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.
Bering Ditch. Courtesy: Dennis Alvarez
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?
Griggs Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Photos: Raj Mankad.
This article is an adapted excerpt from “Big Mixed-Use Developments and the Remaking of Houston” in Cite 98, which examines the economics of architecture and the way that developers, banks, and other institutions shape the built environment.
Houston is in bind. We expect to welcome millions more people into the region over the coming decades, and our economic model depends on that growth. A greater density of people will support better city services, more music, more grocery stores … and, if these people are all driving, more traffic jams. What if a greater portion of our population lives along rail and bus lines, though? The fear is that an influx of well-heeled urbanites will drive out low-income people from the very places they have sustained through difficult years, and just when things are turning around. It’s a fear founded on what has happened in neighborhoods like Freedmen’s Town and the West End.
We can imagine a future in which neighborhoods change without a loss of community and history but where are the models? A development under construction now promises one way forward. The backstory, though complex, offers a path for the future of Houston.
Love at the pulga on Airline Drive. Photo: Paul Hester.
Around the world, the legacy of Jane Jacobs is being celebrated on what would have been her 100th birthday. She’s most famous for her critique of slum clearance and her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She called for the preservation of old, mixed-use districts. She called attention to the virtue of short blocks and ground-floor retail. She urged the mixing of uses, mixing new and old, mixing income groups.
In Houston, we have a few neighborhoods originally built around streetcars that still have the bones — the human-scaled streets, the old buildings — for a return to a more pedestrian-oriented past. However, most of the city was built after World War II when automobiles became dominant, blocks grew supersized, and — even in the absence of zoning — uses were separated by huge distances along highways. That means we have to be more creative about celebrating Jacobs and envisioning a future less dependent on everyone owning a car. As the contributors to Reconsidering Jane Jacobs (APA Planners Press, 2011) argue, instead of looking for the forms Jacobs wrote about, we should look with the curiosity and openness that characterized her approach. In other words, let’s look for Jane in all the “wrong” places. Here are five examples:
Sadik-Khan at Times Square. Photograph by Olugenrophotograpy.com.
Books on urbanism and transportation innovation are having their moment. Here’s a look at five that have come out in the last year alone, starting with Streetfight by Janette Sadik-Khan, who is in Houston this week for a talk sponsored by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Wednesday, May 18, at 6:30 pm, at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Streetfight by Janette Sadik-Khan with Seth Solomonow (Viking, 2016)
The wounds are fresh. Sadik-Khan, the commissioner for New York City’s Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013, chronicles the bruising battles over the building out of 400 miles of bike lanes and 60 plazas. Though I followed the controversies over the years as they were reported in The New York Times, to hear it from her perspective is something else. I didn’t realize that the first experiments were not all that controversial. With paint and planters, an ugly triangle of pavement in DUMBO went from parking lot to well-used public space without much opposition. We could do that here. We have so many excessive expanses of concrete in Houston.
Architect Fay Kellogg in 1912. Courtesy photo.
In Houston, you could be forgiven for thinking that the status of women architects is just fine. The architecture deans at Rice, University of Houston, and Prairie View are women. In addition, many of the prominent architects practicing in the city are women, as highlighted in this recent series. Though celebrating Houston’s exemplary women architects is important, which I will come back to, the national data reveal that the number of women architects drops off at each stage of seniority and power — and, notable exceptions aside, the local situation doesn’t appear to be all that different. Take a look at the photos of principals at the major firms.
Buffalo Bayou Park. Courtesy: SWA Group.
This is the final part in a three-part interview Cite Editor Raj Mankad conducted with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro, who co-teach a survey of landscape architecture at the Rice School of Architecture. Albers is Vice President at The Office of James Burnett and Alfaro is Senior Associate at SLA Studio+Land. Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2
Mankad: The transformation of Houston’s parks has not been free of controversy. The community outreach for the Memorial Park master plan was tremendous but not all the feedback was positive. I spoke with both proponents and detractors. Both sides rely on the word “natural.” Both sides invoke respect for “nature” — either preservation or restoration of nature. Those who oppose the project want to leave nature the way it is. Those who promote it talk about restoring the nature of a time before Houston. To some extent, the same objections were raised downstream at Buffalo Bayou Park. How are we to make sense of that contestation?
Alfaro: What does “nature” mean in Houston? What is it? Houston is so strange because you have at least three different ecosystems all combining, which is great when you are looking at plant selection. But it is difficult when you are trying to decide the flavor of the landscape. What is it that we are trying to do?
