The World in the City: In Our Shoes

May 16-18, 2014

What does it mean to put yourself in someone else’s shoes? "The World in the City: In Our Shoes,” a short film with ten stories from Houston's periphery, tried to tentatively answer this question. The film was recently screened at the "Banlieue is Beautiful" event and exhibit at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, France. The film captures and celebrates the richness and beauty of the everyday places of the city, and the people on the ground who are actively engaged in transforming these places.

Thai Xuan Village:  “Any sidewalk between any two buildings leads into a valley of microfarms crammed with herbs and vegetables that would confound most American botanists.  Entire front yards are given over to choy greens.  Mature papaya trees dangle green fruit overhead, and vines sagging with wrinkled or spiky melons climb trellises up second-story balconies.  Perfumed night jasmine stretches for light alongside trees heavy with satsumas, limes and calamondins.  Where the soil ends, Vietnamese mints and peppers sprout out of anything that will contain roots...“

-Josh Harkinson, Houston Press

Plant It Forward Farm: In far southwest Houston, planted neatly in a utility easement, tucked under high voltage power lines, and sandwiched between gated apartment complexes, a bayou and busy streets, is a farm. The three-acre farm is cultivated by refugees re-settling in Houston from Ghana and the Congo.  Plant It Forward, the non-profit who started the farm, explains the issue clearly: first there is a huge market for local produce, second Houston has vacant land everywhere, and finally there are refugees, mainly with only farming experience, who need work. The organization projects that an acre of land can earn from $20,000 to $60,000 annually. 

Swaminarayan Mandir: Tucked between apartment complexes off of Brand Lane in the suburban city of Stafford is BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. The first traditional Hindu Mandir of its kind in North America, the temple is constructed from over 33,000 pieces of stone hand-carved from Italian marble and Turkish limestone by craftsmen in India and shipped to Texas. Upon arriving at this sacred space the intricate carvings of deities, dancers, musicians, elephants, horses, flowers and geometric designs fill your vision, you have magically left the flat prairie of Texas and arrived somewhere else, the only clue of your whereabouts is the occasional glimpse of western apartments and power lines through the domes.

St. Cloud.jpg

St. Cloud: The St. Cloud apartments are in the center of one of Houston’s densest, poorest, and most diverse neighborhoods—Gulfton. But Gulfton is not in the inner city, it is on the periphery—and St. Cloud is not the projects, it is a simple 1970s garden apartment complex—one of nearly 50 similar complexes in a three-square mile area that combined total 15,000 units. St. Cloud is home to mostly ethnic Nepalese refugees from Bhutan. Men gather in the courtyard to play the traditional board game carrom, children play freely, mothers chat on chairs moved outside to supervise, and pickling jars and container gardens dot adjacent balconies and carports. It is an oasis. 

Watersheds of Potential

A flat plain, heavy rainfall (though not in the last several years)—the result a city networked with 2,692 miles of drainage ditches, channels, and bayous.  1,402 miles of this system are manmade (pink).  The remaining 1,290 miles are part of the natural drainage system (blue).  If we re-conceived this system as a watershed of potential, as the Bayou Greenway Initiative is doing, we could have a completely new type of networked city.


The Future of Airline Drive

The small uproar associated with what appears to be either rumored or real changes to the Bagby Street reconstruction is heartening, but I wonder can Airline Drive get a little of this love—and maybe some recognition that complete streets and parklets (or at least small placitas in parking lots) have application outside of the core of Houston?

Airline Drive is a messy mix of all the ingredients that make for an unplanned, unadulterated urban experience. Local chefs stock up at its huge farmer’s market. Families walk the long aisles of produce and other goods bargaining in Spanish and English. Tacos al carbon and hot chili-dusted mangos on a stick fill empty stomachs. As the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau celebrates, “There’s no place else in the city where you can buy a farm-fresh pineapple (in bulk, if you wish) at 6 a.m. any day of the week, year-round.” Airline is the seam between several distinct neighborhoods, some lined with renovated bungalows and others with affordable apartments. It supports the sort of gritty vitality that Houston as a whole should rejoice in more and work harder not to destroy. Unfortunately, a major public works project to improve Airline Drive could unintentionally diminish this vibrancy, privileging the car (and speed) over all else.

