Holding a World Series parade in a sprawling big city

The Houston Astros won the World Series and held a victory parade Friday in downtown Houston. Downtown Houston exists but it seems odd to hold a parade in the central part of a city that has a reputation for sprawl and a lack of zoning. Some quotes about sprawling Houston starting with a list of “The American Cities With the Worst Sprawl.”

Texas and bigness again. Houston takes up 627 square miles, making it more than twice as large as Singapore with about 40% as many residents. Houston is sprawl defined, and that lack of density is the reason it makes our list. Dubbed “The Blob That Ate East Texas,” Houston is one of those quintessentially American cities not limited by any natural geographic barriers like mountains or bodies of water. Sprawl was a business decision for developers, as there’s a lot less risk building horizontally than vertically.

But Houston is discovering that sprawl isn’t a permanent blight, and the city has seen significant private and public investment in its urban core. Over the past eight years, Houston has completely reimagined its transit network by opening two new light rail lines and expanding another. Two additional lines are in the works with one slated to be completed by 2019. Houston also grew its bike sharing network from just 18 bikes in 2012 to more than 300 now. (Administrators are aiming for 1,000 by the end of 2017.)

The economy of Houston according to The Economist in March 2015:

FOR a view of Houston’s economy, get in a car. At the intersection of the Loop and Freeway 225, two motorways in the south-east of the city, you drive over a high, tangled overpass. To the east, where the port of Houston sits on Buffalo Bayou, the skyline is an endless mass of refineries, warehouses and factories: Houston is an oil town. To the west, glistening skyscrapers and cranes puncture greenery. In between, the landscape is a sprawl of signs advertising motels and car dealerships.

Houston is not pretty, but it thrives.

From a April 2000 guide to Houston in the New York Times.

Famous as a city without zoning, Houston is a sprawling metropolis, laced with highways as serpentine as ant tunnels, a place so vast that popular myth holds that a motorist can drive for an hour at 55 miles an hour and never get from one end of the city to the other.

Is it true? Probably not. But the city’s sprawl tends to obscure just how much is actually going on there.

Did all that sprawl contribute to a different kind of victory parade compared to one in a city with a more traditional urban core? Did the sprawl change how many people attended? (A reminder: Houston is the fourth largest city in the country and may someday soon pass Chicago for third place.)

Singling out a Houston McMansion

McMansionhell is back with a “snarky takedown” of a particular home in Houston. See the diagrammed pictures and explanation here.

It is not surprising that this researcher went after a Texas McMansion. I found in my article regarding uses of the term McMansion in both the New York Times and Dallas Morning News that there are some significant differences between the two areas of the country. The tone from New York City was that McMansions were overwhelmingly bad, even with their construction in suburban areas of the metro region. On the other hand, there were supporters of McMansions in Dallas. As McMansionhell noted, things are indeed larger in Texas and my study of the newspaper coverage suggested some people don’t mind celebrating this. Additionally, while sprawl is present in both places, a city like New York with such a dense center (some might argue the center of the world) does not celebrate the suburban conditions that encourage McMansions while residents of Dallas didn’t mind as much.

A side note: I found that design (example: Mediterranean architecture doesn’t work everywhere) and features of McMansions could differ quite a bit across regions. If this Houston McMansion is so notable, could one do something similar for garish McMansions in Orange County or Lake County or Westchester County?

Competing population projections for Chicago

I highlighted one recent prediction that Chicago would soon trail Houston in population. Yet, another projection has Chicago gaining people and holding off Houston for longer. Which is right?

Data released by the Illinois Department of Health in February show that the population for Chicago, about 2.7 million in 2010, could decrease by 3 percent to 2.5 million by 2025. Meanwhile, Houston’s population could reach 2.54 million to 2.7 million in 2025, according to the Reuters report. But a recent population estimate by the Census Bureau shows an increase in population, rather than a decrease.

Census estimates released in June show that the population of Chicago increased by 1 percent from 2010 to 2014. So why is one projection showing a decrease, but another an increase?

Both data sets are based on estimates and assumptions, says Rob Paral, a Chicago-based demographer. Unlike the 2000 or 2010 census, where all residents answer a questionnaire, any interim projections or estimates must use sampling or a formula based on past population statistics to calculate population…

“Trend data do not support any increase in the projections for Chicago in the next 10 years,” said Bill Dart, the deputy director of policy, planning and statistics at the health department. Dart explained that the estimates from the census use a different formula than the health department. And factors such as births, deaths, migration, economic boons or natural disasters can disrupt projections.

Two groups dealing with population data that come to opposite conclusions. Two ways we might approach this:

  1. The differences are due to slightly different data, whether in the variables used or the projection models. We could have a debate about which model or variables are better for predicting population. Have these same kind of variables and models proven themselves in other cities? (Alternately, are there factors that both models leave out?)
  2. Perhaps the two predictions aren’t that different: one is suggesting a slight decline and one predicts a slight increase. Could both predictions be within the margin of error? We might be really worried if one saw a huge drop-off coming and the other disagreed but both projections here are not too different from no change at all. Sure, the media might be able to say the predictions disagree but statistically there is not much difference.

The answer will come in time. Still, projections like these still carry weight as they provide grist for the media, things for politicians to grab onto, and may just influence the actions of some (is Chicago or Houston a city on the rise?).

Houston predicted to soon pass Chicago in population

Chicago may not last long even as America’s Third City:

Houston has been one of the fastest-growing U.S. cities for years, fueled by an energy industry that provided the backbone of the economy, low taxes and prospects of employment that have attracted job seekers.

But Houston also embodies the new, urban Texas, where political views have been drifting to the left, diversity is being embraced and newer residents are just as likely to drive a hybrid as a pickup truck…

Within eight to 10 years, Houston is forecast by demographers in the two states to pass Chicago, which has seen its population decline for years, as the third-largest city.

