Category Archives: General

Houston’s urban growth and Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey has dumped massive amounts of water on the Houston area, causing widespread, calamitous flooding. Some context on the tremendous growth of Houston can show how many more people are at risk from hurricanes now than from hurricanes that have periodically struck that general area in the past.

Reports from Houston have described Houston as the fourth largest city in the United States with a population of 2,300,000 (estimated for 2016). As urbanists understand, this will always be just a portion of urban area population. Some reports have mentioned the size of the metropolitan area (MSA), which is much larger. But metropolitan areas include substantial exurban and rural territory outside of the built-up urban area. Certainly the populations included in both areas are at risk from hurricanes. But the built-up urban area is of special significance because urban development exacerbates the risks of flooding due to increased impervious surface and man-made structures that retard runoff. And flooding in urban areas poses different types of risk (not necessarily more severe) than flooding in rural areas.

My focus here is on what I have defined as the Houston urban area in my urban patterns research. This is an effort to delineate the more-or-less built-up portions of the larger metropolitan area for each census year from 1950 to 2010. These urban areas are similar to the census Urbanized Areas that delineate the area and population officially considered to be “urban,” but have the advantage of being defined in a consistent manner over time (along with other research advantages given that they are defined using consistent areal units).These urban areas consist of the contiguous census tracts having at least the urban density of 3 acres per housing unit or 213.33 housing units per square mile. This is generally equivalent to the census threshold of 500 persons per square mile currently used to delineate Urbanized Areas. (For more detail, see this earlier blog post.)

First, I’ll show maps of the extent of the Houston urban area in 1950, 1980, and 2010, showing the tremendous expansion:

Houston urban area 1950

Houston urban area 1950

Houston urban area 1980

Houston urban area 1980

Houston urban area 2010

Houston urban area 2010

Now for some basic statistics describing the urban areas at these three points in time. This table shows the land area of the urban area, the number of housing units, and the housing unit density for each census year:

Year      Area (sq mi) Housing Units         Density
1950 167 157,687 945
1980 726 874,881 1,206
2010 1,765 1,882,352 1,066

The Houston area grew 10 times larger in terms of land area, becoming the ninth largest urban area in 2010. Surprisingly it had the fourteenth largest land area in 1950 despite its much lower ranking in terms of housing units because many other urban areas were far denser at that time. This demonstrates the vast increase in the land area that could be vulnerable to urban flooding now as opposed to the middle of the last century. And the much greater impervious surface area and amount of structures that would contribute to greater flooding.

Housing units increased by 12 times. Houston was tenth among the large urban areas in 2010 in terms of housing units while it was only twentieth in 1950. So again, a huge jump in the number of dwellings, households, and people at risk in urban Houston. And from 1980 to 2010, the population of the Houston urban area increased from 2,100,000 to almost 4,900,000. (Due to the nature of the data sources used, I do not have population figures for 1950.)

The housing unit density did not change a great deal over the sixty-year period, increasing somewhat from 1950 to 1980 and then dropping back a bit to 1,066 housing units per square mile in 2010. This density was almost exactly the mean housing unit density for the 59 large urban areas in my study in 2010, which was 1,080 (and was even closer to the median value of 1,055). This is in contrast to Houston’s density in 1950, which was forty-second out of 59 with a value of 945 units per square mile compared to the mean for all areas of 1,268. Many other areas saw decreases in density over this period; Houston, with a modest increase, did not. (See this post and this paper for more on changes in density for large urban areas over this period.)

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Seaside as an artificial environment

Seaside is a small resort community on the Gulf coast of Florida. It is widely recognized as the iconic example of new urbanist design. And it also served as the major location for the filming of the 1998 movie The Truman Show. This is now noted on the official Seaside website.

In the movie, the title character, played by Jim Carrey, has been raised and lives, unbeknowst to him, in a community inside a dome that serves as the set for a television show. The other people he interacts with are actors. All of Truman’s activities are broadcast live on television, 24 hours a day. During the movie, Truman longs to travel (which of course had to be discouraged and prevented) and becomes increasingly suspicious. At the end, he breaks out, leaves the television set, and exits to the real world.

For the movie, Seaside is being used as a set for the production of the television broadcast of the “Truman Show.” It is clearly an artificial world in which the title character is trapped. Special effects (computer-generated) were used to make some of the buildings in downtown Seaside taller. The Wikipedia article on the movie, citing a book on special effects, said that a special effects supervisor said that “these digital models did not have to look as detailed and weathered as they normally would in a film because of the artificial look of the entire town.”

The (mostly part-time) residents of Seasie may have had conflicted ideas about The Truman Show and Seaside’s role in the movie. The official Seaside website currently has a one-sentence mention that it was the primary filming location for the movie on the “About SEASIDE” page. It also includes the acknowledgement on the “School” page that the building of the school was made possible by the donation of the location fees from the filming of the movie. It seems as if this was included more to credit the donations rather than to provide information on the place of Seaside in the movie.