Airline Drive, between 610 and Calvacade, where Canino’s Market is located is being expanded, from its existing width of 44’ curb-to-curb to a proposed 60’ width.  This will mean two 12’ outside lanes and two 11’ inside lanes, and a 14’ left turn lane (for trucks).  Zoom, zoom, zoom.  The expanded street and wider lanes will undoubtedly move more traffic, and at higher speeds, the larger issue at stake is the potential impact of the project on the vibrant street life of the corridor.  Right now, largely as a product of existing road conditions—giant potholes, rough surfaces, and tiny little lanes like those found on lower Westheimer—traffic moves slowly, making it easy for pedestrians to jog across the street. This is a benefit for anyone who might want to venture to the other side, as there is only one traffic light between 610 and Cavalcade, at Link Road.

The facts: 

  • Destinations along Airline, such as El Bolillo’s and Canino’s are featured on two tours sponsored by the Greater Houston Visitor’s and Convention Bureau, the “Tour-O de Mayo” and the tour of “Grocery and Ethnic Markets”
  • Along the two-thirds of a mile between Cavalcade and the North Loop there are 10 markets selling everything from produce, fresh fish, to household goods, 7 restaurants and bars, numerous popular food trucks, and a very popular Mexican bakery
  • Hundreds, if not thousands of people, are drawn to the area everyday including many of our City’s most famous chefs
  • The Metro bus that serves Airline, #56, has the highest number of boardings on Sunday, the fourth highest on Saturday, and the eighth highest on weekdays

Existing Street Conditions

  • 44’ street dimension, curb-to-curb
  • Two 9’ lanes in each direction, 8’ left-turn lane
  • Right-of-way encroached with parking and loading docks
  • Only 50% of the distance between Cavalcade and 610 has sidewalks, many of these sidewalks are very narrow

Proposed Street Conditions

  • 60’ street dimension, curb-to-curb
  • Two 12’ outside lanes (the typical dimension of a freeway lane), two 11’ inside lanes, 14’ left-turn lane
  • According to a Planning Commission report prepared by Edwards and Kelcey and dated 2008 two lanes in each direction are not required based on traffic counts, but instead were recommended to reduce traffic accidents

Airline, regardless of its messy appearance, is one of Houston’s greatest streets—with a bit of the same uproar surrounding the rumored Bagby changes, and a little love, the proposed street widening project could potentially be transformed into a prime example of a green or complete street project.  Can Airline get some love?

Above, Street Sections


Density Decoded

Population density in Houston is scattered and decentralized, it occurs in unusual places and is more often associated with 1970s garden apartments than traditional urban areas (meaning areas developed prior to the domination of the automobile).   Clearly, this is not a surprise, given that nearly 80% of our built fabric was constructed after World War II.  But it is time for decision-makers and leaders to recognize this phenomenon so that we can develop new ways to think about how we build more sustainable communities.  This means focusing efforts to create alternative pedestrian networks and rapid transportation lines where density can support it, assuring that areas are built or retrofitted to accommodate adequate parks and open spaces, and that economic and housing opportunities are supported equally across our city.  Below is a graph of population density by super neighborhood in 2000 and 2010.

The facts.  Of the ten super neighborhoods in Houston with the highest population densities six are located outside the loop—Gulfton, Westwood, Golfcrest/Reveille, Mid-West, Sharpstown, and Spring Branch Center.  The four densest neighborhoods inside the Loop are Pecan Park, Montrose, Museum Park, and Fourth Ward.  Below is the top ten list, in order beginning with the most densely populated:

  1. Gulfton (15,474 people/square mile)
  2. Pecan Park (10,205 people/square mile)
  3. Westwood (9,812 people/square mile)
  4. Golfcrest/Reveille (9,699 people/per square mile)
  5. Mid-West (8,881 people/per square mile)
  6. Montrose (8,855 people/per square mile)
  7. Museum Park (8,709 people/per square mile)
  8. Sharpstown (8,615 people/per square mile)
  9. Fourth Ward (8,437 people/per square mile)
  10. Spring Branch Center (7,508 people/ per square mile)

Note:  In Houston, the “Loop” roughly defines the center city from the periphery.