Houston is projected to have population of 2.54 million to 2.7 million by 2025 while Chicago will be at 2.5 million, according to official data from both states provided for their health departments. New York and Los Angeles are safe at one and two respectively.

The rise of Houston combined with Chicago’s ongoing population loss could bring more attention to the former city while diminishing the latter. Chicago already dropped behind Toronto in population; how far might Chicago slide? Chicago may like to compare itself to New York but new comparisons to Toronto and Houston might lead to some different kinds of conversations as well as new insights.

Chicago still leading the way for corruption

A new report finds Chicago is still at the top of American cities in corruption:

According to new research released today by University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor Dick Simpson, there were 45 convictions for public corruption in 2013 (the latest year available) in the U.S. court district that covers the Chicago area. That’s way, way above the 19 convictions in Los Angeles and 13 in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan). But Houston had far and away the most pols convicted on federal corruption charges in 2013, with 83.

Since the U.S. Department of Justice began to collect data in 1976, Chicago’s Northern District of Illinois, which includes Chicago, Cook County and 17 other counties, has had 1,642 convictions, according to Simpson. That compares with 1,316 in LA and 1,260 in the New York district, which includes Manhattan, the Bronx and six other counties…

If it makes you feel better, Simpson notes that on a per capita basis, Illinois is in seventh place. The District of Columbia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, and North and South Dakota rank higher than Illinois.

In this case, I don’t know if the quantification helps at all. When scholars or activists produce such figures, they are often trying to draw attention to a particular cause by pointing out the large numbers. This is how social problems are made. On the other hand, Chicago has had a reputation for corruption for decades. Do these numbers mean anything if residents of the region already expect this? Perhaps the comparison of numbers with other cities and regions can help. Yet, it doesn’t look like knowing these figures changes very much.

And what is going with Houston – is the oil money flowing a little too freely?

Three reasons for opposition to a proposed Dallas-Houston private high-speed rail project

Eric Jaffe categorizes opposition to a proposed high-speed rail project between Houston and Dallas. First, a brief description of the project:

A quick recap: Texas Central Railway, a private firm, is pushing a very promising proposal to link Dallas and Houston with a Japanese-style high-speed train capable of doing the trip at 200 mph. By relying on investors rather than taxpayers, the plan seemed poised to avoid a lot of the fiscal (slash ideological) squabbles that have plagued its federally-funded counterparts in California, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

And a little bit about each ideological camp:

Metcalf isn’t alone in this sentiment. Another elected official, Ben Lehman of Grimes County, has questioned whether the train will attract enough riders. He’s also been quoted as saying that the 18 million people who drive between Houston and Dallas each year have “gone through this decision-making process” and concluded “it’s more feasible to drive.”…

Other local officials are pushing a bill that “would strip firms developing high-speed rail projects from eminent domain authority,” reports the Texas Tribune. Fears of misused eminent domain are both valid and welcomed in any democratic setting. But what’s strange here is that the bill targets high-speed rail despite the fact that lots of private firms in Texas can wield eminent domain for the greater public good…

Which leads to the final major criticism of the privately funded Texas Central plan: that it won’t actually be privately funded. Or, rather, that it will start out privately funded but fail to meet its ridership goals and call on the public for a subsidy.

Three separate issues: is there enough demand? How much can a project like this exercise eminent domain? Would taxpayers ever be on the hook for such a project? My thoughts on each one:

1. On ridership. This may be a valid question but perhaps it matters less if this is a private project. If a company wants to spend the money, isn’t this their responsibility? Perhaps the real concern here is what happens if the project fails – what would happen to the infrastructure or the land that was taken?

2. On eminent domain. This gets at a classic American question of property rights versus the common good. Not easy to solve, particularly in a place like Texas.

3. On taxpayers left on the hook. This fear would seem to have some basis with large corporations or development projects (think sports stadiums) often using or having to use public money to close the gaps.

I would also be interested to see how these arguments are made together; a cluster of arguments could be more convincing than a single concern. Throwing up lots of negativity about the project can go a long ways in today’s media (traditional and otherwise) driven world.

Building for and selling real estate to more diverse suburbs

Builders and real estate agents are trying new approaches to match Houston’s diversifying suburbs:

Houston homebuilders, developers and Realtors are now trying to cater to this changing suburban demographic.

Realtors are taking classes in feng shui to appeal to Asian homebuyers. Local homebuilders are adding “mother-in-law” suites and casitas to their floor plans to attract Latin American buyers accustomed to multigenerational living.

Last month, Partners in Building, a Houston-based builder, announced plans to construct Mediterranean-style homes with domed roofs, Arabic-style arches and optional prayer rooms in a Sugar Land community.

“The suburbs are going to have to adapt,” Klineberg said. “These big McMansions are going to be less attractive. We need to provide more choices for people.”

Some interesting changes are likely underfoot in suburban real estate. Yet, the proposed changes may not be that large. For example, the sociologist cited at the end suggests McMansions won’t be such hot items. Maybe. McMansions could continue to thrive if they can incorporate some new styles (Mediterranean architecture) as well as new home features (prayer rooms, in-law suites). I’m guessing Klineberg means housing that is more flexible and cheaper to better suit working-class to middle-class residents who can’t afford the big suburban home yet need to be somewhat close to their suburban jobs. Again, that could go different directions: does that automatically mean more apartments and rental units or does it mean more affordable small houses, condos, and townhomes in denser neighborhoods? All together, will such changes be spread evenly throughout suburbs or will they be centered by class and race? I would guess a strong yes given the residential and class segregation present across suburban communities.