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Category: Infrastructure

Trinity River in early 1900s

Today's Drought Presages Future Catastrophe

In this special series, OffCite focuses on water and waterways. If this interests you, be sure to check out the Rice Design Alliance civic forum, Water: Challenges Facing the Houston Region, Wednesday August 31, 6:30 pm, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Brown Auditorium.

“It may not be a nice thing to talk about around dinnertime, but you want them flushing those toilets [in Dallas-Fort Worth],” said Dr. James Lester, Vice President of the Houston Advanced Research Center, at the Rice Design Alliance civic forum on water scarcity held August 24. The audience chuckled and the scientist hammed it up. “That water molecule you are drinking today may have been through some other person up in Dallas-Fort Worth in the last few months, but it is still a water molecule.” His humor, though disturbing, was a needed moment of lightness during an evening of alarming analyses about Houston’s drought.

To see ten minutes of highlights from the forum, play the embedded video below or watch the video on Youtube. You can also watch the full video at the bottom of this post.

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Galveston Bay, photo from United States Geological Survey, Wikimedia Commons

Is It Honorable to Choose Your Lawn Over Our Bay?

In this special series, OffCite focuses on water and waterways. If this interests you, be sure to check out the Rice Design Alliance civic forum, Water: Challenges Facing the Houston Region, Wednesdays August 24 and 31, 6:30 pm, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Brown Auditorium.

Last week, I led a discussion of Kwame Anthony Apiah’s The Honor Code with a group of Rice University freshmen. In the book, Apiah explores moral revolutions. He finds that appeals to honor, not rational arguments, make the difference. When 19th-century British workers saw the trans-Atlantic slave trade as an affront to their own collective honor and when Chinese literati saw foot-binding as a source of national shame, those practices came to a rapid end. Appiah does not engage in this history as an academic exercise. He challenges us to use honor as a means to end injustices today.

In today’s Houston Chronicle, John Jacob’s op-ed decries our existing rates of water consumption. He focuses on an economic justification for conservation, but I’m going to recast his argument in terms of honor and morality.

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Homes in the Northwest Park Utility District at Atwood Grove and Mimosa Grove off Tomball Parkway

On MUDs and Drought

In this special series, OffCite focuses on water and waterways. If this interests you, be sure to check out the Rice Design Alliance civic forum, Water: Challenges Facing the Houston Region, Wednesdays August 24 and 31, 6:30 pm, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Brown Auditorium.

As editor of Cite, I have seen all kinds of houses, but a few months back while on the way to a photo shoot with Jack Thomson I saw a little suburban street that qualifies as one of the strangest I’ve ever seen. From a distance, it looked like a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. A huge blue monolith shot up from behind new houses. We pulled off the Tomball Parkway, parked at some distance, and cautiously approached. The monolith, on closer inspection, was a water well and tank for the Northwest Park Municipal Utility District or MUD.

Most Houstonians have no idea where their drinking water comes from, but for the folks in the MUD the opposite is true. Their water supply looms over them, at once more precarious and secure.

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OffCite Goes to China: High Speed Rail

In this series, Christof Spieler gives regular reports on his trip to China for a special issue of Cite. Read more about RDA’s China initiative here, which includes a knockout lecture series in the Fall.

The Beijing-Shanghai high speed rail line opened on June 30; I rode it four days later. Cruising along smoothly at 190 mph, I could not help but be impressed by the ambition of this project. It’s 800 miles of new, double-track, grade-separated electrified railway. Eighty-six percent is elevated, including two major river crossings; where a hill got in the way it was obviated by one of 22 tunnels. Twenty brand new stations serve cities along the way, and the Beijing and Shanghai stations were completely rebuilt to serve high speed rail. Imagine traveling from Houston to Atlanta by train in 5 hours and you get the idea.

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OffCite Goes to China: High-Speed Hub

In this series, Christof Spieler gives a daily report on his trip to China for a special issue of Cite. Read more about RDA’s China initiative here, which includes a knockout lecture series in the Fall.