Collaborative Community Design Initiative, No. 2: Islands Published

Across our cities leaders, organizations, and institutions are looking for new ways to achieve sustainable and comprehensive community development.  This renewed interest in a holistic approach to development is reminiscent of the original community development legislation passed in 1968 that focused simultaneously on political empowerment, education, the arts and culture, housing and economic development, and social equity and opportunity.

Finding a path to new and lasting change could not be more imperative than at this moment as hard-won gains in equity and opportunity are currently being diminished by our economic crisis and budget shortfalls that are squeezing education, public infrastructure investment, and community resources.  Today, it is vital that we find new ways to work across disciplines, scales, and issues to develop innovative strategies for positive change in our communities.  This means looking for new models of economic development such as co-operatives, finding new ways to develop quality affordable housing, for example by mixing models and programs, creating new opportunities for us to come together as citizens, not as consumers, identifying existing skills and resources in our communities as a means to shape and create new jobs, and working towards achieving sustainability in its fullest and most meaningful definition―which includes achieving a balance between equity, economy, and ecology in all that we do.  


Together we can develop participatory, proactive, and asset-based community processes and strategies that have the potential to point us towards opportunities for meaningful and sustainable change.  To this end the Collaborative Community Design Initiative is a program founded on interdisciplinary problem-solving, community engagement, partnerships, and broad-based participation that provides one model for new ways of acting and thinking about our communities.  This publication, the second in our series, is intended to be a guide for change in our four partner communities―Alief, Golfcrest | Bellfort | Reveille, Greenspoint, and Mid-West―as well as point to potential strategies and tactics in communities across the country that are facing similar challenges.


The Collaborative Community Design Initiative is generously funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Houston Arts Alliance, and the Architecture Center Houston Foundation.  If you would like a copy of the publication please email Susan Rogers with your name and mailing address.

Making a Difference

Alief Community Garden
Once in awhile we get an opportunity to contribute to a project with so much momentum that it is amazing how quickly things get accomplished.  Our contribution to the Alief Community Garden was one of these opportunities.  Over the summer the CDRC worked with the Alief Super Neighborhood Council, Urban Harvest, and the International Management District to develop a site plan for a new community garden.  On September 17, 2011 hundreds of people came to the site including members of the University of Houston’s AIAS Freedom by Design group to build the garden beds.  The garden is located near the intersection of Beechnut and Dairy Ashford.


To learn more about the project from the Houston Chronicle click here



Alief, located in far southwest Houston and bounded by the Westpark Tollway on the north and Beltway 8 on the east, is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Houston.  Alief could be defined as a gateway community, where many new immigrants settle.  42% of the population in Alief were born outside of the U.S., much higher than Houston’s overall rate of 28%.  The story of Alief is also more complex and in this case a bit of data might tell a richer story.  As the graph below indicates (based on 2009 American Community Survey small area data) there is no relationship between being born outside the U.S. and median household income or poverty rates.  This suggests that in Alief  opportunities to succeed are available to nearly all residents, both old and new.


Super Strategies for the Mid-West Super Neighborhood

The Mid-West neighborhood in Houston is just north of Gulfton and Sharpstown and just east of the Galleria and the 610 Loop.  It is an extremely diverse neighborhood, home to nice single-family neighborhoods, thousands of multi-family apartments, the South Asian shopping district, a giant flea market, and restaurants from around the world, including the Halal Wok which begins to speak to the hybrid quality of the community.  UH College of Architecture students Dennis Alvarez, Nahid S. Haimonty, Alex Lara, Janine Nunfio, and Sana Rehman spent the Spring collecting data, pounding the pavement, researching precedents, and developing design strategies for the Mid-West Super Neighborhood, what they came up with is nothing short of SUPER.    As the team states:

By introducing links and social hubs that address the strengths of the community, the vibrancy of the neighborhood becomes prominent in Houston.  By embracing the culture of the neighborhood and providing an economic boost for local entrepreneurs, the community is bound to prosper.  The social hubs that occur near Westpark Tollway will draw from certain aspects of the community and its needs, but will serve both Mid-West and Houston as a whole.

