Rendering of Palm Park. Courtesy Waller Creek Conservancy.
This article by Jack Murphy is part of a series on flood management in advance of RDA’s H20uston architecture tour, March 25 and 26. Follow our publications and events about living in the floodplain at #H2Ouston and #SyntheticNature.
Austin is setting a new standard for flood management as urban design, and Houston would do well to study what’s happening there. Waller Creek Park, developed by the Waller Creek Conservancy (WCC) and designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), will revitalize 1.5 miles of the creek between 15th Street and Lady Bird Lake at an estimated cost of $220 million. While Houston faces heavier rainfalls in a flatter and more flood-prone landscape, and while Buffalo Bayou and the entire Bayou Greenways system have rightly garnered national attention for Houston, the way the Waller Creek project reshapes Austin’s rapidly densifying center offers important lessons about taking a comprehensive approach to parks, flooding, streets, and buildings.
In his 2017 State of the City Address delivered in late January, Austin Mayor Steve Adler opened with remarks about the enduring “weird” character of this place. Adler outlined his belief that we are “uncommonly good at changing in a way that renews our unique character” — that, through transformation, civic values are expressed and reaffirmed. In his address, Adler also noted “the future Waller Creek linear park may someday be the best-known manmade element of this entire city.” If the design is realized as proposed, he won’t be far off.
Last June, Janette Sadik Khan, the former transportation commissioner for New York, tweeted: “A smart street can speak for itself anywhere. No translation needed.” Accompanying her tweet were before and after photos of a street in Addis Ababa. In the after image, low-cost interventions — traffic cones, paint, and chalk — extend the sidewalks. Pedestrians no longer look like an afterthought on streets, as they do in most big cities in the United States. They seem to be in perfect harmony, if not seen dominating the space, with ongoing traffic of cars and buses.
It was in this spirit of creating smart urban spaces, one street at a time, that 15 teams participated in the Rice Design Alliance charrette organized by rdAGENTS. The program titled “X-Change: EaDo Crossroads” was to challenge the participants — a mix of professional architects, landscape designers, urban planners, and students — to transform part of East Downtown into a multi-modal community.
HUD Assisted Housing Properties (2015) and Poverty Level by Census Tract (2011-15), Harris County, Texas
The appointment of a physician, Dr. Ben Carson, to run the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) raised eyebrows. What does a brain surgeon know about affordable housing? But health and housing are intimately linked. Where we live not only dictates our access to opportunities such as education and employment. It shapes our thoughts about what opportunities exist and if they are attainable. It controls opportunities we are exposed to – job or gang. If Dr. Carson reduces segregation by enforcing the new federal fair housing rule, he can advance health equity — the opportunity for everyone to live their healthiest possible life.
During his recent Senate confirmation hearing, Dr. Carson reinforced his position that government should have a more limited role in the provision of housing and noted his own background as a medical doctor as shaping how he would lead the department. What could this mean for Houston?
A day before the Carson hearing, on January 11, the federal government issued a scathing letter outlining in detail a finding that Houston has made decisions about the location of low-income housing in a “racially-motivated” manner, singling out Mayor Turner’s recent decision not to back a housing development on Fountain View in the Galleria area.
For a larger, high-resolution version of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) map of Houston, visit this link.
Why are we so compelled to define neighborhoods as “good” or “bad”? Is there one definition of a “good” neighborhood — is it universal? Can a low-income neighborhood be a “good” neighborhood? I often wonder, and frequently challenge, whether these labels accurately depict a place and its people or whether they are self-fulfilling prophecy that makes it easy to invest or divest. The question comes more clearly into focus by understanding the history of neighborhood classification, of “good” and “bad” labels, and why they are too often directly associated with income and ethnicity.
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.
Griggs Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Photos: Raj Mankad.
This article is an adapted excerpt from “Big Mixed-Use Developments and the Remaking of Houston” in Cite 98, which examines the economics of architecture and the way that developers, banks, and other institutions shape the built environment.