Katy Freeway. Photo: Alex MacLean.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation will hold a conference in Houston, March 11-13, called Leading with Landscape II: The Houston Transformation. The expert-led panels and discussions will feature the world-class projects by the leading practitioners working in Houston. This is the second part in a three-part interview that Cite Editor Raj Mankad conducted with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro, who co-teach a survey of landscape architecture at the Rice School of Architecture. Albers is Vice President at The Office of James Burnett and Alfaro is Senior Associate at SLA Studio+Land. Click here to read Part 1.
Mankad: With major landscape architecture firms coming to Houston and all these big projects underway, and each having their own funding source and their own nonprofit, and their own contexts, the proposals run the gamut. At the Arboretum, you have a reverent approach to ecology. At the Centennial Gardens, you have formal gardens, strong axes, symmetries. With the proposed Botanic Garden master plan, West 8’s design is playful, almost irreverent. Is that a reflection of what is happening in landscape architecture around the country?
Alfaro: I think that range is a reflection of what Houston is like. That same thing happens with buildings. You get such a bizarre collection of eminent architects but it all works somehow. We force it to work. We will force the landscape to work. Houston is such a weird animal. You have the temperature extremes and the dominance of cars. Designers who come here have to contend with many extremes. It forces them to adapt what their normative approaches would be. But that’s fine. We’ll take it.
Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University. Courtesy: The Office of James Burnett.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation will hold a conference in Houston, March 11-13, called Leading with Landscape II: The Houston Transformation. The expert-led panels and discussions will feature the world-class projects by the leading practitioners working in Houston. This is the first part in a three-part interview that Cite Editor Raj Mankad conducted with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro, who co-teach a survey of landscape architecture at the Rice School of Architecture. Albers is Vice President at The Office of James Burnett and Alfaro is Senior Associate at SLA Studio+Land.
Raj Mankad: We are outside the Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University on a gorgeous February day in Houston. First off, simply to sit outside is a testament to Houston’s transformation.
Ernesto Alfaro: We didn’t have spaces like this before.
Andrew Albers: I moved to Houston sight unseen as a graduate student in 1996. I was imagining a combination of Dallas and West Texas. I was expecting tumbleweeds and cows in the streets and everybody would have cowboy hats. I had no idea. Riding my bike around the Rice University campus for the first time, it was beautiful and green, but I noticed it was not really geared toward people using the space outside. There were no places to stop. No seats with a back. There was nobody outside.
Mankad: Did you work on the landscape for the Brochstein Pavilion?
Albers: Yes, I was the project manager. I drew those fountains.
Mankad: I remember before all you saw here was the blank library wall. This was a grassy expanse that you passed through as fast as you could. Now this space is a magnet for people, even though it doesn’t have any real purpose.
Albers: It has a purpose. The program here addresses a condition we have at Rice. When President Leebron arrived, he recognized there was no place where everyone came and mixed. You had these multiple centers organized around the residential colleges. The program here was creating a crossroads. By switching the entrance to the library to this side and then adding the pavilion with minimal program, just offering coffee, you create a crossroads.
Alfaro: Rice is a microcosm for what is happening across Houston, as well. All of a sudden, you have a lot more buildings. With buildings you need the connective tissue.
Washington Avenue. Photo: Raj Mankad.
The last time Houston made a bike plan was 1993. Many of the streets declared official bike routes then are among the least safe places to bicycle. Take Washington Avenue. Every few hundred feet, a yellow sign with an image of a bicycle declares “Share the Road.” The street, however, has no dedicated bicycle path — not even a narrow one. Cars race down the 12-foot-wide lanes feebly painted with ineffectual “sharrows” that have faded from the friction of tires. Only “strong and fearless” cyclists, who represent less than one percent of the total population, attempt such routes.
The signage on Washington is visual clutter, or worse. It sends the wrong message to potential cyclists, according to Geoff Carleton of Traffic Engineers. If the city designates a route for bicycling, he says, it should be comfortable enough for “enthused and confident” riders, not just the spandex-clad racers in pelotons. Ultimately, says Carleton, a city’s bike facilities fail unless they can reassure the largest segment, as much as 65 percent of the total population, of potential cyclists: those who self-identify as “interested but concerned.” (The other group is the “no-way no-hows.”)
The Houston Bike Plan, a new draft released by the City of Houston, details just such a future. Made public and presented to the Planning Commission, the plan was crafted by Traffic Engineers, Morris Architects, and Asakura Robinson, a team comprising most of the designers behind METRO’s New Bus Network, a dramatic reimagining and restructuring that’s receiving national attention for its success. A grant to BikeHouston from the Houston Endowment provided part of the $400,000 budget for the new plan with additional funds coming from the City, Houston-Galveston Area Council, and the Houston Parks Board.