I used the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive to look at the treatment of The Truman Show on the Seaside website over time. The movie was filmed in Seaside in about 1997. I found no references to the movie on the website in 1997. There were no archives for 1998. Starting in 1999, the acknowledgement of the contribution of the location fees was included on the “School” page, which has probably continued uninterrupted to the present. (For a few years around 2005 to 2007, not all links appeared on the Flash display on the archived home pages, so I wasn’t able to confirm for those years.)

As far as I could tell, no other references to the movie appeared on the website until 2013. The current design of the website was introduced in late 2011, but it did not have the “About Seaside” page currently noting the movie. The home page of the website is illustrated with multiple small images portrayed as postage stamps, each with a Seaside-related image, “SEASIDE” printed prominently across the bottom, and frequently a large “30” accompanied by “Years” in small type in an upper corner. The latter is obviously intended to both commemorate the 30th anniversary of Seaside and to mimic the postage amount on stamps.

A curious development occurred in mid–2013. A “stamp” appeared that included a small, sillhouette image depeciting the key scene near the end of the movie when Truman walks up a long stairs to an exit door that he takes out of the set into the real world. The world “TRUMAN” is printed down one side of the stamp. This remained on the home page through the middle of 2014, when it was removed. Following this, the “About SEASIDE” page was added to the website with the reference to The Truman Show and has remained there ever since. The one sentence statement is curious, saying “The holiday town was also the primary filming location of the classic movie ‘The Truman Show.’” I am not sure what is intended with the reference to “the holiday town,” unless it is intended to somehow convey that the portrayal of Seaside as an artificial environment in the movies is not the “real” Seaside.

How can Seaside be an exemplar of urbanism?

The community of Seaside, in Florida, is revered by many as the icon of new urbanism. But this seems somewhat ironic, given than Seaside is about as non-urban as you can get. Consider the following:

Seaside is tiny. It’s all of 80 acres, with somewhat more than 300 housing units.

Seaside is in a largely rural area on the Florida panhandle.

Seaside is a resort community on the beach. Most of the homeowners do not live in Seaside. They visit occasionally and many rent the units out to other tourists the remainder of the time. Seaside is not an incorporated municipality so census data are not reported for this area. And the smaller census units, including the census blocks, do not conform to the boundaries of Seaside. But if you take the census blocks that most closely cover Seaside (missing some parts but including some areas outside), the 2010 census reports 340 housing units–and a population of 25!!!

The only employment in Seaside is in the numerous restaurants and shops that one would expect to find in an upscale resort community. And few residents of Seaside are employed in Seaside or in the surrounding area, simply because there are very, very few permanent residents of Seaside.

The sociologist Louis Wirth, in his article “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” identified three characteristics that make an area urban: size, density, and heterogeneity. Size has already been addressed. Density gets a little tricky. If one considers the population density based on the resident population as reported by the census, the density is miniscule. The Census Bureau does not consider Seaside or the surrounding developments urban.

But obviously people come to and spend time in Seaside. The official Seaside website says the community has over 300 housing units. (It seems strange that they can’t or won’t give an exact number.) So it’s reasonable to assume the number is somwhere between 300 and 400 units (or else they presumably would have said more than 400 housing units). For the United States as a whole, in 2010 there were 2.34 persons per housing unit. Using this figure, we could estimate that a population might be between 702 and 936. On 80 acres, this would produce a reasonable urban population density between 5,616 and 7,488 persons per square mile. So that’s at least urban, though it is worth putting this into perspective by noting that in 2010, 57 suburbs of Los Angeles (incorporated cities) had population densities greater than the higher value.

Given that practically no one is resident in Seaside, census data cannot provide any information with respect to Wirth’s final characteristic of heterogeneity. The official Seaside website includes lots of pictures, including an extensive photo gallery. As far as I could see, everyone pictured was white (and many were wearing white as well!). The website also includes an extensive Seaside store, with more pictures and models displaying the various clothing items. Again, all white.

Sometimes I think new urbanism is a little silly

New urbanism offers a lot of positive ideas for urban development (despite the fact that many of the prominent new urbanist developments are in suburban or even rural areas). Somewhat higher densities can be beneficial. Minimizing front yards makes sense. Having a connected street network (often a straightforward grid) is one way of creating a walkable environment (though as I have noted elsewhere, not the only way). Mixing in commercial uses further encourages walking.

But why, oh why, is it important to design the buildings so the area looks like it was built in the early twentieth century? I have nothing against such a style, for those who want it. But a development otherwise following new urbanist principles would work as well if the houses were starkly modern…or California mission…or Tudor…or faux antebellum southern plantation. (I would have something against certain choices!)

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Welcome to my blog. I am a retired professor and urban planner interested in all aspects of urban structure. In this blog I will be commenting on urban issues and reporting on my research on changes in urban patterns in large metropolitan areas in the U.S. You can find more information about me and this blog on the About page.

John Ottensmann