Fortsmith Street. Photo: Raj Mankad.

Houston Has a Woonerf

Houstonians want better sidewalks, if the consensus among mayoral and city council candidates is any indication. Please give pedestrians a safe place. Away from the cars. Why, then, did the Energy Corridor Management District invest $391,000 into a design that expects pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists to share the same lane?

First, a trip to The Netherlands. From the late 1960s to the 2000s, urban planner Hans Mondermann broke all the rules. Rather, he dispensed with rules. The streets he designed are “naked.” No stop signs, no speed limits posted, no traffic lights. Instead, drivers intuit risk from the lack of curbs, material choices, lane widths, and other cues. They slow down. Mondermann’s hunch was that people would manage themselves in the safest and most efficient manner if their attention was heightened. Several decades of data have proven him right. As Linda Baker writes for Salon.com, it sounds crazy, but it works. The “woonerf,” or street for living, was born. Or reborn. Sharing the public realm goes back to the earliest cities on the Anatolian coast like Khirokitia and Çatalhöyük (6,000 BCE).

First woonerf in Łódź, 6 Sierpnia Street. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

First woonerf in Łódź, 6 Sierpnia Street. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps more surprising than the building of a woonerf in Houston is its location — just off I-10 and outside Beltway 8 near the boundary of Houston and unincorporated Harris County. And perhaps even more surprising is that major oil and gas companies like BP footed part of the bill through fees to the Energy Corridor District.

I had to see the street myself and walk down the middle of its single lane to believe that Houston truly has a woonerf. I took the 229 commuter bus from Downtown Houston to the Addicks Park and Ride. From there I walked a little less than a mile to meet Clark Martinson, General Manager of the Energy Corridor District. The walk down the I-10 feeder road was both relaxing and deeply alienating — a feeling familiar to me from my past expedition to Galveston by bus. At one point, I crossed a fragment of train tracks, likely a stray piece of infrastructure from the days of the old MKT rail line and a reminder of a lost opportunity to build commuter rail. While crossing under the freeway, I was awed by how puny I am relative to its hulking posts and beams. A panhandler on his mobile phone didn’t bother to thrust his cup my way. Soon enough, the mad thrum of the highway faded away as I made my way.

Remnant of rail adjacent to I-10. Photo: Raj Mankad.

Remnant of rail adjacent to I-10. Photo: Raj Mankad.

I arrived, there in the middle of a Houston street with no fear of getting run over. The area was masterplanned by SWA Group and rebranded as Grisby Square within which the woonerf, designed by Asakura Robinson, is a 100-yard stretch of Fortsmith Street. What had been a dirt right of way is now paved with brick and planted with trees. A drainage system is hidden below ground. Previously improvised parking spots have become a mix of parallel and angled spaces. The offices that turned their warehouse-like blank sides to the street still do for now. The design is pleasing, but if you are expecting to be transported to The Netherlands you will be underwhelmed. One corner of my mind sneered: Isn’t this a little silly given the car-oriented logic of this region?

Martinson walked with me out of the woonerf to Ginger Thai Cuisine. The Fortsmith Street right of way continues but it seems to evaporate into a parking lot. That transition is strange and useful to think about, because most parking lots are already spaces without sidewalks where cars and pedestrians share an undefined realm. I began imagining woonerfian futures for Houston’s vast seas of surface parking.

Ginger Thai Cuisine at Grisby Square. Photo: Raj Mankad.

Ginger Thai Cuisine at Grisby Square. Photo: Raj Mankad.

I was impressed by the informality and authenticity of Grisby Square itself. For some reason, four little blocks of intact street grid exist in this landscape of cul-de-sac and thoroughfares. Half a dozen restaurants feed energy workers. Many are shuttled in by bus from the BP offices. Mature trees shade outdoor seating. An oasis that serves as a tiny destination for walking. The master plan envisions more buildings oriented to more streets enhanced for pedestrians.

As Leah Binkovitz notes in the Houston Chronicle, Fortsmith woonerf is “a sign of things to come.” The master plan for the whole of the Energy Corridor, by Sasaki Associates in collaboration with Toole Design Group and The Office of James Burnett, includes a major transit hub at the Addicks Park and Ride where I arrived. Instead of the hot surface parking lot that welcomed me, I would get off the bus in a multimodal hub with office towers, hotels, residential development, and parking garages. Instead of walking along a feeder road and below I-10, I would cross over the freeway in an air-conditioned bridge to Grisby Square.

Energy Corridor District Mster Plan. Source: http://www.energycorridor.org/about/the-future/master-plan.

Energy Corridor District Mster Plan. Source: http://www.energycorridor.org/about/the-future/master-plan.

And that’s not all. The redevelopment of the former location of the ExxonMobil Chemical Company, a 35-acre site, would add another walking destination in close proximity to the woonerf and Grisby Square. Also within a mile is to be Langham Park, an outdoor event space that would take advantage of a drainage right of way crossing under I-10 to tie the two sides of the corridor together.

What if the 229 commuter bus ran every 10 to 15 minutes all day? What if the Energy Corridor’s car-share program expanded to all these locations and B-cycle locations were added? As hard as it is to imagine today, one of the best places to walk and cycle in Houston’s near future could be outside Beltway 8.

For OffCite and Cite, SWA Group President Kinder Baumgardner has described Houston as “a multiverse of little walkable bubbles.” Whether people are delivered there by commuter buses or autonomous taxis or shared bicycles, over the next two decades, Grisby Square is poised to become the center of one such (not-so-little) bubble.

Further Reading

Martinson, Clark. “A Vision for a Walkable Energy Corridor.” OffCite.org. September 11, 2014.

Delaughter, Gail. “Houston’s Energy Corridor Gets A ‘Woonerf’ Street.” Houston Public Media. September 24, 2015.

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