Sunday, July 13, 2014

Quantifying Land Constraints in Boom Cities

Condo construction in Brickell, Miami.
Photo from southbeachcars on flickr
A few weeks ago, Stephen Smith (who runs Market Urbanism) was comparing the fates of Miami and Vancouver, two cities that have experienced massive housing construction booms. Both cities have grown tremendously... and grown upward. This comes in the face of major land constraints- the Everglades for Miami, and the Cascade Mountains for Vancouver. But how much do these barriers actually impact development?

Stephen noted that both cities also were similar in having a huge amount of foreign investment.

Condo construction in Chinatown, Vancouver.
Photo from freedryk on flickr.
As Stephen notes, many major regions in the US have similar constraints. Seattle has similar conditions (maybe), New York has the Atlantic Ocean, the wide Hudson River, and the Appalachian mountains. Even Los Angeles is largely built out. But it’s sunny and flat Miami which has some of the harshest land constraints for a major metropolitain area. The entire South Florida region is sandwiched between the Ocean and the Everglades - A 20 mile distance at its widest (near Miami), but a 5 mile distance in central Palm Beach County. The question came up: How much land is available per person in these areas?

I used this simple tool from Daft Logic to quickly estimate the areas, assuming that there would be no new areas up for development. I got these areas: 

Miami - 350 sq mi / 908 km sq

Vancouver - 253 sq mi / 656 km sq

Both shaded areas have virtually identical population: 2.45 million for Vancouver, and 2.42 Million for Miami. This leaves Miami with a metro area density of 7,000 people per square mile, and Vancouver with 9,800 people per square mile. 

Another way to look at this is to say that each person in greater Miami can have a piece of land 4,000 square feet large, and every Greater Vancouverite can have a 2800 square foot plot. It's interesting to visualize land use this way. Also interesting to see how much land commercial and industrial uses take up... both of those figures are larger than the median home size in their respective metropolises.

Of course, these were rough calculations, so I want to refine and expand them.

First off, are these borders fair?

Farmland in Richmond, BC (Greater Vancouver)
Photo from smith on Flickr
I noticed a lot of farmland (or stuff that looked like farmland) around both cities. In Vancouver's case, that exists as a deliberate open space preservation program... Astounding in such a rapidly growing area, but by no means uncommon, even in highly dense areas.

Southern Miami-Dade County also has quite a bit of land still available. South of Kendall, the suburbs give way to farmland. In fact, there is more farmland in Miami-Dade than in far more suburban Broward and Palm Beach counties! But it’s not being developed, likely owing to its distance from any meaningful economic centers (You can see this on the Gulf Coast as well-- development stays within 20 miles of shore)

Condo development 2 miles away in downtown Richmond
Photo from Concert Properties on Flickr
As for the northern border, I put it at the Broward county line as a divider between where “Miami” ends and where “Fort Lauderdale” begins. There's no clear boundary between the two areas - in fact, it's not unheard of for people to commute from Palm Beach county down to Miami. But I had to make a distinction, and the county line has a huge cultural significance... enough to consider Broward a separate area.

Within Greater Vancouver, I excluded the cities of Langley, White Rock, and Gibsons. I figured these small cities were too far to have much of an impact, and certainly were not the fast-growing high-rise cities of Burnaby, Surrey, or Richmond that Stephen was talking about:

It might be worth it to check out how other metro areas stand in comparison. But equally worth it would be to look further into why there's so much demand for condominiums... especially in the outer cities of Vancouver. Is there a reason why Surrey and Richmond are so popular, or do they just function as inferior goods because the city of Vancouver is off limits? Similarly, there seems to be condo demand in just a few areas of Miami... what influences this? What sets condo development apart from the sprawl that otherwise defines Miami, and Florida as a whole?

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