In contrast to the concentric organization of Houston’s freeways, the bayou system is configured in a series of lines or bands that run east-west, from prairie to the coast.
This essay, written by Rice School of Architecture Gus Sessions Wortham Professor of Architecture Albert Pope, first appeared in print in Cite 97: The Future Now. Read the first part of this essay here.
Beyond the Corridor
Houston’s progress can be described as the transformation of a city organized by a single, dominant center, into a city organized by a number of dispersed and equivalent centers, to a city finally brought together by a banded/linear system that is rooted in the geometry of its most prominent natural features. In spite of its comprehensive geometry, Houston’s centric pattern has never fully dominated the city. Since its founding, it has instead been driven by the give and take between this monocentric pattern, its polycentric buildout and the linear logic of its natural systems. This give and take will continue to determine the city’s subsequent growth with a marked shift in emphasis toward an accommodation of ever more volatile natural forces. This shift can be seen in transformations that are taking place in the city today, transformations that are nowhere more visible than in a remarkable new network that has recently been assembled under the name of Bayou Greenways 2020.
Bayou Greenways 2020 is an ambitious plan to unite the bayous within the city limits of Houston into a series of publicly accessible greenways. Adding 80 new miles to existing bayou parks, it will create a cumulative 150 miles of park space becoming the largest network of urban, off-street corridors in the country. (The second-largest system is Portland, Oregon with 78 miles.) In addition to the greenways themselves, 77 of Houston’s existing public parks exist along the axes of the corridors. Quoting from the Houston Parks Board’s introduction, “Bayou Greenways 2020 will create a network of connected, walkable nature parks and trails along nine of the bayous that run through every neighborhood within city limits. Upon completion, the project will add 1,500 acres of equitably distributed parkland, connect 150 miles of multi-use trails, and put 60 percent of all Houstonians within 1.5 miles of a public greenway.” To state what may already be obvious, Bayou Greenways embodies the banded/linear system that is rooted in the geometry of riverine network. It represents a significant reconciliation of an indifferent city to its natural systems. As such it is so much more than a “nature trail.” Given the environmental limitations which we confront today, it is the scaffold upon which the next iteration of Houston will be built.
Aerial photo of bayou greenway on White Oak Bayou: Alex MacLean.
This essay, written by Rice School of Architecture Gus Sessions Wortham Professor of Architecture Albert Pope, first appeared in print in Cite 97: The Future Now. We will present the essay in two parts. The first examines the relationship between Houston’s freeways and bayous.
Control and Accommodation
While we tend to regard cities as permanent and unchanging, they are constantly adapting and readapting their basic forms to their natural settings. Such adaptations have occurred since the beginning of urban history and usually take place, not over months or years, but over decades and centuries. The natural conditions that brought Houston into existence were an abundance of natural resources that put agricultural commodities (primarily cotton) in relative proximity to a protected port.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was the significant dredging of Buffalo Bayou that boosted Houston’s port functions and turned the city into the second-largest petrochemical complex in the world. Today Houston’s network of bayous places it at the nexus of the global carbon economy.
As urban and natural systems continue to evolve, climate scientists tell us that they will do so with increasing speed and volatility due to the extraordinary amount of CO2 that has been put into the atmosphere. Houston is threatened by this volatility in two distinct ways. The first threat concerns rising sea levels that will affect all coastal cities and put at risk the entire southeast quadrant of the city (including our petrochemical complex, which is situated only inches above sea level). The second and perhaps more significant threat concerns the extraordinarily high levels of per capita energy consumption in Houston (double that of European and Japanese cities). As the newest and most dispersed of all major American cities, Houston’s infrastructure locks it into a high degree of energy consumption, which, in the long run, will damage the city’s viability. As the dual threats of low-lying inundation and high per capita consumption have become increasingly clear, big changes will be upon us, changes that will require a significant renegotiation between the city and its natural context.