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.
Photographs by Tom Colbert and Raj Mankad. Illustration by Sarah Welch.
In the process of developing Cite (93), a special issue on the environment, guest editor Tom Colbert and I drove all around the Houston region, from the bay to the piney woods, photographing landfills. We were inspired by Dr. Robert Bullard, a contributor to the issue. His 1979 study of solid-waste disposal in Houston revealed that five out of five city-owned landfills and six of the eight city-owned incinerators were sited in Black neighborhoods. That research helped spark an international environmental justice movement. In his article for Cite, Bullard describes the low-tech methodology behind the 1979 study: “If we noticed a hill in the usually flat landscape, we investigated it because a change in topography often indicated a dump.”
With that history in mind, Colbert and I wanted to create a comprehensive photographic guide to Houston’s “mountains,” but our region, it turns out, has far more manmade changes in topography than a team of two can document over a couple of weekends. In this post, I share a series of photos that show one of the most mind-boggling sites in the Houston area, the Alps of Pasadena.
Video still of pedestrian collision in Downtown Houston. Image courtesy Houston Police Department.
Statistics tell a frightening story about how Houston drivers view pedestrians. This is according to the 2008 National Pedestrian Crash Report, which compiled ten years of pedestrian crash data: “California, Florida, and Texas have more pedestrian deaths than any other states. Based on the pedestrian death percentages as a proportion of total pedestrian fatalities, the cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, and Houston are the top five.” A Houston Chronicle analysis in August 2011 showed that in a 3.5-year span of time, only 17 percent of drivers involved in 174 fatal pedestrian accidents were prosecuted.
But nowhere is there a clearer indication of the widespread lack of concern for pedestrians than the September 4 accident involving Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland. The chief hit a pedestrian while driving to police headquarters in a city vehicle. At the time of the incident and over the following week, McClelland was not issued a traffic citation.
What message does the absence of a traffic citation say about the status of pedestrians in Houston? I ask this question out of more than idle curiosity. On November 3, 2010, I was hit by a car while walking to school.
The sidewalks of Peterson Park, Chicago, Illinois.
An excerpt from the following article by Rich Levy appears in Cite 92, a special issue on education available now at Brazos Bookstore, CAMH, MFAH, Issues, River Oaks Bookstore, and other stores.
Walt Whitman wrote, in his odd, garrulous essay “Democratic Vistas:”
I say the question of Nature, largely consider’d, involves the questions of the esthetic, the emotional, and the religious—and involves happiness. A fitly born and bred race, growing up in right condition of out-door as much as in-door harmony, activity and development, would probably, from and in those conditions, find it enough merely to live—and would, in their relations to the sky, air, water, trees, &c., and to the countless common shows, and in fact of life itself, discover and achieve happiness—with Being suffused night and day by wholesome extasy, surpassing all the pleasures that wealth, amusement, and even gratified intellect, erudition, or the sense of art, can give.
In other words, get out of the house! Go for a walk. God bless Walt Whitman.
Rendering of proposal for utility easements. All images courtesy UH Community Design Resource Center.
In Fall 2012, the University of Houston Community Design Resource Center (CDRC) put on an exhibition that has become increasingly relevant in the past months. Entitled “Thick Infrastructure,” the exhibit put forth bold visions for Houston’s transit centers, park-and-ride lots, drainage ditches, and utility easements.
Team members included Ruqiya Imtiaz-uddin, Alex Lara, Rose Lee, Xavier Vargas, and Susan Rogers. Rice Design Alliance provided $5,000 in funding through a 2011 Initiatives for Houston grant.
“We’re looking at how to make better use of existing spaces, how to give things more than one purpose, and how to use resources in an efficient way that adds value to our community,” says Rogers, who directs the CDRC and serves as chair of the Cite editorial committee.
Overlook on Buffalo Bayou. All images by Peter Muessig.
Anyone who’s stalled in Houston’s early evening sea of brake lights might not be inclined to think we have room for an entirely new transportation infrastructure. But Peter Muessig has envisioned a provocative future between the lines of Houston’s urban grid. His graduate thesis for the Rice School of Architecture, “veloCity: Mapping Houston on the Diagonal,” reconceives the Space City and oil capital via the bicycle, which Muessig uses as a “versatile tool for local habitation” to subvert the city’s debilitating trend toward outward sprawl. The proposal won a 2012 Architecture Design Award from both the American Institute of Architects, Houston (AIA) and the Texas Society of Architects in the Conceptual category.
To tackle Houston’s “entwined problems of transit and dwelling, of movement and occupation,” as one of Muessig’s thesis jurists puts it, Muessig has designed the “Veloduct,” a canopy structure that opens uncharted territory to the bicycle, allowing it to cross over (or under) high-speed roadways that would otherwise be difficult to negotiate on two wheels. The Veloduct is, in effect, a versatile freeway for cyclists, with wood-paneled guardrails and a concrete-paved metal pan decking surface system that can accommodate commuters, cruisers, racers, mountain bikers and BMX tricksters. Like a cycle weaving among stalled cars, its network of corridors and pedestrian pathways threads through the spaces between existing structures. Where optimal, the Veloduct adapts these structures into its own form. In variations of concrete, joists, and steel, it can be grafted onto the pillars of freeways, hang suspended by girders, or stand on its own columns.
