Bayou City

More People Coming to Houston, More Questions on How They'll All Fit

Rice Design Alliance hosts a discussion on the state of Houston's highways, byways and bayous with Projective Infrastructures.

By Leah Lucio February 8, 2016

Shutterstock 158350304 xysbe3

Image: Shutterstock

This year, the Greater Houston area is expected to hit around 6.78 million residents, stretching from The Woodlands to Sugar Land, Houston to Clear Lake. In 2020, the population is expected to jump up to 7.5 million, and only continue to grow. With more people comes more traffic, more buildings, more public transit (fingers crossed), and the need to create spaces for Newstonians to connect. The question we’re inevitably facing with every new apartment leased and new car on the road: How are we going to accommodate everyone?

“We need to recognize that the paradigms of the past don’t always work,” says Christopher Hight, Associate Professor of Architecture, Rice and Curator of the RDA Speaker Series: Projective Infrastructures.

“The United States invested a great deal of effort and collective will and funds into building infrastructures…but we haven’t done a great job of maintaining them,” Hight says, commenting on post–World War II influx of new Houston citizens.

These structures—buildings, roads, freeways, etc.—either need to be renovated, rebuilt or entirely rethought because second and most importantly, “the way we live in cities has changed.”

Hermann Park proved that neighborhoods can change. Buffalo Bayou proved that iconic structures needn’t be single minded. Discovery Green proved that “if you build it people will come.”

1014 diary house under freeway qxr2vc

Image: Dan Page

Organizations like Rice Design Alliance, which incorporates architects, city planners, artists, entrepreneurs and more into their projects, broaden the scope of infrastructure and address the social, economic and cultural needs of Houston.

A 2012 Pew Research Study showed that Houston was the most economically segregated metropolitan in the country followed by Dallas. Houston’s lack of zoning doesn’t help. And despite the efficiency of freeways for drivers from Downtown to the suburbs, they actually dissect much of the city and cause our famous Houston gridlock.

“It’s a topic that many cities are considering,” notes Chris Reed, an associate professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture at Harvard, and the first speaker of the series.

“Frankly I don’t know the specifics around (Pierce Elevated). But I know that it’s part of a trend where (cities) are looking at segmented freeways,” and rethinking them. Is that the best use? Do we need it? But also what was it disconnecting? And what more can it do?

One of Reed’s current projects focuses on inverting the impact of freeways—focusing on reconnecting community and culture while reducing flooding and pollution. “To reverse the impact that was that singled-minded infrastructure,” Reed added, “and create alternatives that have great social, envrionmental and economic benefits.”

The questions need to be more than what kind of city will Houstonians enjoy living in or can we check off “the sustainability box,” said Reed.

“We (need to) ask whether the Houston economy has diversified enough so that impacts from a downturn in energy do not negatively impact the entire regional economy,” Patrick Jankowki, Greater Houston Partnership’s Senior Vice President of Research said in an 2016 Forecast memo.

According to Gallup, 2015 was the first time in the past three years that Houston didn’t lead metropolitan cities in job creation—slipping just behind San Antonio and Salt Lake City. The Greater Houston Partnership predicts that job creation in 2016 will decrease 13,000 from 2015, after a dip of 81,000 from 2014–2015. Still, Houston has added 491,500 jobs in the previous five years and 2015 set a record for the region with 3,015,800-payroll jobs; won a silver medal (of sorts) for “Second Best Year on Record for Home Sales,” with 73,724 single-family houses; and earned a record population that exceeds 6.6 million.

Houstonians "are more conscious of their lives,” than ever before, says Sarah Whiting, Dean of Rice School of Architecture and William Ward Watkin Professor. “People don’t work the same way,” Whiting says. “And the changes in the city can help catalyze that transformation in our everyday work life.”

Feb 10. 7. $35; $20, RDA & MFAH members; $15, seniors; $10, students. Caroline Wiess Law Building, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet.