Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Comparing the cities of Texas - anarchy or innovation?

First impressions of Dallas, Austin & Houston was one of over developed arterial corridors and traffic chaos and congestion. However, upon closer inspection of the inner city or 'down town' areas of both Austin and Houston, it was also possible to find examples of innovation. Opportunities for innovation in residential and transit development was due in part to the use of the original bones or layout of the pre-war core grid layout and scale. Specific examples within Austin include utilisation of the heritage architecture within the Univesity of Texas inner city campus. The university has also been instrumental in the development of the 'green' or sustainability measurement building code, called LEED (similar to our star energy efficiency rating). Austin also had implemented a bicycle hire network with bike lane segregation in the old warehouse part of downtown. In the area just to the east of downtown, An allowance of a mix of live music venues and food retail in the form of both restaurants and 'food trucks' encouraged night activation of otherwise older less affluent inner suburbs of Austin whilst also fostering the cultural and live music scene that Austin is famous for.

Then along came Houston, where after surviving peak hour traffic chaos, we heard first hand from one of the city planners that the Houston City Commissioners and Mayor had just accepted their first comprehensive plan (strategic plan) for the city. This was heralded as a promising sign that long term planning for the city as a whole was gaining wider acceptance within the community of Houston as it had never been before. The expansion of light rail enabled through public/private partnerships was also evident in the centre of Houston. Support for expansion and partnerships has been gaining ground in Houston as this type of infrastructure investment increases development activity win close proximity to light rail. It is also supported by an increase in a younger professional demographic choosing to live in residential developments within the down town area to be closer to work and to avoid the traffic congestion an delays synonymous with the outer suburbs. 

Representatives of the Houston based Design Workshop planning and landscape architecture consultancy guided us to further locations of innovation within the Houston urban area. These included a lively inner city park called 'midtown' which provided a vibrant, useful open space co-located with mixed use development and designed and constructed with environmentally sustainable principles. The tour of uptown Houston also included a proposed BRT (bus rapid transit) system for an area of up town Houston with notoriously and increasingly bad commuter traffic congestion. And finally to a recently developed master-planned community of Mueller, also close to the centre of Austin, which replaced a former airport creating a sustainable master planned community within close proximity to the downtown.

Bianca Kucina