Yesterday, METRO Houston hosted a blogger luncheon, allowing a number of Houston's transportation, design and urbanist bloggers to meet with Carrin Patman, METRO's newly appointed chairwoman. The group included Raj Mankad from Rice University's Cite, D...
A parking lot along Austin Street in Downtown Houston, a few blocks from Minute Maid ParkAs the Houston Astros played their home opener this past week against the defending World Series-winning Kansas City Royals, america's pastime was restored. No, no...
artblockshouston.orgThis Saturday Houston's own The Suffers will be headlining The Big Bash, a celebration commemorating the inauguration of Art Blocks at Main Street Square in Downtown Houston.Art Blocks Houston is an effort by the Houston Downtown Management District to further activate and utilize the area of Main Street between Dallas Street and Walker Street through the installation of public art. The Downtown District notes that "From lessons learned about public art's capacity to awaken change in areas that have not yet realized their full potential, Art Blocks strives to enliven Main Street Square." A number of art selections have been placed along Main Street, which also recently saw physical improvements to its streetscape (As did Dallas Street.)Main Street Square was completed in 2004 in conjunction with the opening of Houston's Red Line light rail. In 2004, Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin visited Houston near the time that the city was hosting the Super Bowl. He noted the contrast of Houston's development in 2004 compared to that of the oil boom in the 1980's. A portion of Kamin's review includes an emphasis on public spaces, and a mention of Main Street Square, Houston's pedestrian mall. Kamin notes that "Of course, lots of pedestrian malls, like the one on State Street that Chicago got rid of in the mid-1990s, have flopped. Yet this one may have a happier fate." Kamin goes on to say that "Of course, one vibrant pedestrian mall will not make Houston a Paris on the prairie." But, the rest of his review, which consisted of commentary surrounding Houston's then-recently-opened light rail, was complementary.As noted in the summer 2004 edition of the Rice Design Alliance's Cite magazine, Main Street Square is a small remnant of the Making Main Street Happen design competition that led designers Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn to create a master plan for Main Street. (A 1999 Cite article gives even more information behind Houston's Main Street Coalition and Main Street design). Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn might be best known for their design of New York City's Battery Park City. A 2000 Main Street Coalition Strategic Plan for the area re-emphasizes the desire and recognition of public art in maintaining vibrant public spaces, especially one that lies within the geographic center of Downtown Houston.As many Houstonians know, there are many parts of Downtown Houston that are alive during the 9 to 5 workday, then seemingly become desolate. Main Street is becoming increasingly busy with the addition of new bars and restaurants, but this is primarily north of Main Street Square, whose blocks become a bit desolate as evening sets. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that a number of the blockfaces contain buildings without any active public spaces, or without retail that is open after the work day.Given its somewhat desolate nature at night, Main Street Square has also been home to a number of people loitering, further keeping people away from its pedestrian plaza. The blocks between Dallas Street and McKinney Street have little to attract anyone to it, aside from a few ledges which to sit. The only retail spaces are Corner Bakery Cafe that sits at the corner of McKinney and Main Street, and is open weekdays from 6:30 AM to 4 PM, and the Main Food Store. The result, a fairly isolated landscape outside of the business day.Back to the topic of Art Blocks; The Downtown District further provides that "Pop up performances, interactive experiences and community festivals will add to a schedule of events that complements the spirit of the major public art commissions." This is important, as many successful public spaces rely on something to attract people to them, usually programming and activities. This is known as triangulation.William Whyte's The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces addresses this issue, providing that triangulation is one of the effective ingredients for a successful, social public space. Triangulation brings the passerby into a space. It connects people to places. That is what Art Blocks aims to do.As I mentioned in a previous post looking at the design of Houston Center, we've looked to our bayous as conduits of activity and vitality. We're rightfully restoring them, attracting a variety of users. William Whyte would also contend that the same should be applied to city streets. He says, "The street is the river of life of the city. They come to these places not to escape it, but to partake of it."So Houston, get out and enjoy your streets, enjoy some art, and enjoy your public places. Let's hope that this is another example to prove Kamin's 2004 hunch; that Houston's public places can continue to become the places they were envisioned to be.Help us celebrate #ArtBlocksHou at Main Street Square on Sat 4/16 with art, food & music! https://t.co/AjireqlrpO pic.twitter.com/NAcdc0Kc1W— Downtown Houston (@DowntownHouston) April 14, 2016
Over the past week or so some might have noticed that the Twitter account for Houston's METRO system had started tweeting bus delays. Until then, only a few rail line service announcements made their way into the Twittersphere. Now, after a week or so of service announcements on their main Twitter handle, the agency has employed a separate Twitter account, @METROHouAlerts, to keep riders aware of bus, rail and HOV/HOT lane delays or service announcements. (I had a draft post earlier in the week that recommended creating a separate service announcement account, but METRO beat me to it!)Tweets by @METROHouAlerts It may not mean much of anything to most, but this is certainly new, and is reflective of the growing desire of METRO to better inform its customers and provide increased customer service. One might ask whether this process is practical for individual bus routes, especially those that are infrequent. Who am I to decide? What's the proper service tweeting etiquette? This has the ability to unravel