Concentrating on removing both physical and social barriers, four major interventions are introduced.

GREEN FUSE: Programming the path along the drainage ditch through the community, a link is made from Westheimer to the transit center. This linear path also provides access to local activity hubs, both existing and proposed.

WESTPARK PLAZA: Utilizing the open space below the Westpark overpass, the plaza becomes a social hub. The hubs have the potential to boost economic growth through ethnic food trucks and markets, and also create a gathering place that could hold events such as concerts and dancing.

HILLCROFT PARK + PLAY: While the METRO is widely used in the area, the park and ride lot is underused. In the proposed intervention, the large parking area of the transit center becomes a recreational complex.

URBAN FARMING LINE: A multi-purpose community space will serve as a means of social interaction. The linear park will allow for a place for urban farming as well, making use of the undeveloped land below the utility lines.


Community Design Workshop Spring Exhibition

Please join us on Monday May 2, 2011 from 6 – 8 p.m in the Gallery of the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture at the University of Houston for the final presentations by the student teams for Alief, Greenspoint, Golfcrest/Bellfrot/Reveille, and Midwest.


Student Teams, Alief:  Mike Cutulle, Pratik Emon, Carolyn Glenn, Kimberly McGrath, Courtney Widacki; Greenspoint: Jennifer Branham, John Rezsonya, Sidney San, Josh Sawyer; Golfcrest/Bellfort/Reveille:   Mervyn Austria, Ross Charba,  Zhu Chen, Poonam Patel, Jenny Seim; Mid-West:  Dennis Alvarez, Nahid S. Haimonty, Alex Lara, Janine Nunfio, Sana Rehman. 

Community Design Workshop

This Spring teams of students at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture are working collaboratively with community partners from Alief, Greenspoint, Golfcrest/Reveille/Bellfort, and Midwest to develop comprehensive community design strategies that will build on the strengths and opportunities in these neighborhoods.


On Monday March 7th design experts, Keiji Asakura, Antoine Bryant, and Robert Burrows, joined community stakeholders and leaders, to hear the first presentations focused on the existing conditions in the communities. The presentations, in part, kick-off our second biennial Collaborative Community Design Initiative, a yearlong partnership with these communities.


The Golfcrest/Reveille/Bellfort super neighborhood is located in southeast Houston, just south of the 610 loop and west of I-45. The neighborhood is adjacent to Hobby Airport, and is home to over 50,000 people, 25% of which survive on incomes below the poverty level. The community has a long history and has active community leaders that are shaping its future.  The team is focusing on the strengths and opportunities in the neighborhood to develop strategies for change.

Team: Mervyn Austria, Ross Charba, Zhu Chen, Poonam Patel, Jenny Seim


Alief has a population of over 93,000 residents and is bounded by the Westpark Tollway to the north, Beltway 8 to the east, 59 to the southeast, and Highway 6 to the west. The community is diverse and is home to the thriving Asian commercial district that caters not only to the neighborhood but also draws people from around the city. Alief presents interesting opportunities for the creation of public spaces and networks that would connect residents and visitors and provide gathering places.

Team: Mike Cutulle, Pratik Emon, Carolyn Glenn, Kimberly McGrath, Courtney Widacki


The Greenspoint neighborhood is home to just under 30,000 people.  The neighborhood is located just west of Bush Intercontinental Airport.  I-45 and Beltway 8 divide the neighborhood into quadrants, a division that is not only physical but also social.  Multi-family housing is predominantly to the northeast, single-family to the southeast, while Greenspoint Mall and the primary office developments have developed along the highways. The team is working to develop strategies to address the needs of families, and to provide connections and amenities.

