Monday, March 28, 2011

Dallas and the Census

Planners love the Census. This is the time of decade where mountains of data is analyzed and trends are extrapolated. Municipalities base their plans for the future, decades in some cases, on whatever the numbers say.

Yet, in some cases, I just feel like it is overdone. Sometimes, success or failure of a planners work is judged by these numbers. Whole projects have been scrapped by a change in direction. Imagine if a city like Portland or San Diego, which have nice downtown's today and who began their revitalization's in the 80's, stopped in 1991 after the Census showed population wasn't following expenditures. It also can be an advantage when it works against poor plans.

The 2010 census is a little different from previous ones, mainly in the absence of the long form, which really provided the information that planners seek. That info is still provided in the American Community Survey, but with their numbers differing radically from the Census, one wonders about either of their accuracy. The fact that cities routinely appeal the results of both lend credence to this idea. There has been criticism that the Census under counts minorities within central cities, for example.

But the point I want to make is on the Dallas numbers specifically. There was a lot of disappointment from Dallas officials about their results. Official count gives Dallas a population of 1,197,816, one of the lowest growth rates in the state. The city's rate of 0.8 percent gains Dallas 9,236 in population. While some people are down on the numbers, I think that shows that the urban area, which from a rate of growth perspective, has exploded and that urban renewal prevented a first for Dallas, population decline.

In 2000, there were 959 residential units downtown. Of that, 299 opened in 1999 and 29 in 1998, meaning there is a great chance that much of those opened at the end of the decade were not yet occupied. My graduate school research pegged occupancy rate of 1.25 for the building I live in. Applying that rate to all units (this would not pass in a peer-reviewed journal) would mean 1,200 people living downtown. Adjusting for the newly opened, roughly 1,000 people lived downtown in 2000.

During the last decade, 3,864 units opened up downtown, none near the end of the decade. Using that same occupancy rate, that is about 4,830. So over half of the 385 square mile city's population growth happened in the 1.3 square mile downtown. If I had the stats for Uptown, Deep Ellum, the Cedars, the Design District, Knox-Henderson, Expo Park and other various in-town neighborhoods, the numbers would show that the urban growth of the past decade far outpaced the city's total growth.

What this does is it illustrates that Dallas is mirroring national trends of an urban migration. It also exhibits one of my peeves with housing trends in America. The suburban model is to build a house, live in it for twenty years, then watch the value of the house and neighborhood decline until an eventual vacating of the property. Dallas saw huge population growth from the fifties until the eighties, most of it in single-family housing. Unlike housing before WWII, these houses aren't durable. It is great for population growth at the time, but it costs you in the future.

Luckily for Dallas, they have invested in their future by reinvesting in their urban core. I believe that for the urban core to achieve a critical mass, they'll need near the same rate, not number growth, but in growth rate. That translates to roughly 28,000 people living downtown. Not likely, but possible. Check back in ten years and I'll let ya know.

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