Rendering of Palm Park. Courtesy Waller Creek Conservancy.

Artificially Natural: On the Transformation of Austin’s Waller Creek

This article by Jack Murphy is part of a series on flood management in advance of RDA’s H20uston architecture tour, March 25 and 26. Follow our publications and events about living in the floodplain at #H2Ouston and #SyntheticNature.

Austin is setting a new standard for flood management as urban design, and Houston would do well to study what’s happening there. Waller Creek Park, developed by the Waller Creek Conservancy (WCC) and designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), will revitalize 1.5 miles of the creek between 15th Street and Lady Bird Lake at an estimated cost of $220 million. While Houston faces heavier rainfalls in a flatter and more flood-prone landscape, and while Buffalo Bayou and the entire Bayou Greenways system have rightly garnered national attention for Houston, the way the Waller Creek project reshapes Austin’s rapidly densifying center offers important lessons about taking a comprehensive approach to parks, flooding, streets, and buildings.

In his 2017 State of the City Address delivered in late January, Austin Mayor Steve Adler opened with remarks about the enduring “weird” character of this place. Adler outlined his belief that we are “uncommonly good at changing in a way that renews our unique character” — that, through transformation, civic values are expressed and reaffirmed. In his address, Adler also noted “the future Waller Creek linear park may someday be the best-known manmade element of this entire city.” If the design is realized as proposed, he won’t be far off.

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Terry Hershey. Photo: Center for Public History at the University of Houston

“We Just Needed Some Curly Engineers”: Terry Hershey in Her Own Words

Terry Hershey, who President George H. W. Bush called “a force of nature for nature,” recently died at the age of 94. She led efforts to protect bayous and was a speaker at the first major event organized by the Rice Design Alliance (RDA), a 1973 civic forum on flood management and the future of the bayous. Forty-four years laters, while many of her visions have been realized, many challenges and opportunities remain. Learn more about living with bayous at RDA’s March 8 civic forum and H20uston architecture tour, March 25 and 26.

On January 22, 2008, Hershey spoke with Ann Hamilton, a longtime friend who served as executive director of the Park People and the Houston Parks Board. Below is an edited excerpt of the interview, conducted for the Houston Oral History Project at Hershey’s home.

Ann Hamilton: What started you in the environmental movement here?

Terry Hershey: What started me was the day [c. 1967] Ernie Faye was going to pick me up and pick his wife up. He said, “Well, they’ve started.” And I said, “Who started what?” He said, “They’ve started concreting Buffalo Bayou.” And I said, “What?”

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Paseo

X-Change: Bold Visions for EaDo Streets

Last June, Janette Sadik Khan, the former transportation commissioner for New York, tweeted: “A smart street can speak for itself anywhere. No translation needed.” Accompanying her tweet were before and after photos of a street in Addis Ababa. In the after image, low-cost interventions — traffic cones, paint, and chalk — extend the sidewalks. Pedestrians no longer look like an afterthought on streets, as they do in most big cities in the United States. They seem to be in perfect harmony, if not seen dominating the space, with ongoing traffic of cars and buses.

It was in this spirit of creating smart urban spaces, one street at a time, that 15 teams participated in the Rice Design Alliance charrette organized by rdAGENTS. The program titled “X-Change: EaDo Crossroads” was to challenge the participants — a mix of professional architects, landscape designers, urban planners, and students — to transform part of East Downtown into a multi-modal community.

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Postcard from the Prairie Festival

Salina, Kansas, is a town like so many others in America. Its downtown stands as a reminder of what once was — brown paper is taped to the inside of windows, lackluster rental signs hang askew beckoning no one. Its vital economic lifeblood has drained to the southern outskirts where a Walmart and a Lowe’s dominate the placeless landscape.

These monolithic stores’ lack of connection to place, environment, and land, and their undermining of community, connection, and relationships, stands in stark contrast to all that the Land Institute embodies. We had arrived in Salina on the hot, windy plains for the Prairie Festival, celebrating the Land Institute’s 40th anniversary and the retirement of Wes Jackson, its leader. More than 1,000 pilgrims went to pay homage to a man and place that have inspired so many.

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HUD Assisted Housing Properties (2015) and Poverty Level by Census Tract (2011-15), Harris County, Texas

Do No Harm: A Message to Dr. Carson about Housing and Health

The appointment of a physician, Dr. Ben Carson, to run the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) raised eyebrows. What does a brain surgeon know about affordable housing? But health and housing are intimately linked. Where we live not only dictates our access to opportunities such as education and employment. It shapes our thoughts about what opportunities exist and if they are attainable. It controls opportunities we are exposed to – job or gang. If Dr. Carson reduces segregation by enforcing the new federal fair housing rule, he can advance health equity — the opportunity for everyone to live their healthiest possible life.

During his recent Senate confirmation hearing, Dr. Carson reinforced his position that government should have a more limited role in the provision of housing and noted his own background as a medical doctor as shaping how he would lead the department. What could this mean for Houston?

A day before the Carson hearing, on January 11, the federal government issued a scathing letter outlining in detail a finding that Houston has made decisions about the location of low-income housing in a “racially-motivated” manner, singling out Mayor Turner’s recent decision not to back a housing development on Fountain View in the Galleria area.

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Photo: Houston Metropolitan Research Center

Flashpoints on the Road to Black and Brown Power: Sites of Struggle in Houston in the 1960s and 70s

This article originally appeared in Cite 82 (pdf) and is now accompanied by a digital map.

Houston has a long history of segregation and racial violence. From the lynchings of George White in 1859 and Robert Powell in 1928, to the hanging of black soldiers who rebelled at Camp Logan in 1919, to the rise of the local Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, racist actions have periodically threatened to tear the city apart.

