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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“There is no one nature”: A Conversation with Emma Marris

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.

Allyn West: When we think about “nature,” you argue, we tend to think about “pristine” landscapes ostensibly free from human interference or intervention. You call this “the Yellowstone model,” in which a site is protected from “all human use” — except tourism, of course. But you argue, finally, that “the cult of pristine wilderness” is both culturally and ecologically harmful, because it leads to there being “only two possible future states for most ecosystems: perpetual weeding and perpetual watching, or total failure.” What’s a more productive way, then, to think of “nature”?

Emma Marris: First of all, I should point out that the closer people are to nature, the more nuanced their view tends to be. Working conservationists and serious outdoors-people know that there aren’t many places that are untouched by human influence. But for many people — including myself when I was younger — the touch of humans tends to make spaces seem very much less natural. (I didn’t realize then how much intensive management places like Yellowstone require to keep them looking so natural!) I think this is dangerous because as the population grows and the climate changes, it means fewer and fewer places will “count” as nature — and fewer and fewer people will have the means and time to spend time in those places. Nature will become a luxury good for elites and the rest of us will just check out.

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Postcard from 1111 Lincoln Road

I saw the most beautiful parking garage in the world. Located in South Beach, just across the causeway from Downtown Miami, it was designed by Herzog & De Meuron and completed in 2010. It cost $65 million. Inside, there is one site-specific Monika Sosnowska sculpture and 300 spaces — it costs four times more per hour to park here than other South Beach garages, but some drivers like the exclusivity. “I wouldn’t even think of parking anywhere else,” Douglas Sharon told The New York Times in 2011.

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H-Town As Found: “A New Seeing of the Ordinary”

Funded in part by a 2016 Rice Design Alliance Initiatives for Houston grant, Boggess will document buildings in Houston’s industrial East End in danger of demolition to prompt a dialogue of exploration and speculation about what will become of our built history throughout the coming year. You can share your thoughts and photos of buildings you care about saving with the hashtag #htownasfound, and follow her on Instagram @jaeboggess and at her blog.

Having grown up in Houston, I will not deny that I have a love/hate relationship with this city. It is likely perceived by most out-of-towners as a confusing amalgam of freeways and suburban sprawl that, despite a relatively strong economy over the past century, lacks a deeper historical and cultural significance in our nation’s collective consciousness. Perhaps owing to its relative youth, having experienced most of its growth after World War II, Houston seems to lack a strong historical identity. Development patterns have relied more on market forces than on conventional urban planning. Automobile-oriented infrastructure has facilitated expansion outward from the urban center, leaving older disused buildings at the city’s core in the dust: out with the old, in with the new.

Eight years living in the northeastern U.S. and Europe helped me appreciate how the built environment of an older city like New York, or even small-town New England, can offer a multi-layered picture of its history embedded within the contemporary urban fabric, asserting a unique sense of place appreciated by residents and visitors alike. Like many Houstonians, I am excited by the growth and densification that I have witnessed since moving back to my hometown, but I am apprehensive about how this will ultimately impact our built environment if efforts are not taken to rescue existing structures and protect communities from the homogenizing forces of new development.

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