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Category: Design

Erie Street Plaza by Stoss Landscape Urbanism. Photo: John December.

Actively Provoking Participation: A Response to the Landscape Urbanism of Chris Reed and Stoss

Here, Oliver and Veras respond to the first lecture in the Rice School of Architecture/Rice Design Alliance Series, Projective Infrastructures. For more about the series, watch this preview video. The next lecture will be Christophe Girot on Wednesday, February 10. Join the event on Facebook!

At first, the way Stoss founder Chris Reed described the firm’s work was familiar to anyone acquainted with conversations over the past 20 years around landscape urbanism and ecological urbanism. His introductory rhetoric was one of accommodation and flexibility. Rather than seeking to control a landscape that is set in opposition to human settlement, Stoss “start(s) with landscape,” Reed said, seeking to weave inhabitation and ecology into a symbiotic whole, where the capacity to adapt to, and to accommodate, both human use and the inherent instabilities or “dynamic flux” of ecological systems is more highly valued than the establishment of a “stable situation in an unstable environment.”

With their Erie Street Plaza project in Milwaukee, for example, Stoss uses a series of gently sloping planes that both collect storm water for irrigation and restore natural drainage patterns toward the Erie River, where runoff is cleaned by new marshy plantings at the water’s edge. These simple planes composed of pavers and grass, which are explicitly “not programmed,” provide a flexible field that supports many different uses without explicitly prescribing them. It is a hands-off approach to inhabitation that invites the unexpected, where a sense that many things could happen is presumed to ensure that some do. Accommodation begets a sense of freedom and choice, which in turn begets “activation” of public space.

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Fortsmith Street. Photo: Raj Mankad.

Houston Has a Woonerf

Houstonians want better sidewalks, if the consensus among mayoral and city council candidates is any indication. Please give pedestrians a safe place. Away from the cars. Why, then, did the Energy Corridor Management District invest $391,000 into a design that expects pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists to share the same lane?

First, a trip to The Netherlands. From the late 1960s to the 2000s, urban planner Hans Mondermann broke all the rules. Rather, he dispensed with rules. The streets he designed are “naked.” No stop signs, no speed limits posted, no traffic lights. Instead, drivers intuit risk from the lack of curbs, material choices, lane widths, and other cues. They slow down. Mondermann’s hunch was that people would manage themselves in the safest and most efficient manner if their attention was heightened. Several decades of data have proven him right. As Linda Baker writes for, it sounds crazy, but it works. The “woonerf,” or street for living, was born. Or reborn. Sharing the public realm goes back to the earliest cities on the Anatolian coast like Khirokitia and Çatalhöyük (6,000 BCE).

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ATNMBL, a concept for a driverless car by Mike and Maaike.

Google Car + Uber = Walkable Houston?

After 16 months of deliberation, Houston City Council recently approved new rules that legalize the operation of taxi-like car-sharing services, like Lyft and Uber. Last night, in his talk for the Rice Design Alliance’s Walk Houston civic forum, Kinder Baumgardner, President of SWA Group, discussed the impact these services could have on the future of Houston. An edited excerpt of the talk is presented below.

I like to think of Houston as a multiverse of little walkable places. In between is all this dark matter, which [could be called] the suburbs. So we go from bubble to bubble, multiverse to multiverse. On a typical day, you might start off in the suburbs and go Downtown, then walk around, and get some breakfast. Then you go to the Medical Center, get some tests done, and walk around there. You could take some transit. Maybe you go to [the future] Regent Square and buy some stuff or meet some friends. Then you go to Uptown and go back home. That’s how Houston operates. Where are the [other] places people go [to walk]? Well, they go to The Woodlands Town Center. People walk there. They don’t walk to there but they walk around when they get there. CityCentre — I love the name, especially given where it is — people love to walk there. It is extremely appealing. [What are walkable places with] other demographics? Airline Drive — people drive there and then they walk — is a pretty amazing place if you haven’t been.

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Bagby Street. Photo: Claudia Casbarian.

Complete Streets Are Coming to Your Neighborhood Soon. We Hope.

Almost a year ago, on November 1, 2013, Mayor Annise Parker signed her Complete Streets Executive Order calling on City employees to do all they can to make all streets safe for all users, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transport. Though a single proclamation cannot change a city overnight, a rapid transformation is possible because of ReBuild Houston, the multibillion dollar road-building and drainage initiative created by the 2010 Proposition 1 vote.

The Design
What would Complete Streets look like in Houston? One pilot project to consider is in Midtown — Bagby Street between I-45 and the Spur. The Midtown Redevelopment Authority asked Design Workshop out of Austin to redesign the street to take better consideration of pedestrians while using various environmentally sound principles to reduce the negative impact of street construction and improve water quality. You really should walk down Bagby. Notice the bulbouts — curb extensions that allow for a shorter pedestrian crossing. Notice simple design elements that respect the pedestrian, such as benches for resting or for sitting and enjoying the space. Notice how investments in good streets can also serve water quality.

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Pedestrians in Rice Village. Photo: Allyn West.

Viewing the Visions for Rice Village

In “It Fakes a Village,” an article published in the Spring 2006 issue of Cite (66), Daisy Kone derides the use of the word “village” for shopping enclaves like Highland Village that conjure a nostalgia for community without actually sustaining public life. Rather cars are given total primacy over the public realm. What does she have to say about the village, not the one in New York but Houston’s Rice Village?

