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.
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:
- Gulfton (15,474 people/square mile)
- Pecan Park (10,205 people/square mile)
- Westwood (9,812 people/square mile)
- Golfcrest/Reveille (9,699 people/per square mile)
- Mid-West (8,881 people/per square mile)
- Montrose (8,855 people/per square mile)
- Museum Park (8,709 people/per square mile)
- Sharpstown (8,615 people/per square mile)
- Fourth Ward (8,437 people/per square mile)
- Spring Branch Center (7,508 people/ per square mile)
As the average American lifespan has begun to decline and rates of obesity and preventable diseases escalate, the vehicle-centric nature of our suburban landscapes is being scrutinized. Yet, at the same time the suburban landscape is transforming, increasingly home to poorer and less mobile residents. For the first time in U.S. history the suburbs are home to a larger percentage of people living below the poverty line than urban areas. Two factors are compounding this dramatic and unprecedented demographic shift. Firstly, the increased investment in, and value of, urban living that has led to a rise in luxury redevelopment projects that replace affordable housing within the urban core. Secondly, suburban neighborhoods have been hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis. This factor, combined with an aging stock of multi-family housing, has made the suburbs increasingly affordable yet correspondingly less desirable. The impact is that economically disadvantaged households are being pushed to the periphery where they confront a sprawling landscape devoid of much needed support networks and community infrastructure. The result is the emergence of new challenges to health and quality of life in our suburban landscapes that need to be addressed to ensure that all citizens have access to equal opportunity and a healthy environment.
One of the largest challenges is the aging apartment complexes constructed in the 1970s and 1980s that are reaching the end of their useful lifespans. As these complexes age, they are more frequently home to rising populations of suburban poor. Ranking eighth in the United States, the Houston metropolitan region has one of the highest rates of suburban poverty. Between 2000 and 2010 the percentage of the poor living in suburban areas in Houston rose from 42% to 51%. This profound demographic shift can be best illustrated by the Greenspoint neighborhood. The 12-square-mile master planned community located in suburban north Houston has one of the highest concentrations of multi-family housing within the city limits, at 11,000 units. Over the last twenty years, working class families have replaced single-person professional households within the apartment complexes. As a result, population density in the neighborhood has increased by a factor of 1.5, generating significant new social, environmental, and economic challenges. For example, according to the U.S. Census, only 2,500 people below the age of 18 lived in Greenspoint in 1990. By 2000, this number had skyrocketed to over 12,400, and by 2010, it climbed yet again to 14,000 representing 36% of the total population. Over 34% of households currently live below the federal poverty level. Compounding a challenging situation, there are few basic amenities such as fresh and healthy food, pharmacies, community services, libraries, or youth programs available to Greenspoint residents. Over 24% of households do not own a car and depend solely on relatively limited public transportation. In Houston overall, there are 409,651 apartments in buildings with ten or more units, housing over 1.1 million residents. 42% of these apartments (172,053 units) were constructed between 1970 and 1989, during a period of rapid growth in the city. In an era where vouchers and subsidies compose the extent of our national low-income housing policy, this housing stock in many ways represents a new de-facto public housing infrastructure. Thus, it is increasingly subject to many of the same challenges that public housing communities faced fifty years ago. Are there new solutions for the “New Projects?”
Text: Gregory Marinic and Susan Rogers; Photo and Graphics: Andrea Gonzales and Susan Rogers
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 at email@example.com with your name and mailing address.
The Third Ward, today is fundamentally defined by what is missing rather than what is there. And there seems to be more missing every day. The population today is less than a third of what it was in 1950, a percent population loss greater than that of Detroit. There are no grocery stores, full-service banks, dry cleaners, movie theaters, or pharmacies. Even the traditional pariah businesses that prey on struggling neighborhoods—such as pawn shops, check cashing outlets, game rooms and auto repair are absent or few. This wasn’t always the case—but that is a story for the historians.
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.
The Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston invites you to share your professional or community expertise at our second biennial Community Design Charrette in partnership with Alief, Golfcrest|Bellfort|Reveille, Greenspoint, and Mid-West.
For this event we have put together a set of briefing books for each of our four community partners that you can find HERE.
Lunch will be provided and parking is available at UH Entrance #18.
Please RSVP as soon as possible.
We hope you can join us!