Burial ground site in the path of Grand Parkway Segment E. All photographs by Brett Sillers.
I visited the most sublime site in Houston. In the vast expanse of the Katy Prairie, the pure column and beam form of an elevated highway stretches into the distance, not yet topped by roadway or stained with leaking oil. Deer, coyotes, and raccoons have left tracks next to those of horses, heavy machinery, and booted workers. Then, the highway construction abruptly ends, and in the center of the gap is an excavation of human remains that could be 14,000 years old, potentially making it the oldest multiple burial ground in the Western Hemisphere.
The story of how the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) knew of the site in 1996 and failed to preserve it exposes more than a loss of heritage for this city, region, and continent. The treatment of the burial ground highlights a pattern of disregard at TxDOT and other governing bodies for the objections that citizens and experts raise about flooding, water quality, recreation, noise, traffic, and the loss of farms, hunting grounds, and wildlife habitat. To that list, we can now add contempt for history and scientific knowledge.
Westerpark in Amsterdam.
OffCite continues its coverage of responses to Hurricane Ike and, more broadly, efforts to adapt coastlines to rising sea levels and frequent mega-storms with a post by writer Zachary Martin.
Houston may have less than a year to decide how it’s going to survive the next big storm to strike Texas, according to Thomas Colbert, a Professor in the College of Architecture at the University of Houston and former chair of the Cite editorial committee. He was speaking at that university’s “Dynamic Equilibirum at the Water’s Edge: Three Continents Symposium” last week when he stated his belief that even the devastation caused by large storms like Ike and Katrina has a tendency to fade from public memory after about five years, making massive infrastructure projects like dikes and levees much more difficult to find support for, let alone fund and build.
Coming in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the two-day symposium served to perhaps prolong the conversation a bit longer, long enough to debate the relative merits of a number of plans that have been put forward to protect the Upper Texas Coast and Louisiana wetlands. On hand were researchers, architects, and academics with vast experience in water strategy and management: David Waggonner, of Waggonner & Ball Architects in New Orleans; Jeff Carney, director of LSU’s Coast Sustainability Studio; Michael Rotondi, principal architect of RoTo in Los Angeles; Flavio Janches, professor at the University of Buenos Aires; Diego Sepulveda, professor at the University of Delft, in the Netherlands; and Thomas Colbert, among others.
Light Rail Construction, Photograph by Christof Spieler
OffCite continues its coverage of the METRO referendum. Colley Hodges cut through the confusion in our last post. Below, METRO board member and longtime Cite contributor Christof Spieler calls for vision beyond the immediate politics.
This Tuesday, Houston voters face a choice on transit. A “yes” vote will make more of the one cent METRO sales tax available for transit—but that additional funding is specifically allocated so it will not go to rail. A “no” vote could mean more money for rail—or it could lead to legislative action that would actually cut transit funding or even dismantle METRO. In either scenario, the future of the University Line—which was specifically approved by voters in 2003 to be completed by 2012—is uncertain. The most important new connection in the Houston transit system could be 20 years away.
Meanwhile, other cities are rapidly expanding transit. By 2013, Dallas will have 90 miles of light rail radiating out from Downtown to the suburbs. Salt Lake City just opened two new lines and is completing another to the airport. Denver is adding a fourth light rail spoke to its system and building electric commuter rail to the airport.
So, what’s different in Houston?
Though national politics get most of the attention, several major choices about the future of the local built environment will greet Houston voters at the ballot box. Colley Hodges cuts through the morass around the METRO referendum so you can make a choice. If you would like to get involved before Tuesday’s vote, you can join in the “Pro-Transit Flash Mob” this Saturday at 12:30 pm. OffCite’s next post will feature METRO board member Christof Spieler, so stay tuned.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett described the METRO referendum facing Houston voters in the coming weeks as “a little bit of a convoluted ballot item.” He wasn’t joking. If you’re the type who only evaluates local propositions in the voting booth, good luck on this one. You’ll wish you’d done your homework. Here’s the language you see on the ballot:
Metropolitan Transit Authority, Referendum on Street Improvement Mobility Program
THE CONTINUED DEDICATION OF UP TO 25% OF METRO’S SALES AND USE TAX REVENUES FOR STREET IMPROVEMENTS AND RELATED PROJECTS FOR THE PERIOD OCTOBER 1, 2014 THROUGH DECEMBER 31, 2025 AS AUTHORIZED BY LAW AND WITH NO INCREASE IN THE CURRENT RATE OF METRO’S SALES AND USE TAX.