Map of poverty rates in Houston. Data: Shell Center for Sustainability, Rice University. Drawing: Nicola Springer.

Cite 97: The Future Now

The new issue of Cite (97) has been mailed and will be available soon at the Brazos Bookstore, CAMH, MFAH, River Oaks Bookstore, and other stores. Below is an excerpt from the introduction to the issue by guest editor Nicola Springer

Redraw the charts, trace the maps, shade between the lines … this was my way of making sense of all the data. The data points come from Lester King, PhD, an urban planner and fellow at Rice University who has developed a set of sustainability indicators for Houston and has made the information available to the public along with an array of visualization tools. My hope is that these data can provide a baseline for thinking about the projects featured in this issue, projects that are just breaking ground or that are on the boards as speculative ideas for the near future …

The freeways of Houston are constructed in a concentric organization. Diagram: Albert Pope.

The freeways of Houston are constructed in a concentric organization. Diagram: Albert Pope.

Big Data for Big Ideas

We live in a world where all of our information can be mined. Algorithms sift through data, tell us about what we want to wear, where we want to be, what we should buy, and how we should buy it. When it comes to how we are marketed to and how we spend our money, big business has figured out how to very effectively use this data to target and satisfy “our every need.” How can we as architects, designers, and planners use data to create a more “fair” and healthier city?

The answers lie not just in the collection of the big data but with what you collect and, as Susan Rogers emphasizes, “what you do with it.” How do you analyze the information, anticipate the greatest need, and, most importantly, make the information relevant to policy makers and empowering to the communities that the information describes and defines?

In contrast to the concentric freeways, the bayou system is configured in a series of lines or bands that run east-est, from prairie to coast. Diagram: Albert Pope.

In contrast to the concentric freeways, the bayou system is configured in a series of lines or bands that run east-est, from prairie to coast. Diagram: Albert Pope.

We have a great success story for a big idea powered by big data. In proposing the Bayou Greenways, the Houston Parks Board made great use of data to show the benefits of hike and bike trails to a broad swath of people. In this issue, Albert Pope takes the rationale a step further, arguing that the Bayou Greenways will fundamentally shift the organization of the city because they are better suited to our polycentric city than the highway system. He rightfully urges us not to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Small Data for Human-Scaled Design
Then again, Data with a big D must be customized (market oriented terminology), contextualized (as Susan Rogers describes), or humanized (my preference). We must attend to the leaves. If ordinary people have access to more and more fine-grained information down to their own block, will we see more bottom-up use of data?

Everyone wears their city differently. The potential of the Bayou Greenways will be realized if communities rich and poor, of every ethnic stripe, can reimagine the adjacent, under-utilized sites along the trails. Individual projects can perform what Jaime Lerner, Brazilian urban planner and former politician, calls “urban acupuncture.”

Rendering of Big Brothers Big Sisters building. Courtesy: Agency-Agency.

Rendering of Big Brothers Big Sisters building. Courtesy: Agency-Agency.

The volunteer-driven campaign to build a new Big Brothers Big Sisters headquarters is transforming just such a site along Buffalo Bayou. Matthew Johnson’s interview of its designer, Tei Carpenter, shows how a highly fragmented site is being inflected into a meeting point for those who serve and are served by the organization’s laudable mission.

Also in this issue, Victoria Ludwin considers the Houston Needs a Swimming Hole campaign, which may be sited along a bayou. That effort shows how crowdfunding has added a new tool for changing the built environment. Even as big private donors and government funding remain essential to capital-intensive projects, small donations through Indiegogo and Kickstarter are upending business as usual.

Kinder Baumgardner ponders the probable and profound impact of autonomous cars on the landscape, connecting a “multiverse of bubbles,” accelerating fragmentation and stratification as well as connection and collectivity.

When Allyn West digs into the tiny house movement in Texas, he comes out as skeptical about their workability in an urban environment as he is provoked into thinking about urban living rooms and a new type of modular living.

In our technological fantasies, we imagine a dramatic transformation of cities through big data that will: 1) enable governments to create the large-scale infrastructural solutions, in a sensitive manner, where they are needed most; and 2) empower a groundswell of small actions — ordinary people using social media, crowdfunding, and tactical urbanism — to improve their neighborhoods in small-scale ways. We dream that this marriage of the big and small will support resilience, greater equality, and local identities within the framework of a “late capitalist” economy.

Map showing percent population with master's degrees. Drawing: Nicola Springer.

Map showing percent population with master’s degrees. Drawing: Nicola Springer.

I worry, however, that those who would benefit the most do not have a computer to access Indiegogo or a credit card to pay into it. Some of our least wealthy communities are our most culturally urban in their rest and play, but these areas are infrastructurally non-urban.

King’s sustainability indicators tap into a quality of life matrix that begins to get us beyond the traditional engineering aspects of city building. However, bigger data — even when it is publicly available — does not mean a bigger voice for communities.

Nonetheless, we have reason to be cautiously optimistic. The data are getting closer and closer to mapping the real issues that affect quality of life. If we ask the right questions, we can reveal the most opportune connections between infrastructural and human issues. Public Health Analysts have utilized this information to better understand chronic diseases like diabetes, and they are among the best allies of urbanists.

We hope you will join the conversation online here, at, and on social media. Follow @RDAHouston on Twitter and Instagram and Cite Magazine on Facebook.


Table of Contents


RDA News


Waterborne: Finding the Next Houston in Bayou Greenways 2020
By Albert Pope

Beyond Google’s Cute Car: Thinking Through the Impact of Self-Driving Vehicles on Architecture
By Kinder Baumgadner

Tiny Houses: Downsize? The Word Seems Nearly Treasonous in Texas
By Allyn West

Astrodome Catalogue: The World’s Largest Provocation to Speculate
By Raj Mankad

Pool Dreams: Building a Public Swimming Pool in Houston
By Victoria Ludwin

Connecting Those Serving and Being Served: A Conversation about the Big Brothers Big Sisters Headquarters
By Matthew Johnson and Tei Carpenter

Mind the Gaps: Speculations on a Better Future for All of Houston Using Data from the Shell Center for Sustainability
By Nicola Springer

Hindcite: Creative Urban Planning Through Play
By James Rojas

Skypark: Reactions to a High Line for Houston

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