The political struggles of the 1960s and ’70s changed the city. In the 1998 movie The Strange Demise of Jim Crow, historians explain how the end of segregation in Houston came relatively quickly and, due to a media blackout, without fanfare.

Highlighted in this piece are important milestones that dispel an oft-repeated myth that Houston’s quiet desegregation prevented riots, rebellions, or open conflict; moments of community indignation (anything but polite and restrained) that lead to concrete action on the road to political power for people of color in the city. Many events have been left off this list — the University of Houston riot in 1969, for example — but the sites selected can serve as initial entries into an often ignored history.

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Why Does Houston Seem Young?

This article is part of a special series about preservation in Houston, edited by Helen Bechtel, and is a collaboration of the Rice Design Alliance and Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

Another year has passed but Houston is forever young. Or so it seems. Whether we love or hate living in Houston, our arguments about the region tend to come back to the same assertion: Houston is young. Our youth explains so much, after all, like how few pedestrian-friendly streets there are and how unfinished the city feels.

Except that Houston is, in fact, old. At least for a city in the United States. It was founded in 1836. Chicago was incorporated in 1837, San Francisco in 1849, Seattle in 1851, and Denver in 1858. Those younger cities seem older, though. Why do their streets have long stretches of storefronts and walk-up apartments? Why do they have old markets filled with tourists buying tchotchkes? Why do their neighborhoods seem layered with histories? Why not us? Why does Houston seem young? One reason has to do with when and how the city grew.

“By the turn of the twentieth century, Houston was a provincial city even by Texas standards,” says Stephen Fox, a fellow of the Anchorage Foundation who teaches at Rice University and the University of Houston, and is author of the Houston Architectural Guide. Other cities, though incorporated after Houston, grew faster in their early years. Chicago reached the “big city” threshold very quickly with a population of more than 2 million by 1910. That same year, San Francisco’s population reached 416,912. By contrast, Houston had a modest 78,800 people. As a result, the footprint of early twentieth-century Houston is small in comparison to its big-city peers today.

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Illustration: Sarah Welch.

The Mobility Challenge: A Personal Essay

This post is accompanied by a pocket-sized zine, designed by Evan O’Neil and printed by Mystic Multiples on a risograph, that you will be able to find at Houston-area coffee shops and transit centers. We want you to share your story of the city with us by emailing rda@rice.edu or posting to social media with the hashtag #DesignHouston. Follow RDA at @RDAHouston on Twitter and Instagram.

The two kids and I depend on our Metro Q Cards and sturdy shoes.

We did have a car. The weekend before school starts, I am driving west on I-10 after retrieving my two children from summer in Alabama with their father. It’s been years since my air-conditioner worked, so I take the trip between sundown and dawn, windows down to stave off the August heat. Traffic is sparse, mostly semis and speeding pickups. The refineries loom along the way, their scaffolding bright with yellowed light, thick white smoke churning into the night air.

I’ve passed the first round of them and am surrounded by dark, mosquitoed fields when my old done-for Jeep starts to smoke. I pull off on the shoulder, at least 60 miles from Beaumont, before the Jeep bleeds out every last ounce of its transmission fluid. It wasn’t worth fixing the last several times I took it to the shop, and I’m a single parent on a graduate student stipend, so the most reasonable thing to do, when we get back to Houston?

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Bering Ditch. Courtesy: Dennis Alvarez

Landscape and City Building are Inseparable: An Introduction to Cite 99

This is the introduction to the new issue of Cite (99), which is now available. OffCite’s Synthetic Nature series supplements the new issue. Use the hashtag #SyntheticNature to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Landscape and city building are inseparable — that may seem obvious, but we like to think of “nature” as something outside of humanity and specifically outside the city. Every street, every park, every building, every feral vacant lot, every bend in the bayous is a choice we make. We choose to shape. We choose to leave be. If we aren’t thinking deeply about our goals — diversity, equity, resilience, democracy — about what is right, then we risk deluding ourselves. We often get caught in rhetorical traps when talking nature in Houston. Design approaches that seem noble, like restoring native species, can be wishful thinking at best and alibis for perpetuating injustices at worst unless we keep our highest objectives in mind.

How are we doing when it comes to those highest objectives?

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Evelyn’s Park: Bellaire’s First Front Yard

Follow OffCite’s Synthetic Nature series that supplements the forthcoming issue of Cite (99). Use the hashtag #SyntheticNature to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Opened in 1910, Teas Nursery occupied a healthy 5-acre lot at the intersection of Bellaire Boulevard and Newcastle Drive for nearly a century, until the Teas family sold the land in 2009 to the Rubenstein Foundation. Philanthropists and longtime Bellaire residents, the Rubensteins, in turn, sold the land to the City of Bellaire.

Now, there are live oaks and crepe myrtles — trees we consider quintessentially Houston — that grew, if not out of the pots, then out of what the nursery started. And soon, Evelyn’s Park will open here as a memorial to many things, but, namely, to the Rubenstein family’s late matriarch. Overseeing the family’s vision is Evelyn’s Park Conversancy, with the mission of “connecting us to our city, to our surroundings, and to each other.”

SWA Group, the park’s landscape architecture and master planning firm, materialized this mission. Central to SWA’s design process was bringing Bellaire its first community park. Sure, single-use facilities like swimming pools and tennis courts come with Bellaire’s high property taxes. But “there’s no way for the community to develop their own dialogue about creating different activities” in Bellaire’s few public spaces, says SWA Group Principal Scott McCready. The plan, then, was to construct a gradient of programs that would bring a representative cross-section of residents to the same place.

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