I grew up in a little box at the end of some Sugar Land cul-de-sac. Now, as a senior at Rice University, I live in the moldering attic of a pleasantly gnarly bungalow in Montrose. But with a view of the Menil Collection and HEB from my window (if my room had a window), I would say the whole arrangement is really quite nice. One month here and I already feel I’m in Jane Jacobs’ utopia — pedestrians, bicyclists, and local haunts for company. Still, every time I bike over 59 and all those cars tapping their brakes back to their perfectly tended quarter-acre plots, I momentarily drift downstream to my childhood in Sugar Land.
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As the Houston Bike Plan inches closer to approval by the city, now might be a good time to review all that it entails. For those who rarely venture outside the Loop, the map might contain a surprise. In the northeast corner of the city is a large green spot, an area so thick with lines it looks more like an inkblot than a network of high-comfort, off-street bike trails.
The Kingwood Greenbelt, as we know it, is composed of paved bike and pedestrian trails that weave throughout forested interstitial spaces behind rows of suburban homes with large lots. All destinations in Kingwood are easily accessible via the Greenbelt, with the crossing of a street at grade only necessary at rare intersections, since there are underpasses under most major thoroughfares. For the young, the trails provide easy access for visiting friends and getting to schools or convenience stores. Adults use them more for jogging, biking, or walking the dog. The Kingwood Park and Ride, located in Kingwood’s Town Center and providing bus service to Downtown Houston, is bisected by several sidewalks that feed into the Greenbelt.
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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The way the girls kept their distance made me think the dog wasn’t theirs. They stood in their yard facing each other but looking across their shoulders at the small dying animal in front of the house. If it was theirs, maybe they were so disturbed by its death – the violence and uncertainty – that they left him alone. The woman who hit the dog was the only one who gave any impression of urgency. But she stood impotently outside the car looking and wouldn’t move past the open driver’s side door. Death is ultimately a private moment. The dog was still and quiet in the road.
I drove slowly past this scene in Hearne, Texas, on the way to see my grandmother. I had traveled the two hours northwest from my home in Houston because of a story I remember my grandfather telling me nearly a decade before he died. So many years later, I wasn’t sure if I had made it up or gathered it from a movie or book and added it to my memories of him. It was about a grave in the middle of a road. A cemetery had been moved, a body left behind, and now cars had to drive around the headstone. I hoped that my grandmother had heard the story, and that, true or not, she would remember where it came from.
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.
Seven months ago I started a yearlong project photographing an icehouse in Houston every week. Each location is studied both formally on its own and as documentary survey points across Houston. It’s a pretty simple process. I arrive, have two Shiners, take photographs, and leave.
With all the discussion today about walkability and public space in Houston, it seems like icehouses are an important local example that new public and communal spaces might learn from. This project was also a way for me to spread out across the region, whereas most of my classes at Rice had focused within the Loop. These buildings stood out to me largely because they counter most understandings of Houston. In this city known for massive forms, these are intimate. In a city home to the world’s widest freeways dividing neighborhoods, icehouses create slow spaces that connect neighbors. In a city of conditioned malls and underground tunnels, they invert their interiors outward, and in doing so pull the city in. The icehouse reinforces the basic notion that form affects both the users of a building and the city around it.
Mexico City’s built environment overwhelmingly embraces the human scale, so you rarely feel like you’re out of place. Think about being in the Financial District of Manhattan or Center City in Philadelphia, where there is a total absence of human scale. Now think about Roscoe Village in Chicago, Columbia Heights in Washington, D.C., Bayswater in London, or the French Quarter in New Orleans; these are places that have magnificent human scale.
In Mexico City’s creative-culture epicenters San Ángel, Coyoacán (the former homes of Frida, Diego, and Trotsky), Colonia Roma, Colonia Hipódromo, and Colonia Condesa, you will be completely overtaken by a streetscape that wraps you with an embrace, an energetic bohemian culture, and some of the best food, street art, nightlife, shopping, and entertainment any city has to offer. Buildings in these neighborhoods interact beautifully with the street. Plazas serve as focal points to a rigid and porous grid system. The streetscape is vibrant and diverse, and commercial uses occupy nearly every available square foot of the ground floor. Residential units and office spaces are directly above the commercial podiums.
The most enchanting design aspect, however, are the beautifully mature trees lining the streets, which not only form a magnificent canopy, but also reinforce a sense of the human scale unrivaled anywhere else in North America.
Cigna Sunday Streets HTX is back this October 4, along Washington Avenue between Heights Boulevard and the roundabout from noon to 4 p.m. Watch my video guide to the event below.
Washington Avenue was the site of Houston’s first oil boom — the cottonseed oil boom that is. Around the railyards and warehouses were little cottages for the workers, many of which have been demolished and replaced with townhouses. Density can be great if accompanied by vibrant public life …
I licked it. In Grand Saline, Texas, I licked the Salt Palace, the country’s largest, and probably only, building constructed partially out of stone-sized chunks of rock salt.
Grand Saline, population 3,300, is about an hour east of Dallas. The town sits on a 20,000-foot-thick deposit formed during the Permian Age that could salt the entire country for another 20,000 years, were it the only one that remained. That deposit has been overseen since 1920 by various iterations of Morton Salt, which now operates a shaft that plunges more than 750 feet down. Unfortunately, the mine is no longer open to the public. Photographs and a 20-minute video inside the Salt Palace Museum and Visitors Center show a cavernous interior that is dry and white — like a hollowed-out Moon or a more savory version of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.
The chunks that come up out of there are saltier and kickier than you’d think, potent enough to send you into a full-body pucker. (And kosher, too, in case you’re wondering. Grand Saline invited a rabbi to bless the entire deposit.) It’s an acquired taste. The chunks I was given as souvenirs I kept for months in the center console in my Honda, and I kept popping them in my mouth for reasons that are best unexplored here.
Every day for almost a year I caught the 5:00 a.m. 53 Briar Forest Limited bus from a stop close to Downtown, and I rode it all the way to the end of the line, getting off at Westside High School, where I started my day as a science teacher. The two-hour ride got me home by 6:30 p.m. Eat, sleep, rinse, repeat, every day for months. This commute was by necessity: several years before, I had been in an accident that left me with severe traffic-related anxiety, making driving all but impossible. Sound tiring? The truth is that I became part of a community of fellow riders.
Every morning, my work began when I got on the bus, when I got out my laptop to work on that day’s lesson plans. The first few months went by in a blurry haze. Planning on the ride to school, followed by lesson setup, followed by teaching, followed by grading, followed by an exhausted ride home, in which I tried to let my mind switch off. This turned into its own rhythm. On the dark bus ride in the morning, we were a group of regulars, quiet as we geared up for another day. The ride home was noisier, filled with the energy of students. As my mind became accustomed to the particular stops and turns, I began to look forward to a specific moment on the ride home, after the bus turned from Gessner onto Westheimer. As the bus began jolting its way down a long stretch of road, the entire city of Houston began opening up in front of me. Looking at the long stretch of road with a clustering of skyscrapers, I saw Houston as a city of possibilities.