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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.
“Sharp,” located at 6822 Rowan Lane, is open to visitors daily for a period of a few months. Click here for a map.
On the 10-block shuttle bus ride from the remote parking to the latest house-conversion project by Havel Ruck Projects (Dan Havel and Dean Ruck), the driver felt that he needed to warn me. “People that weren’t expecting it were startled. It’s like arriving at a fire.”
“Sharp” is one of Havel Ruck’s conversions of an existing house, in place, in its setting. In its last life, it was a typical suburban house, a ranch on a slab with a yard. It had caught fire.
In my sophomore year, I began to feel that the Rice campus did not fully accommodate its students’ often unpredictable oscillation between stimulation and decompression. Instead, the university favors spaces programmed for productivity. The traditional academic quad, planned to inspire intellectualism, fails to accomplish the type of communal space for students and teachers seen at Jefferson’s University of Virginia Lawn.
Even Rice’s new wave of architecture, such as Brochstein Pavilion and “Twilight Epiphany,” the James Turrell Skyspace, exerts a level of control over the user—one interacts in Brochstein and meditates in the Skyspace.
All things considered, though, we have one of the most spectacular campuses in the country, a result attributable as much to the landscape as to its institutional monuments and architectural edifices—your first look of Lovett Hall is made memorable by the oak branches that gradually unveil the monolithic Sallyport. Moments so glorious are made almost commonplace with all of Rice’s greenspaces, yet nature in this context tends to feel ornamental or sacred, to be seen and not touched.
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.
In the Kitchen, patrons point their phones toward the bayou. Instead of Instagramming their meals, diners at the small restaurant in the Dunlavy train their cameras past the chandeliers to the sprawling live oak that envelops one of the restaurant’s fully glazed façades. The interior fades into the periphery and focus shifts to Buffalo Bayou Park. The reflected glare of the chandeliers is the only reminder of the shell at the edge of the building before the green patchwork of leaves and branches. But a turn of the head reveals open sky looking down on Lost Lake — the re-created pond whose banks failed in the 1970s. Broad-shouldered highrises loom on the horizon.
These are the impressions of the Dunlavy. It delineates the border of bayou-side development. It is a perch through which to view Houston’s most iconic landscape — a bayou box seat. It is a hovering mass behind the trees — an eyebrow at the banks of the bayou. What you see depends on where you stand.
Photo: Kate Cairoli.
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.
OffCite invites short essays, reviews, and observations on specific moments and places. Interested in contributing your own? Let us know.
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.
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.
Photos courtesy Emergency Floor.
A year ago, OffCite published “Emergency Floor,” an article about a flooring solution for refugee camps developed by two Rice University graduates, Sam Brisendine and Scott Key, and their crowdfunding campaign to help put their modular tiles of extruded polypropylene on the ground. Below is an update that Key and Brisendine sent to supporters on July 15. You can learn more about the project here.
It is surreal to walk amid refugee shelters in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon a few short miles from ISIS-held towns in Syria. By in large, these families have lived in shelters cobbled together from tarps, scrap wood, and refuse for four to six years on average.
In the summer, temperatures soar to well over 100 degrees and in the winter down below freezing. Unfortunately, like many countries in the region, cold winters coincide with wet weather. One teenager told us living in his shelter in the winter “is like living in a wet refrigerator.”