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Category: Infrastructure

Looking towards downtown in Pease Park, along the banks of Shoal Creek. Photo: Leonid Furmansky.

Watershed Urbanism: Shoal Creek’s Infrastructural Future

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.

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Photo: Kate Cairoli.

Postcard from Copenhagen

My husband and I and our 1-year old daughter visited Copenhagen for two weeks while he worked from his company’s office. We tried to imagine ourselves living here in this happiest of cities. We studied the faces of residents, peered through windows of coffee shops and bakeries, borrowed bikes and joined the masses in bike lanes, rushed outside when the sun was shining and stayed outside, layered in blankets and jackets, when the fog and rain rolled back in. We sized up their biking habits and wondered if Houston, an equally flat city, could embrace some of this culture.

After two weeks of poking and prodding, scoping and scrutinizing, I came up with an unscientific analysis of three steps toward embracing biking in our city.

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Rendering of Ruby City. Courtesy: Linda Pace Foundation.

Ruby City: David Adjaye Designs an “Important Civic Moment” for San Antonio

You can see in the renderings of Ruby City, the building David Adjaye Associates has designed to hold the Linda Pace Foundation’s art collection in San Antonio, the same “skewed, swelling shapes” that architectural historian Stephen Fox praises in his essay in Cite 78. “[Adjaye’s] buildings,” writes Fox, “don’t conform to their programs and sites; they deform in response to them.”

It is a very compelling, very optimistic deformation. The site, in this case, is the Pace Foundation campus on Camp Street in Southtown. The campus comprises the one-acre meditation garden CHRISpark, one-room SPACE Gallery, and the former Tobin Building, a 1927 candy factory that has been converted into residential lofts and Pace Foundation offices. The three large galleries of Ruby City will add 10,000 square feet of exhibition space for contemporary paintings, sculptures, installations, and video works.

What Fox calls “disarmingly exuberant cheerfulness” in earlier Adjaye buildings here manifests most obviously in color and material. When they met in 2007, Pace sketched for Adjaye a vision for Ruby City that had come to her in a dream: a series of magenta turrets, all bedazzled and bejeweled, atop a circular plinth like a merry-go-round. Adjaye translated this whimsy into off-kilter forms and material experimentation. To be clad in an array of red-stained precast concrete panels that Adjaye says will have embedded in them “bits of recycled red glass and other reflective materials,” Ruby City will shimmer in the Texas sun, even more so in the context of the drab buildings immediately surrounding it.

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

Looking for Jane in All the Wrong Places

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:

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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.

WaterBorne Continued: Finding the Next Houston in Bayou Greenways 2020

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.

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Aerial photo of bayou greenway on White Oak Bayou: Alex MacLean.

WaterBorne: Finding the Next Houston in Bayou Greenways 2020

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.

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Bus stop near Lidstone on the 28 OST/Wayside. Photo: Allyn West.

Why Bus Shelters Matter More Than You Think

Last year, Streetsblog held a contest for its readers to send photos of the “sorriest bus stop” in the country. (The winner — or loser? — was a “stick in the ground” on the shoulder of divided four-lane artery outside St. Louis.) It should be no surprise that Houston, with a bus network comprising 10,000 stops, has its share of sorry ones, too. City of Houston planner Christopher Andrews submitted one on his route. Several of the stops on mine, the 28 Wayside/OST, could have been contenders — as the photo above illustrates.

Most of Metro’s 10,000 stops are similar to the “stick in the ground” that won the contest — lacking any protection from the elements and lacking much in the way of aesthetics, too. Though Metro says that it intends to build 100 new shelters every year, only 2,100 of Metro’s stops now have shelters, according to Pablo Valle, a program manager for the passenger bus shelter program.

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Mihalic bikes on Hawthorne Street in Montrose. Photo: Allyn West.

The Delight of Houston’s Neighborhood Bikeways

I am cruising on my vintage bike, my silver and purple handlebar streamers making a subtle whish as I pick up speed. My ride is shaded by an exquisite canopy of mature Live Oaks, and I can smell barbacoa tacos from a food truck and a large Meyer lemon tree in bloom. An art car passes by, and I ding my bell and wave since my bike is an art bike of sorts, decked out with rhinestones and tinsel. I like to interact with people I pass because it makes me feel connected to the city. I’ve randomly biked by people I know walking on the sidewalk, shouted their name, and exchanged a high-five. I wave and smile at others blasting music and grilling out in their front yards. When I bike through the neighborhood on the weekends, kids on bikes playfully try to race me, pedaling alongside for a block and then turning back home.

Biking is full of these encounters, especially when biking on streets with low traffic and at a slow, easy pace. This ability of the bicycle to enable fun, random encounters is what makes riding a bike in a city like Houston so delightful.

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Arc Wildlife Crossing. Source:

Permaculture by a Different Name: On Diana Balmori’s Arc Wildlife Crossing

This is a response to the third lecture in the RSA/RDA Spring 2016 Lecture Series, Projective Infrastructures. To view excerpts from the lectures, click to RDA’s Vimeo page. To read OffCite’s other coverage of the lectures, including an essay about another Balmori project, GrowOnUs, use the tag Projective Infrastructures.

Diana Balmori of Balmori Associates presented in a humble manner on major projects that speak to the core principles of permaculture, but she never called her work by that name. Permaculture is a design-focused discipline that seeks to leverage the deeply resilience systems of nature to meet human needs. Patterns observed in nature are applied to agricultural and cultural contexts. An example of agricultural permaculture are swales, which capture water running down a slope in a “ditch” and slowly release the water to plants lower down the slope. A local example is Finca Tres Robles on Navigation, which uses a city waste product, tree mulch, to grow hundreds of pounds of produce per week. An example of social permaculture is Ecoescuela El Manzano, which is a 1,200 acre community embracing village culture in Chile.

Balmori’s design for the U.S. Department of Transportation introduces a large land bridge over a freeway to connect wildlife areas. After discovering that blue pine were devastated in the Rockies by pine beetles, she found a way to turn that tragedy into a productive way to pay it forward to nature. Her firm met with a structural engineer who helped them determine that the blue pine could support the massive weight of soil and trees over the freeway. A shining example of permaculture principles.

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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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