.

Representatives of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research presented the functions and applications of the institute’s Urban Data Platform during a conference from the Urban Affairs Association — the professional organization for urban geographers and other city-related scholars. Arguably the richest trove of data on any American city, the UDP aggregates and organizes everything from Census data to satellite images to city government data — all focusing on the Greater Houston area. 

Moderating the UAA session, Bill Fulton, Kinder Institute’s executive director, noted that, while Houston is the fourth-largest metropolis in the nation, none of the conference’s other 100-plus sessions focused on the Bayou City. The Kinder Institute hopes to change scholars’ approaches to Houston with the UDP, giving scholars ready access to data and, ultimately, contribute to a greater understanding of the city and its challenges. 

The session featured scholars who have taken advantage of UDP data in diverse, inventive ways. 

While Houston has long been known for relatively low real estate costs and abundant housing options for residents of all income levels, it has experienced displacement of low-income residents and, in some places, dramatic changes in the composition of neighborhoods. While these changes often lend themselves to dramatic anecdotal accounts and intuitive notions of trends and, in some cases, injustices, scholars have used the UDP to objectively describe how Houston’s socioeconomic profile is actually changing. 

Kinder Institute researcher Wendie Choudary analyzed gentrification patterns in Harris County from 1990 to 2016. She used rises in income levels as proxies for gentrification. She found that 140 Census tracts gentrified from 2000 to 2010; in the following decade, fewer tracts gentrified, but those that did filled in many gaps between tracts that had already gentrified. She used the data to identify neighborhoods that, if past patterns persist, are likely to gentrify soon, like East Downtown.

"Houston needed broad analysis of gentrification to understand itself,” Choudary said and proposed that the city could use her work to implement “programs and policies to curb unintended effects” of gentrification, including residential displacement and destabilization of historical communities. 

Kinder Institute researcher John Park analyzed the locations where residents in the housing voucher program moved from and to through the use of data from the Houston Housing Authority. Park found that Census tracts within Beltway 8 lost voucher holders while tracts outside 610 Loop gained voucher holders, implying neighborhoods within the area may be gentrifying and becoming too expensive even with government support. He analyzed characteristics of families that tend to move under the voucher program, finding that 1) people who move tend to be younger than those who stay; 2) they move to residences that require higher contributions from the renter; 3) non-Hispanic women tend to move the most, and 4) people tend to move out of flood-prone areas. 

Kinder Institute scholar Elizabeth Korver-Glenn of the University of New Mexico looked at the persistence of segregation in Houston. She studied the role of real estate developers and chose Houston as a case study because of the generally pro-development climate, permissive zoning laws and the city’s ethnic diversity. She looked at UDP data on homes that were newly built or significantly renovated in 2014 and 2015 and mapped them against 2012 demographic data from the American Communities Survey. She found that new construction overwhelmingly took place in predominately white neighborhoods, and poorer white neighborhoods experienced higher levels of construction. These findings imply developers chose to build in white neighborhoods for white residents — thus further entrenching patterns of segregation. 

Additionally, Rice University's Christopher Hakkenberg presented a stunning display of satellite data from the UDP, which he used to map the Houston area’s growth over the past two decades to determine where farms and open space are being developed, where urban areas are growing denser and how quickly these changes are occurring. He concluded the Houston area added over 2,000 square kilometers of development since 1997, which is bigger than many metro areas in their entirety.

Yujie Hu of the University of South Florida used traffic data to characterize the types of intersections that lead to collisions between cars and cyclists and pedestrians in Houston. Hu’s challenges included mapping where collisions took place while also controlling for the characteristics of those intersections, such as whether they were governed by traffic signals or stop signs. When shared with city officials, this research may enable planners to design better intersections and reduce injuries and fatalities.

While most of the data in the UDP is publicly available, it is disaggregated and not analyzed, which means, as Choudary noted, “you could easily spend months tracking down the data” used in her project. As diverse as these projects are, they represent only a fraction of the data housed in the UDP. Each conveyed a sense of urgency, knowing that Houston is only getting bigger, meaning that unchecked problems — whether related to socioeconomic status, environmental threats, health, mobility or anything else — may only get worse in the absence of good scholarship and effective policy responses. 

Los Angeles-based journalist Josh Stephens is contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report, published by Kinder Institute Executive Director Bill Fulton.