Some words are hard to say without an involuntary sneer: Cockroach. Moist. Dallas.
Given its modern pejorative usage, the word sprawl certainly belongs on this list. It conjures up images of massive freeways, unsightly strip malls, and low, spaced out single-family homes. When people describe Houston as the epitome of sprawl, they are using the term in the same way we use words like traffic and humid—that is to say, it is not a compliment.
But maybe it should be.
As a verb, sprawl means, “to spread or develop irregularly or without restraint.” As a noun, it means, “an irregularly spread or scattered group or mass.” Irregular, unrestrained development, you say? Sounds like a certain zoning-eschewing city in Texas we all know! Leaning on its literal definition, the word sprawl aptly captures the irregular, market-driven approach to development that Houston is famous for, even proud of. In the era of mixed use development, Houston is the mixed use city, an interesting hodge podge of eclectic communities and diverse people groups.
Yet in common urbanist vernacular, sprawl is the antithesis of density. If density is the hallmark characteristic of walkable, vibrant urban centers, sprawl is the poster child of vertically-challenged, car-dependent suburbia. But this is a false dichotomy based on a misuse of the word. As defined above, sprawl is not the opposite of density—that honor more appropriately belongs to the word sparsity. It might seem trite, but this distinction in terminology matters when applied to Houston, a city that is undeniably sprawling in the dictionary definition sense, but surprisingly less sparse than most people realize.
While certainly nowhere near the density of, say, New York or San Francisco, some might be surprised to know that Houston is actually more dense than Dallas and Austin. In fact, it may even be as dense or denser than a number of large American cities that do not share its reputation for being “sprawled” out. Just this month, City Journal, a New York-based conservative magazine, published an article by market urbanists Joel Kotkin and Tory Gattis defending Houston’s approach to urban planning. The authors challenged head-on the preconceived notion that Houston is a “sprawling”—i.e., sparsely populated—city, explaining:
[T]he Houston region ranked as the 18th densest among 41 metro areas with more than 1,000,000 people—scoring higher than Boston, Austin, and Philadelphia. Houston’s density is approximately equal to that of Seattle and only 18 percent less dense than Portland, a smart-growth mecca. Houston is far denser than some other large urban areas: 66 percent denser than Hartford, 74 percent denser than Atlanta, and 77 percent denser than Charlotte.
So why do people associate Houston with sparsity more than other major cities that are actually less dense? The answer is simple: Houston is, geographically speaking, massive. Clocking in at around 600 square miles, the city of Houston is roughly twice the land area of New York, a city with four times the population. Can a person really feel like they are living in a vibrant, densely populated metropolis when it takes an hour or more to drive from one side of town to the other? The problem is exacerbated by how seamlessly the city limits spill into the surrounding suburbs—where does the fourth largest city in the country end and the vast ocean of farmland-turned-planned-communities begin? But take heart, Houstonians, and disregard the uninformed scoffers from the North East. The Bayou City is irregularly developed, market responsive, and defiantly urban—sprawling in the best possible way.