Map: Four Detroits, One Houston

by: Elizabeth Luther
On its face, the “Fours Detroits, One Houston” map is a “surface level comparison” of two cities, meant simply as a conversation piece for discussions around land use and density, and how they fit within the many factors that can affect residents’ quality of life and access to opportunity. I developed it to complement to Detroit Collaborative Design Center’s (DCDC) map “comparing Detroit to three other major cities” amidst discussions with a colleague about whether the areas of Detroit that are seeing new investment and development should aim for density standards set by the country’s most urban areas, or should adopt more reasonable goals based on the knowledge that density isn’t the only measure of the built environment that might affect residents’ quality of life. Often maligned by urban planners for its lassiez-faire approach to land use regulations, Houston has over four times the land area and a lower population density than Detroit, but boasts nearly half the poverty rate and twice the median household income see below charts comparing those data points for the cities shown in both maps.
In lieu of a more researched comparison between the drivers of these indicators in Detroit and Houston respectively, it’s my assumption that residents in Houston have access to higher incomes and are less likely to experience poverty in large part due to the strength of a growing oil industry. Yet are Houston’s low-density development patterns sustainable in the long term? Do its annexation powers give it more power to regulate regional shifts that would otherwise be detrimental to residents in the city’s core?  If we’re to have learned anything from the effects of globalization on the auto industry and federal policies that encouraged post-war suburban development in metro Detroit, one takeaway could be that this low-density development doesn’t hold up well to massive macroeconomic shifts; another might be that a cooperative regional approach might could potentially curb some of the negative effects a huge drop in a city’s residential tax base.
One of my colleagues suggested that a caption for this map could be “anything is possible.” And indeed, it is possible to fit the land area of 26 Manhattans, 6.7 Bostons, or 12.8 San Franciscos into one Houston. But do higher density areas do a better job of supporting residents in the long-term?

I’d love for someone with more Houston expertise to weigh in on the map and the issues raised above.

Median Household Income by City (2011-2015 ACS 5-year estimates, in 2015 dollars0

Detroit – $25,764
Houston – $46,187
Boston – $55,777
New York City – $53,373
San Francisco – $81,294

Persons in Poverty, Percent (2015, I believe; US Census Quickfacts accessed 12/19/2016)

Detroit – 40.3%
Houston – 22.5%
Boston – 21.5%
New York City – 20.6%
San Francisco – 12.4%

2 thoughts on “Map: Four Detroits, One Houston

  1. Pingback: Map: Four Detroits, One Houston — DETROITography – Digital Thoughts in an Analogue World

  2. I am a native Detroiter and former city planner in Houston. I believe a far better comparison would to either take take all of the closest in suburbs of Detroit and combine them with Detroit until you get a land area similar to Houston’s or to only take the poorest contiguous census tracts in Houston that equal Detroit’s land area. Either way, you will get a much better perspective.

    Another approach might be to calculate the center city and regional population for each metro area and then doing some sort of comparative analysis. Cities like Houston and Detroit of course are very low density compared to New York etc. Another aspect would be to look at the percentage each cities residents are of the regions wealth by category. It is certainly true that Detroit has probably experienced the greatest amount of “voting with their feet” of any US city. The reasons for that can be debated but not the reality. San Francisco as just one extreme opposite example, has one of the most desirable locations in the world. They have the different problem in that poor folks can’t afford to live there, again for a variety of debatable reasons.

    Bottom line, an apples to apples comparison is difficult.

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