Team: Jennifer Branham, Josh Sawyer, John Rezsonya, Sidney San


Midwest is home to just over 55,000 residents, and is located just north of Gulfton.  The neighborhood is bounded by Gessner on the west, Chimney Rock on the east, Westpark on the south and Buffalo Bayou and Westheimer to the north.  We all know this area of town for its good food and abundant retail, but part of the community—mainly east of Hillcroft—is disconnected, with few parks and limited services.  The neighborhood’s large immigrant and transitional population lives in this area.  The study is focusing on new public amenities and spaces to spark social density and local entrepreneurship.

Team: Alex Lara, Nahid Haimonty, Dennis Alvarez, Janine Nunfio, Sana Rehman

Many thanks to all that were in attendance.

“The Westward-Moving House”

The “Westward-Moving House” essay published in 1952 by J. B. Jackson in the collection “Landscapes,” told the story of the great western expansion of the single family house, what we today call sprawl. Houston could tell a similar story.


Map, top:  All Housing (Source:  U.S. Census)
Map, bottom:  Housing constructed since 2000 (Source:  American Community Survey, 2009)

Note: The Tracts that are null are based on U.S. Census Data (information is protected when there are too few housing units or people.)

Independence HEIGHTS

Change, in the modern world, often means big plans and big buildings—the re-visioning, redevelopment, and rebuilding of a place to meet current demands for commodities and luxury, consistently in-line with the perceived bounties of the “market.”  In this world, small acts are often relegated to the sidelines, considered quaint, connected to an idealistic concept of “community,” maybe meaningful, but not horribly effective.  But the architecture of change is not necessarily “big” nor about buildings, sometimes it starts small with the organization of a group of people committed to transformation.  Independence Heights is such a place.  It is here that a new understanding of an architecture of change is made plain.


A Slice . . . Updated

Early this year I graphed median household income and place of birth for all of the census tracts along Bellaire/Holcombe from Main Street in the Medical Center, west to Highway 6 for a lecture.  Recently, updated 2009 small area data has become available from the American Community Survey.  The graph below shows Median Household Income along this corridor in both 2000 and 2009.


What does the graph illustrate?  Mostly that the wealthy inside the 610 Loop were either joined by more wealthy people or got wealthier, and that the folks outside the Loop have household incomes that have remained relatively unchanged since 2000, while the City of Houston’s median household income climbed from $36,000 in 2000 to nearly $43,000 in 2009.  Click here to view the original 

“Slice of Houston”

Houston: Desertia

As Montrose residents wrap up a heated debate on the value and intricacies of the proposed new HEB at Dunlavy and Alabama (directly across the street from a Fiesta), in an area that can clearly be defined as a “grocery glut,” there are neighborhoods across the city of Houston that would support any grocery store, of any design.  These are neighborhoods that don’t have access to fresh, healthy food, or areas that can be defined as “food deserts.”  A food desert, according to the Food Conservation and Energy Act passed by Congress in 2008, is an “area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly lower income neighborhoods.”

Sparked, in part, by the irony of grocery gluttony, we have started to map “food deserts” in Houston, documenting areas that are more than a mile from the closest grocery store and have a high proportion of residents who live below the federal poverty line.  The “food deserts” we have identified include parts of Third Ward, Alief, Sunnyside, South Park, Acres Homes, Independence Heights, East Jensen, Kashmere, Fifth Ward, East Little York, and West Oaks/Eldridge.  While we still have work to do, our initial maps are presented here.  In Houston, more than a quarter of a million low-income residents live more than a mile from a grocery store, and more than 25% of these residents do not have access to a vehicle.


Currently, a new federal program is being proposed to address the inequities in access to healthy food.  The Healthy Food Financing Initiative would provide $400 million in grants and loans to assist retailers in locating in neighborhoods without access to fresh food.  The program is modeled after Pennsylvania’s successful Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which offers block grants or low-interest loans to grocers who agree to open stores in low-income or rural areas.  The program, according to Policy Link, has generated 83 new or improved grocery stores, provided 400,000 people with access to healthy food, created 5,000 jobs, and sparked $190 million in economic development with a public investment of $30 million.

Where The Grocery Stores Aren’t [Swamplot]
Joe Vs. Smart Shop: An Oasis In A Food Desert [Houston Press]
Food for Thought: Mapping Houston Neighborhoods Reveals a Great Divide [Cite 85: Game on]