Houston Ship Channel. Photo: Geneva Vest
This article by Geneva Vest is part of a special series called #H2Ouston.
If you’re looking for a day trip to kick off this spring weather, look no further than the Sam Houston Boat Tour. The Houston Port Authority offers a free 90-minute tour of the Houston Ship Channel for the aquatically curious. When I went, I was joined by a boatload of Yes Prep environmental science students, retirees, and Chinese tourists. The trip, though, is relevant to all Houstonians. Our city formed around the original port at Allen’s Landing. Over one million jobs are related to the Houston Ship Channel.
Looking towards downtown in Pease Park, along the banks of Shoal Creek. Photo: Leonid Furmansky.
This article by Jack Murphy is the second of a two-part series on flood management. Read the previous article here. Follow our publications and events about living in the floodplain at #H2Ouston and #SyntheticNature.
These days, Shoal Creek starts artificially: Its headwaters, a mix of runoff and piped spring water, gather in manmade holding ponds above US Highway 183 before arriving into a ditch south of the frontage road. The creek flows, undetected, behind shops on Anderson Lane, through backyards and parks in Allandale, and next to Seton Medical Center before running alongside Lamar Boulevard. Downtown, its shores are lined with condominiums and the construction sites for future condominiums. Its waters pass Austin’s new central public library designed by Lake Flato and Shepley Bulfinch — almost open — prior to joining the Colorado River.
Shoal Creek, 14.3 miles in length including tributaries, constitutes a core sectional cut of central Austin. Like at Waller Creek, citizens are working to spur progress that will improve flood control, public trails, public parks, and historic awareness. But Shoal Creek advocates hope to use very different tools to accomplish their goals.
Rendering of Palm Park. Courtesy Waller Creek Conservancy.
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.
Terry Hershey. Photo: Center for Public History at the University of Houston
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?”
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.
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.
In my sophomore year, I began to feel that the Rice campus did not fully accommodate its students’ often unpredictable oscillation between stimulation and decompression. Instead, the university favors spaces programmed for productivity. The traditional academic quad, planned to inspire intellectualism, fails to accomplish the type of communal space for students and teachers seen at Jefferson’s University of Virginia Lawn.
Even Rice’s new wave of architecture, such as Brochstein Pavilion and “Twilight Epiphany,” the James Turrell Skyspace, exerts a level of control over the user—one interacts in Brochstein and meditates in the Skyspace.
All things considered, though, we have one of the most spectacular campuses in the country, a result attributable as much to the landscape as to its institutional monuments and architectural edifices—your first look of Lovett Hall is made memorable by the oak branches that gradually unveil the monolithic Sallyport. Moments so glorious are made almost commonplace with all of Rice’s greenspaces, yet nature in this context tends to feel ornamental or sacred, to be seen and not touched.
Michigan Avenue in Corktown, Detroit. Photo: Allyn West.
For a few blocks, all six lanes of Michigan Avenue, the major commercial strip of Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, are paved in brick. Petunias bloom in plastic bins underneath the street trees. Original buildings now home to shops and cafes and offices line the wide sidewalks. The going is easy, interesting. There are a few spaces for lease, but most of the real estate is taken up and appears to be doing well.
But it wasn’t easy getting there. If you don’t have a car in the Motor City, you’re at a disadvantage. Heading west from the Renaissance Center in Downtown, where I was staying to attend the Docomomo US Symposium, I had to trudge past long stretches of vacant land and negotiate unfriendly infrastructure. A bus or two rattled past. I didn’t see any other pedestrians. As I walked, a wide strip of asphalt down the middle of Michigan stuck out, not quite covering up the streetcar tracks that signify how connected Corktown used to be.
The Preston Avenue Bridge under water during the flood of 1929. Courtesy Houston Public Library, Houston Metropolitan Research Center.
This history of Houston and its water was printed in the Fall 1999 Cite (46) and reprinted in the 2003 book Ephemeral City. The author provides an update at the end of this digital version.
Paris has the Seine; Boston, the Charles; Memphis, the Mississippi; London, the Thames. Houston has Buffalo Bayou. Even the little San Antonio River makes us look bad. Chicago has Lake Michigan; Los Angeles has the Pacific; Miami has the Atlantic. Houston has the Lake on Post Oak.
Most great cities are easily identified with some body of water. The reasons aren’t hard to understand. Until 19th-century industrialization brought railroads and 20th-century ingenuity perfected the automobile, watercourses were the fastest and safest means of transportation for people and cargo. Even more important than commercial reasons for planting a settlement on a waterway has been the practical human need for drinking and bathing water. But the most subtle and perhaps most powerful draw for situating oneself near some form of water is an emotional one. Poets and theologians have for all time pondered water as the central life-giving force.
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.