Beijing South is an immaculate and well-organized high speed rail station as you’ll ever see. This is the Beijing hub for high speed rail, including the new line to Shanghai. It’s a shiny new building, completed in 2008. It’s a perfect oval in plan, though that’s best appreciated in satellite photos, not in person. Two concourses — one below the rail tracks and one above them — connect to bus terminals, taxi lanes, underground parking and a subway station. Inside, there are ticket offices, waiting areas decorated with palms, and retail — food, books, gifts — catering to travelers.

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OffCite Goes to China: Megablock

In this series, Christof Spieler gives a daily report on his trip to China for a special issue of Cite. Read more about RDA’s China initiative here, which includes a knockout lecture series in the Fall.

At times, Chinese urban planning circa 2000 seems like American urban planning circa 1970. This is Jianwai SOHO, completed 2005, with 7.5 million square feet of retail and residential on 42 acres in Beijing’s CBD area. One level is reserved for pedestrians and retail; access roads, parking, loading docks are placed below, and 2,110 residential units occupy a series of matching towers above. It’s like Embarcadero Center in San Francisco or Peachtree Center in Atlanta, only bigger. (That analogy seems all the more relevant since John Portman & Associates, who designed both of those complexes, have done multiple major projects in China, including a 3-tower complex next door to Jianwai Soho.)

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Protesters outside TxDOT called for an end to plans for expanding the Grand Parkway.

Grand Parkway Protest

On Wednesday May 25, approximately 50 people rallied outside the Houston district office of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). Organized by the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC), the protest called for a better use of $350 million of government funds currently slated for expanding SH99, commonly referred to as the Grand Parkway. That funding would complete only Segment E, between I-10 and 290. The total funding for the 180-mile ring road—Houston’s fourth—is estimated to cost $4.8 billion to build.

Signs like “Spend It Where the People Are!” and “What about 290?” called attention to Segment E’s remote proposed location in the Katy Prairie far outside population centers and the fact that highways through densely populated area need funding for improvements.

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George Greanias and Lillian Warren

Art and Traffic

We all are familiar with Houston’s no-zoning tradition and have been cautioned not to romanticize or over-estimate its beneficent influence on our chockablock city. Perhaps, though, we can successfully practice no-zoning for conversations and confrontations that otherwise languish in isolated “discourse communities.” That model seemed to be the impetus behind a series of three conversations hosted at Rudolph Blume Fine Art/ArtScan Gallery which had as their background an exhibit of paintings by Lillian Warren called “Urban Landscapes” (April 30 through June 4, 2011; 1836 Richmond Avenue).

Last Thursday, May 12, about a dozen people gathered to participate in the second of these discussions, called “At the Intersection of Art & Traffic.” Houston METRO President and CEO George Greanias and Warren led the dialogue.

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Don Lessem, aka "Dino Don," explains the park's development. All images courtesy of Patricia Hernandez.

Big “Green” Theme Park Idea Raises Hopes and Questions

During an information session at Kirksey Architects on Wednesday, September 8, a team including former Disney “imagineer” Chris Brown, developer Don Lessem (aka Dino Don), and scientist Dr. Matt Gardner presented plans for EarthQuest.

The 1,600-acre resort and learning institute is set to break ground at an undisclosed date in New Caney, Texas. The facility would teach “green living” and “re-engage the public with what’s real,” according to Brown, who is president of Contour Entertainment. Houston was a strategic choice. As the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country, Brown said that an estimated 18 million people live within a few hours drive of the potential park. This, along with Houston’s position as an energy capital, and the city’s lack of a theme park since the demise of Astroworld, make its location prime real estate.

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BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, all images by Susan Rogers

A Slice of Houston

While Houston often parallels national trends, it also bucks them. Looking at one slice of the city, — the Bellaire/Holcombe Corridor from the Medical Center to Highway 6 — provides insight into the major shifts that have occurred in the landscape and demographics of our cities over the last 20 years.

First a little history. Immigration to the U.S. spiked in two periods: the first period roughly around 1900 and the second at the turn of the 21st century. Yet the two periods are strikingly dissimilar, in one era assimilation was rewarded and quite seamless as most new residents arrived from Europe, in the second era a transnational approach is more common, where global connections to home countries, cultural traditions, and languages are maintained.

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