Published by Forbes via Scott Beyer, Contributor
Among those who appreciate cities and urban density, there are often very different associations about Houston and Portland. To many, Houston is a pro-growth metro where “the market” has led to a sprawling, incohesive hellscape. Portland, meanwhile, is considered a metro where enlightened government planning has produced walkable, European-style urbanism. Because both started from roughly the same place—as post-WWII, automobile-oriented metros—and because one has presumably become cool and cultured, while the other is disperse and smoggy, urbanists seem to believe that this validates the pro-planning model.
The problem is that these stereotypes about both metros are inaccurate. Having lived recently in each, and analyzing their different neighborhoods, I’ve found that Houston is urbanizing in ways that mirror, or even surpass, Portland. This should lead to very different conclusions about which of these places–and their policies–are worth imitating.
First, let’s look at the policies in each. Contrary to its reputation as a fully market model—highlighted by lack of a citywide zoning code—Houston is not totally unregulated. In fact, it has a number of regulations that discourage density, including minimum parking requirements, setbacks and city-backed neighborhood covenants. But in totality, Houston is still likely the least-regulated major U.S. metro. Since 2010, the metro has led the nation in new housing starts by far, topping 2nd-place New York City by a whopping 33,000 units; and it has led the nation in net population growth. This light regulatory touch caused Justin Fox of Bloomberg to celebrate Houston’s ‘zoning lite‘ model.
Portland, meanwhile, has tried to socially engineer a “human-scaled” city. This is highlighted by the fact that some land-use decisions are determined by a 3-county regional bureaucracy called Metro, and in several policy actions, including mandating an urban growth boundary, constructing a regional rail transit network, and using zoning and other design standards to micromanage built patterns, far more than in Houston.
It’s worth noting that, despite these differences, both metros sprawl quite a lot–just like every other major one in the U.S. But more pertinent is the question: which of them have better densified and urbanized?
I analyzed this by comparing two similarly-sized boundaries that represent the “core” of each metro. One would be the 145 square miles of Portland city proper. The other would be the 145 square miles that emanate outward in every direction from Houston’s central business district. This includes the 96 square miles within the I-610 loop, plus another 49 square miles of urbanized neighborhoods west of this interstate ring, including Gulfton, Uptown, Willowbend, Brays Oak, Westbury, Briar Meadow, Sharpstown, and the western half of the Bellaire township. (The amount of land dedicated to water and parkland within each of these cores is similar). To get a full picture of what kind of urbanized areas these two 145-square-mile boundaries have become, I looked at different factors, including population density, built pattern and placemaking.
As of the 2010 Census, there were 583,776 people living in the 145-square-mile boundaries of Portland city proper, for a population density of 4,026/mile. According to those same 2010 figures, the 96 miles within Houston’s 610 loop have a population density of 4,743/mile. Interestingly, though, some of Houston’s densest residential areas are actually just west of this loop, including Uptown, which has the Galleria Mall, and Gulfton, an area predominately of Hispanic immigrants. When accounting for the entire 145 square miles of Houston’s central and near-western core, the residential density is 5,304/mile. That makes Houston’s core much denser than Portland’s, not to mention that of Denver, Atlanta, Dallas, Austin, and New Orleans.
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