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Category: Environment

Buffalo Bayou Park. Courtesy: SWA Group.

The Houston Transformation and “Nature”: Part III of a Discussion with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro

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?

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Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University. Courtesy: The Office of James Burnett.

The Houston Transformation and The City Beautiful: A Discussion with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro

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.

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Launch of GrowOnUs: Courtesy: Balmori Associates.

A Garden Grows in Brooklyn: An Experimental Landscape Thrives in Notoriously Polluted Gowanus Canal

Diana Balmori of Balmori Associates will lecture in Houston on Wednesday, February 17, for the Rice School of Architecture/Rice Design Alliance Spring 2016 series, Projective Infrastructures. The lecture will be held at 6 p.m. at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn might be the most polluted body of water in the country. In 2007, students found traces of gonorrhea in an oily goo that was floating on its surface. Last year, the canal was confirmed to be carcinogenic. Last fall, Christopher Swain, an environmental activist, swam — more specifically, he did the breaststroke to keep his head up out of the water — its entire 1.8-mile length. (It was his second attempt; the first was cancelled because of rain, which pushes raw sewage into the canal.) Swain wore a full-body suit, heavy gloves and boots, a swim cap, and goggles, and his face was smeared with waterproof jelly. On his previous attempt, some of the water got into his mouth: “It tasted like blood, poop, ground-up grass, detergent, and gasoline,” he told New York.

A Superfund National Priority site since 2010, the Gowanus Canal will require more than $506 million and five more years, the EPA estimates, to be cleaned. The New York Times reports that there is a “black mayonnaise,” a thick deposit on the bottom of the canal, which “includes PCBs, asbestos chips, arsenic, copper, lead and mercury, as well as trash such as pieces of toilets and illegal guns.”

This is where Diana Balmori put a garden.

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Rendering for George R. Brown Convention Center updates. WHR Architects.

ICYMI: Plan Houston Passes and Other News

Several efforts underway for years have come to a head in Houston. City Council approved Plan Houston. As Planning Director Patrick Walsh explains in this Houston Matters interview, though the document is short on measurable goals, it contains the vision, policy directives, and performance indicators that will provide the foundation for more detailed plans that city staff and leaders can work together on more effectively. More news below:

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Photos: Tom Flaherty.

Hit Hard in Meyerland: A Photo Essay

One area particularly affected by the recent floods in Houston was Meyerland. Here, Tom Flaherty shares his observations and a series of photographs after a walk near South Braeswood and South Rice.

Though we were spared any damage from the flooding, we had friends who live in Meyerland who were hit hard. My wife and I helped them out by washing clothes and drying hundreds of family photos. The photos I worked on were from a friend of my wife whom I didn’t know. So it was a strange feeling “getting to know” all those family members I repeatedly saw in those photos. And it was sad to know that their household was turned inside out and upside down by the flooding. As a photographer, I decided to go walk the flooded neighborhood and document the street scene six days after the initial flood.

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Illustration by Sarah Welch.

Liquidation: In the Face of Water Extremes, Houston Cannot Go On with Business as Usual

The article below by Jim Blackburn was original published in 2014 as part of a special issue on environmental challenges to the Houston region.

The future of the City of Houston might be more affected by extreme weather events than by any other factor. The impacts of these extremes are well known but not well addressed. Our ability to compete and survive in the harsh natural environment and competitive economic climate of the 21st century will rest on how we address these challenges.

As we learned in 2011, drought is a serious worry. Though we should plan for and anticipate constricted water supply and availability, we are not as vulnerable as many other areas of Texas. Our Achilles heel is flooding.

Flooding in our part of the world comes from two major sources: major rainstorms associated with tropical storms or cold fronts, and the surge tide associated with hurricanes. These two sources of water—one coming from the sky and the other from the Gulf—are major threats to our well-being.

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Thomas and Daniel Garcia-Prats at Finca Tres Robles. Photos: Nick Panzarella

Finca Tres Robles: Urban Farming on the Rise in Houston

Down Navigation Boulevard, past the popular Mexican restaurants and beyond the majority of the new townhouses, an urban farm sits a block south across from the U.S. Zinc factory. Finca Tres Robles, Spanish for “Three Oaks Farm,” is the project of brothers Thomas and Daniel Garcia-Prats, two native Houstonians who founded the farm in June 2014.

Urban farming has been on the rise in the U.S. for the past few years, and Houston has not been overlooked. Planted: Houston and Sown and Grown are for-profits in the city limits, and Last Organic Outpost is a long-time nonprofit institution. Plant It Forward is expanding their work with refugees. The idea is to make use of unused space within the city to produce food, as opposed to consuming more wild lands outside of the city.

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A Bottom-Up, Unofficial Guide to the Heights Sunday Streets HTX

After a successful pilot project last spring, Mayor Annise Parker has brought back Sunday Streets HTX. The three routes this fall are October 12 in the Heights along 19th Street; November 2 in the Greater Third Ward along Dowling, West Alabama, and Almeda; and December 7 in the East End and Fifth Ward along Navigation and York. These streets will be open to pedestrians and bicyclists from noon to 4 pm to encourage walking, running, dancing, or riding with friends and family.

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Brio and Dixie Oil Processing and Southbend subdivision. Photo: South Belt-Ellington Leader via South Belt Houston Digital History Archive.

Back to Brio: A Review of Friendswood

The suburbs are supposed to be safe. It’s only inside the city, we hear, where you’ll find crime. Drugs. Addiction. Corruption. Pollution. Hypocrisy. Assault. Rape. Not, as least as they are bought and sold, in the subdivisions in the suburbs — that’s where you move to escape. That’s where you raise your family among families that share your values, among neighbors who look out for you.

Not so in René Steinke’s new novel, Friendswood (Riverhead Books, 2014, 350 pages). It’s based on the real Friendswood, of course, a suburb about 20 miles southeast of Houston. But the novel focuses even further in on a real place in Friendswood — the Brio Superfund site on Dixie Farm Road, where a succession of companies starting in 1956 processed and recycled chemical waste, until the last one, Brio Refining Inc., went bankrupt in 1982. These companies used the 58-acre site near Clear Creek to store in earthen pits both known and suspected carcinogenic byproducts, like styrene tars and vinyl chloride sludges, whose very names make you nauseated.

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Sea-level along Galveston Bay with a ten-foot rise. Source for map: sealevel.climatecentral.org

Will the Sea Swallow Houston?

Sea levels are rising. What will that mean for Houston? Will the Pierce Elevated become a diving platform and its ramps water slides?

One winning entry in an architecture competition to reimagine the Astrodome proposes a Houston Ark. The designers behind the entry, HiWorks with Erica Goranson, write an amusing story to go along with the images from a post-apocolyptic perspective 150 years in the future: “In 2046, when storm waters from the relatively weak Tropical Storm Rick breached the trillion-dollar [Ike Memorial Dike] and surged up the Ship Channel, Houston knew it had only a few years left to prepare . . . It was not a dramatic surge of a storm that moved the Houston Ark off its moorings. Instead it was the slow and incremental rise of the Gulf.” Eventually the ark floats across what was the state of Florida.

Is this the type of scenario we face? Cite asked one of the foremost experts on sea level rise, Dr. John Anderson, W. Maurice Ewing Professor of Oceonography at Rice University, whose article, “Sea Level Change,” appeared in the Winter 2014 issue (93).

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