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The Political Geography of Market Urbanism

The later the economic boom, the greater the municipal area.
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Houston, Texas. (Photo: Kevin Trotman/Flickr)

Houston, Texas. (Photo: Kevin Trotman/Flickr)

Cities can annex their way to a greater population. Absorb the booming suburbs and expand your tax base. Comparing city populations is apples to oranges. False Rust Belt shame in urban Pittsburgh:

These are great sprawling places, more like counties than an Eastern city like Pittsburgh. Had Pittsburgh played by Sun Belt/​Drought Belt rules, folks in Peters and McCandless and out past the airport would be city residents paying city taxes. Pittsburgh’s population would be around 900,000 instead of 300,000.

The real mind-blower is that even after losing more than half its population, Pittsburgh still has more residents per square mile than six of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. We leveled a lot of neighborhoods to build the parkways and state routes that ease commuters’ paths in and out of Pittsburgh every morning, but we’re still pretty densely packed within the city’s 55.5 square miles, at least compared to Drought Belt cities.

The City of Pittsburgh sports a population density greater than "six of the 10 largest cities in the U.S." But the land area for the city government is relatively small. Pittsburgh couldn't expand. Many Sun Belt cities, including those in Texas, could.

Relative to the Rust Belt, Texas cities are exceptional. Tory Gattis taking exception to my debunking of Texas exceptionalism:

Before getting too a few smaller items this week, I need to debunk this absurd post attempting to debunk Texas growth exceptionalism. It claims we’re not growing because of our policies, but because we simply have the space with greenfield growth opportunities as opposed to the northern cities. But there are plenty of greenfields around the northern cities once you get outside their cores. There’s not much growth happening in them for a reason: people and businesses are choosing Texas over those places. It’s as simple as that, and that is, quite clearly, Texas exceptionalism.

Worth noting, I cited demographer Dowell Myers at the University of Southern California concerning the greenfield advantage. The greenfield opportunities outside of the Rust Belt urban cores were not available for annex. As for exceptional Houston:

Stephen Klineberg, founding director of the Kinder Institute and architect of the Kinder Houston Area Survey, said Houstonians have been excited about the prospect of being the country's third largest city for years.

"Frankly, I'm indifferent to it," he said. "However, it's a good opportunity to remind us of how different this city is. It's a very different dynamic, and it reminds us how different this place is to those of us who are used to East Coast cities."

The best demonstration of just how different it is, he said, is the fact that the land areas of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit and Chicago can all fit within the boundaries of Houston.

"That 600 square miles (of Houston) contains 2.2 million people," Klineberg said. "Those four other cities in the same space contain 5.5 million people. It's a true issue of density."

In terms of square miles, municipal Houston can spread the legacy costs of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago. Yet we are to believe that the light regulation mindset of Texas explains the low costs of Houston real estate.

However, I wasn't considering legacy costs. I addressed the civic boosterism celebrating population growth. Population growth from annexation isn't an indicator of economic health. It's an artifact of changing political geographies. Houston is a great example of how sprawl can keep real estate cheap by growing out, not up. Everyone gets 40 acres and a mule within the City of Houston. All hail market urbanism.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.