Houston is in bind. We expect to welcome millions more people into the region over the coming decades, and our economic model depends on that growth. A greater density of people will support better city services, more music, more grocery stores … and, if these people are all driving, more traffic jams. What if a greater portion of our population lives along rail and bus lines, though? The fear is that an influx of well-heeled urbanites will drive out low-income people from the very places they have sustained through difficult years, and just when things are turning around. It’s a fear founded on what has happened in neighborhoods like Freedmen’s Town and the West End.
We can imagine a future in which neighborhoods change without a loss of community and history but where are the models? A development under construction now promises one way forward. The backstory, though complex, offers a path for the future of Houston.
Buffalo Bayou in Downtown Houston. Photo: Alex MacLean.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation held its Leading with Landscape conference in Houston March 11-13. Charles Birnbaum, the founder and executive director of the organization, set the stage for a day-long symposium with a review of Houston history in which he suggested three eras: engineering (freeways), architecture (great buildings), and landscape architecture (today’s park renaissance). After designers presented about their work on Memorial Park, Buffalo Bayou Park, Discovery Green, and other major projects, a final panel was charged with synthesizing and responding to the day’s proceedings. William Fulton, Director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute, spoke after former Mayor Annise Parker. The following is an edited transcription of Fulton’s comments.
Thank you very much for having me. This has been a very stimulating day and evening last night. I want to do a poll. How many of you live in Houston or the Houston area? Keep your hands up. Of those people, in the last month, how many of you have gone out somewhere on the bayou system and walked or jogged or rode your bike or something like that? [More than one hundred.] And of all the people with your hand up, how many of you have transported yourself to this event today without driving your own car? [A dozen or more.] Now, of those, how many of you don’t own your own automobile? [Two or three.] Now you know why I feel so out of place so often in Houston.
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.
Nicholas Auger’s “Bicycle Freedom,” 2008.
This post is another in a series that examines bicycling and walking in Houston. Read Raj Mankad’s analysis of the Houston Bike Plan here.
I participate in a dangerous activity. I cycle as a form of transportation inside Houston’s Loop 610.
I regularly find myself in harrowing situations due to the lack of supportive bike and pedestrian infrastructure. “Share the Road” has no bearing in our city, as a seemingly amiable lane-sharing opportunity turns into a hostile dance between the car and the bike. Where I live, any bike lanes are cracked, fading, and treacherous — the sidewalks are in a state of perpetual disintegration. I’ve been yelled at countless times, run off the road, and even hit by a vehicle’s side mirror. I have jumped out of an airplane and still find riding through Houston’s streets more of an adrenaline rush. That is not right. Houston’s laws prescribe behaviors that should make cycling hospitable, yet this does not remedy the situations I face every day.
Washington Avenue. Photo: Raj Mankad.
The last time Houston made a bike plan was 1993. Many of the streets declared official bike routes then are among the least safe places to bicycle. Take Washington Avenue. Every few hundred feet, a yellow sign with an image of a bicycle declares “Share the Road.” The street, however, has no dedicated bicycle path — not even a narrow one. Cars race down the 12-foot-wide lanes feebly painted with ineffectual “sharrows” that have faded from the friction of tires. Only “strong and fearless” cyclists, who represent less than one percent of the total population, attempt such routes.
The signage on Washington is visual clutter, or worse. It sends the wrong message to potential cyclists, according to Geoff Carleton of Traffic Engineers. If the city designates a route for bicycling, he says, it should be comfortable enough for “enthused and confident” riders, not just the spandex-clad racers in pelotons. Ultimately, says Carleton, a city’s bike facilities fail unless they can reassure the largest segment, as much as 65 percent of the total population, of potential cyclists: those who self-identify as “interested but concerned.” (The other group is the “no-way no-hows.”)
The Houston Bike Plan, a new draft released by the City of Houston, details just such a future. Made public and presented to the Planning Commission, the plan was crafted by Traffic Engineers, Morris Architects, and Asakura Robinson, a team comprising most of the designers behind METRO’s New Bus Network, a dramatic reimagining and restructuring that’s receiving national attention for its success. A grant to BikeHouston from the Houston Endowment provided part of the $400,000 budget for the new plan with additional funds coming from the City, Houston-Galveston Area Council, and the Houston Parks Board.