Houston Or Portland: Which City Is Doing Urban Density Better?

A look at the pro-market vs. pro-planning urban model.

Scott Beyer | October 25, 2018 | |
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The Houston skyline / pixabay

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.

Population Density

As of the 2010 Census, there were 583,776 people living in the 145-square-mile boundary 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.

Built Pattern

This greater residential density in core Houston means, not surprisingly, that it also has a more impressive built imprint. The same hands-off mindset that has tolerated Houston’s sprawl has been applied to high-rise construction also. Clutch City has 50 buildings exceeding 400 feet, including 10 that exceed 700 feet, giving it the nation’s 4th largest skyline. Many of these structures are located either in downtown, Uptown or the Texas Medical Center, which is also inside the 610 loop. Portland only has 5 buildings above 400 feet, and its tallest is the Wells Fargo Center at 546 feet. This is because of strict height limits that are meant to protect what is vaguely defined as community character. Such limits are applied even in high-intensity areas, to a degree that almost seems bizarre. For example, the Pearl District, just north of downtown, has for three decades become a focal point for city investment, including a brownfield clean-up, new parks, historic preservation, and a streetcar line. This has put the neighborhood in high demand, with median asking prices, according to Zillow, at $597,000. But most buildings there can’t exceed 200′.

(A photo of Portland’s underwhelming downtown skyline.)

Perhaps more notable on a block-by-block level than the skyscrapers are the differences between Houston and Portland regarding multi-family units. Houston was the nation’s 2016 leader in multi-family permits, and while much of this is emerging on the outskirts, 2- and 3-story townhomes also encompass vast swaths of the city core. In fairness, much of Portland’s new construction is multi-family also, but the bottom line is that the city just doesn’t build much housing period. Between 2010 and 2016, while Houston was permitting 45,000 new units annually, Portland was permitting about 10,000. This is due not only to regulation (as first imagined by the local and regional government), but by the fact that Nimbys exploit and intensify these regulations to further stop development. Given these barriers, the city core maintains its low-slung, single-family residential character, even though it would likely be much taller under an open market.

Placemaking

This is one area where Portland is beating Houston, and perhaps everyone else: the City of Roses knows how to do public spaces. The mentality here is that the imprint of these spaces should remain smaller, to accommodate pedestrians. Especially in downtown, the blocks are smaller, the streets are narrower, the parks are more intimate, and so forth.

Portland has numerous other urban design efforts–big and small–throughout the city. This ranges from the curb extensions at many intersections, to the public sculptures, to the fact that the city demolished a downtown highway and replaced it with a linear waterfront park. Another example would be the small retail towncenters dotted throughout the city’s neighborhoods. This has improved Walkscores–and the general sense of urbanism–within a city otherwise defined by sprawl housing.

Houston, like many automobile-oriented cities, is at least trying to catch up with Portland. For example, the city has organized a mass public-private initiative to build several world-class parks in its core. But the way that the city currently manages its streets is incompatible with infill densification. Many streets, even downtown, are one-way, meaning they cater more to inbound-outbound traffic than to the 16,000 downtown residents. And almost none of the streets are “complete”, in the sense that they have tasteful medians and pedestrian amends. Bringing better placemaking to them would likely increase property values and downtown residential population. This is something that Portland–whose downtown has 26,000 residents–already recognizes.

Overview

So which metro area–Houston or Portland–is doing urban density better? In the objective sense, Houston is, by fitting in more people. Subjectively, it depends on one’s tastes. Portland’s dedication to historic preservation, low-rise, so-called tasteful development, and pedestrian orientation is indeed charming. The core area feels like a slightly bigger version of an antiquated liberal arts college town, where the pace of life is slow and the people are intentionally offbeat. The fact that this sits amid the backdrop of cloudy skies and evergreen-covered hills gives the place an ethereal quality.

Houston, meanwhile, is too busy urbanizing to even try and achieve this pretension. It is building upward, outward, and everything in-between–and is doing so rapidly and unapologetically, with the metro area population increasing since 2010 by 852,054, compared to 208,946 in Portland. This has made Houston, inside and outside of its core, a completely different place than Portland: more grandiose, vertical, diverse, global, monied and in your face. Indeed, there is an extent to which Houston, with its large gleaming skyscrapers and overt street-level multiculturalism, almost makes Portland feel like a cow town.

This is not to say that one is obligated to like–much less live in–either Houston or Portland. But it does make a statement about markets versus planning, in respect to urbanization. If people want cities–as many Americans seem to–they should embrace growth, markets and deregulation; it they want “towns”, they should embrace planning, regulation and a collaborative process that allows community interests to navel-gaze about every last land-use decision.

I certainly know what type of place I’d rather live in.

[This article was originally published by Forbes.]

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