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Love at the pulga on Airline Drive. Photo: Paul Hester.

Airline Market Mile: Inclusive Design for Growth

This article proposes a mobile fleet of community-service-oriented trucks and a marketing campaign to strengthen one of Houston’s most vibrant neighborhoods. The full text appears in the new issue of Cite, “The Beautiful Periphery.” The issue is available for purchase at Brazos Bookstore and River Oaks Bookstore, as well as the bookstores at the Menil Collection; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Contemporary Arts Museum; and the Blaffer Art Museum. Read more from Cite 94.

Every weekend, tens of thousands of people converge on Airline Drive’s flea markets to shop and enjoy live entertainment. It’s rare to see pedestrians in droves in other Houston suburbs, but here families and teenage couples, dressed in their best, flock to simple outdoor eateries as they make their way through the pulgas. The selection of merchandise ranges from cowboy boots and household appliances to religious paraphernalia, records, dresses for quinceañeras, oversized colorful piñatas, puppies, and live birds. But shopping is only part of the carnival atmosphere of carousel rides, live music, and soccer matches replayed on television. Food counters overflow with roasted corn, tacos de trompo (typically pork marinated in pineapple juice that’s hard to come by elsewhere in Houston), and freshly prepared churros. Unlimited combinations of fruit dressed with chile powder, lime, salt, cream, and soda make for refreshing snacks on hot summer days. There are sculptures of elephants and giant ducks; especially popular with children are the life-sized fiberglass dinos in the “Dinosaur World” exhibition that was carefully rebuilt after it burned down a few years back.

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Courthouse, Police and Jail Complex on Riesner Street. Rendering by Jp Dowling in Minecraft.

Calling Minecraft Players: Help Reimagine Houston

Cite: The Architecture + Design Review of Houston, an award-winning publication of the Rice Design Alliance, is holding a Minecraft competition to reimagine part of Houston. The site includes the courthouse, police, and city jail complex on Riesner Street as well as a section of I-45 and the Downtown Aquarium amusement park. We want you to play along.

Minecraft is a “sandbox” game in which players can work collaboratively to place and break blocks, thereby creating buildings and whole landscapes. The United Nations Habitat “Block by Block” project is using the game to work with communities in Nepal, Haiti, Mexico, and Kenya. Blockholm is a design competition in Sweden that involved thousands of participants. With this pilot project, Cite and OffCite are joining the fun.

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Back of Walmart from Maxwell Lane. Photo: Paul Hester.

Walmart Transcends the Dumb Box — Just Not in Houston

This review appears in the new issue of Cite, “The Beautiful Periphery.” The issue is available for purchase at Brazos Bookstore and River Oaks Bookstore, as well as the bookstores at the Menil Collection; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Contemporary Arts Museum; and the Blaffer Art Museum. Read more from Cite 94.

The second Walmart inside Loop 610 is going to make a lot of money, and that’s too bad: The receipts will undercut the argument that the store could have added something of value to the neighborhood and Houston’s vocabulary of retail architecture other than a few jobs and one more big dumb box.

The one-story, 185,000-square-foot Supercenter, which opened in January, sits on a 28-acre site in the East End where Oshman’s Sporting Goods warehouses once sat. It can be accessed from South Wayside Drive and the I-45 feeder. East of the site are the Sanchez Charter School (of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans) and a low-slung apartment complex. Beyond are older neighborhoods of single-family houses — Idylwood, Country Club Place, Simms Woods, Eastwood, Forest Hill, Magnolia Park, and Pecan Park. The site, in other words, is complex and interesting and urban, only a few miles from Downtown, the University of Houston, a Houston Community College branch, and light rail lines on Scott Street and Harrisburg Boulevard. It’s also near Brays Bayou, where stretches of the Bayou Greenways hike and bike trail are now under construction.

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Construction along Buffalo Bayou. Photo: Allyn West.

Connecting Houston’s “Unnatural” Natural Spaces

“Infrastructure is our ecosystem,” Karrie Jacobs told an audience at The MFA,H, when she was in town for the Lawndale Design Fair last month. “Cities are our habitat, and manmade structures are our geologic features.” And she wanted to know what might be a “natural” place for human beings in this unnatural twenty-first century. Houston, where these paradoxical proclamations ring especially true, just might be it. Jacobs, one of the founders of Dwell and a writer at Architect, used as an example of the way cities are turning blight into beauty what the SWA Group and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership are up to between Shepherd Drive and Sabine Street. Jacobs describes Buffalo Bayou as having been, for decades, a “trash-lined eyesore” and “dumping ground.” Now, “a profound act of vision, optimism, and imagination,” she says, has turned it into “a beloved conduit for bikers and pedestrians.”

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Pierce Elevated in Downtown Houston. Photo: Russell Hancock.

Will the Urban Highway Reclamation Movement Come to Houston?

It’s not just San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Milwaukee, Saint Louis, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and Providence anymore. Even Dallas is doing it. Dallas! Cities nationwide are demolishing, rerouting, moving underground, or capping urban highways — reversing the devastating effects of the golden age of the automobile.

The results have been outstanding: cleaner air, less noise, better traffic flow, more greenspace, increased walkability, greater property values, and significant economic development.

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