Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Finding Urbanity in Houston

Dateline: 11:41 am December 18, 2009 Filed under:

The first thing I noticed about Houston is the lack of an accent. It’s not that a good southern drawl is entirely absent, but on my one day whirlwind tour of that city, I realized just how international it is. See my photos of Houston here.

Nobody does roadside sprawl better than Houston. Many of the freeways in Houston don’t have formal interchanges, but rather a frontage road on both sides and frequent on and off ramps with the occasional overpass to reach the other side. So rather than businesses concentrated at interchanges, anything that can draw revenue is tossed along the roadside. Coupled with Houston’s lack of zoning, this leads to a wonderfully entertaining jumble of buildings and loud signage. There was “Display Showroom” – I’m not sure what was on display in the showroom, but the sign was sure big and bright. Oh, baby, we all know what “Fantasy Warehouse” means, and it sure was a warehouse! And perhaps the largest “Tattoos” sign I’ve ever seen, and “Ladies Free.” What more can you ask for!? It kept me entertained the whole way.

I stayed at the new Aloft in the Galleria area. I’m not sure if the Galleria is more striking on the horizon or up close. At night, as the 610 turned south, there it was, a collection of high rises with matching lights across their rooflines beckoning in the distance – “come spend here and be a better person.” Up close the Galleria was just as dazzling, with its upscale stores, corporate and hotel towers and stainless steel signs glinting above the street. Of course, not much in the way of sidewalks. Sorry Los Angeles, but Houston may be the best city in America in which to take a drive.

The Aloft is all about theme – targeted to a younger business crowd. They greet you with Aloha! The bar is called W XYZ. The cafe is called re:fuel. The excercise room is re:fresh. The pool is called splash. Even the coffee packets in the room are called brew & abuzz. You get the picture. I asked for and was given an Aloft Rubik’s Cube – their target demographic is indeed children of the 80s.

I was keen to get up early Sunday and jog along the Buffalo Bayou Walk, a new section of trail that winds along the river course below an interwoven lacework of highway and street overpasses in the northwest corner of downtown. It was surprisingly pleasant, even on a gray drizzly Sunday at 8AM with more homeless men (under the bridge downtown) than walkers or joggers. I’m sure things are hopping in nicer weather with events going on in the adjacent Theater District.

No Joe Urban trip is complete without a light rail ride. My real destination was the new Discovery Green park, so I boarded near Rice University and Hermann Park and headed downtown. The train is very nice and easy to use, just like many other light rail lines across the country. There was a father and two kids on the train, sitting in the front seat. Clearly they were out for a day with dad, and the train was a fun way to get wherever they were going. I couldn’t help but think of the people I have observed in Minneapolis, Charlotte, Phoenix, etc. who are doing the same thing, and I’m certain they wouldn’t have chosen to do so by bus. (This of course doesn’t in and of itself justify building light rail, but the regular commuters who choose rail over bus and people (like me) who choose to live by a rail station but would never consider the same decision for a bus certainly does!)

Look out Millennium Park, Discovery Green is fantastic! Perhaps it was the context of being in Houston and admittedly expecting less along the lines of urbanity, but I’ve never been more impressed by a downtown park. There is something for everybody in just 12 acres, including a small lake (with an ice rink – yes, an ice rink! – for a month in the winter), promenades, farmers market, cafe, sculptures, live oaks, five-star restaurant, fountain, playground, performance stage, event lawns, gardens, shuffleboard, plazas, and even a putting green. There is truly something for everybody, and clearly it is very popular. I encourage you to visit the Discovery Green website and explore for yourself. Any city contemplating a new downtown park (I’m looking at you, Minneapolis!) should make a visit to Discovery Green.

Click here for a thorough article on Discovery Green in Landscape Architecture magazine. The pictures are much better than mine!

Houston is the fourth largest metro area in the country in part because of its seaport and related industries. I had to check it out, so I headed east on Texas Highway 225 past mile after mile of chemical plant, refinery, container ports, and warehouses. An explosion at a chemical plant last week made the news. It seems chemical plant explosions are not all that unusual, as evidenced by last year’s Goodyear plant incident. The wonderful book “The World Without Us” speaks extensively about what would happen to all the chemical plants and refineries in Houston if humans were to suddenly disappear. Can you say “blast zone?”

Houston is a very interesting place, and there is no way to generalize. One cannot blame sprawl there on a lack of zoning – just look at all the sprawling cities with zoning. My observation is the market kind of figures out highest and best use anyway, so it doesn’t appear drastically different from other urban areas. In fact, Houston has created a lot of good urbanism in recent years. One thing is certain, Houston is too big to ignore, and I can’t look away.

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.