into a Seinfeld-like discussion about "over-tweeters". Maybe the delay notices are needed on frequent routes like the 82 that are the backbone of METRO's bus system.On a normal day though, it could be questioned how necessary or effective the notices are, especially when METRO readily provides notice on their TRIP application, and through the agency's text updates, personalized to each bus stop. It seems that riders may be apt to rely on notices through those services.Now, METRO's Twitter account is a relative lightweight at 7,400 followers when compared to other metropolitan transit systems. (And as of Sunday night, just over 100 people have followed the @METROHouAlerts account). This is likely indicative of METRO's ridership share as well. Do the majority of METRO's riders even use Twitter? I'd argue no, not many do. Or, maybe not enough to warrant real-time system delay announcements on their main feed.Chicago's @CTA account has 102,000 followers. The CTA doesn't separate service alerts from their general tweets, something that many other agencies do. The Bay Area is a bit different. San Francisco's @SFBART account has 136,000 followers. San Francisco's @SFBARTalert account has over 48,000 followers by itself. Houston's METRO is moving toward this model, separating general information from service announcements. DART in Dallas also employs a separate alert account. You could also take an ultra-tailored social media approach, as the Philadelphia area's SEPTA has, customizing riders' Twitter feeds with accounts for each trolley, regional rail (come on Houston!), and subway line. This account from Boston's MBTA gives some background into how their agency benefited from some civic hacking, allowing for the creation of individualized service announcement Twitter accounts for the agency's most popular transit lines.I know that Houstonians are often quick to point out that Houston shouldn't be compared to other large cities. "We're different and unique." Well, yes. But we're the 4th largest city in the country. The unincorporated areas of Harris County, many of which are service by METRO, would be considered one of the most populous cities in the country by itself. So, there are many people who rely on public transit, and likely desire to continue to gain more and more information on a system that they depend on. (There was a 3% increase in METRO's local bus service from January 2015 to January 2016.)Do Twitter updates of delays make the system more enticing or appealing? Possibly. I doubt that anyone will decide to use METRO simply because of the fact that they provide service updates through social media. I think there's a greater stigma toward public transit here in Houston that will extend beyond being relevant on social media. But, as an agency, METRO is attempting to do all it can to be sure that once someone rides their network for the first time they are presented with as much information as possible, and their travel experience is one worth repeating.METRO continues to make improvements to their community engagement, and I believe it will pay dividends as the agency looks forward as to how to better serve their customers. Providing riders with continued information about delays is just another way METRO is displaying its desire to provide continuously improving customer service.
As I begin to prepare to take the AICP exam, the American Planning Association's professional institute, I was again reminded of the fantastic work of William H. Whyte (1917-1999). To those outside of the urban planning field, the name might not ring a bell, but, you've probably been influenced by his work. He spent much of his life studying corporate norms and organizational structures. While writing for Fortune Magazine, Whyte coined the term "Groupthink". After releasing his 1956 book The Organization Man, Whyte turned his attention to cities.Whyte took to studying how people use our cities; how they interact with one another, with their environment. The Project for Public Spaces notes that "What emerged through his intuitive analysis is an extremely human, often amusing view of what is staggeringly obvious, but often goes unnoticed, about people’s behavior in public spaces." I agree.The Social Life of Small Urban SpacesIn his work The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte studies how New Yorkers use plazas and open spaces. These were plazas that were provided by builders in exchange for increased floor area ratios. Builders installed more plazas, but what resulted was empty spaces. Whyte is famous for his quote, "It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished." Turns out, there were many spaces that were built that actually repelled people. The same holds true today.The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces: William H. Whyte from Nelly Oli on Vimeo.Some plazas did have lots of people though. So, Whyte and his research team went to work to figure out what made them work. The Planning Commission of New York City claimed that if Whyte and his team could create a set of factual claims, that they would alter the open space requirements contained in the city's zoning code.We’re reminded that small public spaces offer places to gather and rest, but almost more importantly, draw our attention and eyes to the city. They’re welcoming, unlike a great deal of urban buildings that brutally reject the cityscape with solid, blank walls. The main activity in plazas and open spaces, claims Whyte, is simply people looking at other people.Whyte’s team set out to provide recommendations to New York City’s Planning Commission regarding open spaces. Their first recommendation was to provide sittable space in open areas at the rate of one linear foot per 30 square feet. At the 13:28 mark, Whyte gives a snarky description of a bench:This artifact is a design object, the purpose of which is to punctuate architectural photographs. It has some utility as a bench, but it is usually placed in isolation. And the dimensions are exquisitely wrong. Not just for physical reasons, as important as they may be. Small benches are socially awkward. If there’s a crowd, people will sit, but they’re not very relaxed about it.It's not an intellectual bombshell, as Whyte quips, but people tend to sit where there are places to sit. And for that matter, people tend to gather where there are places to gather. Whyte's first recommendation to New York's Planning Commission was that there be one linear foot of sitting space per 30 square feet of open space.Whyte’s team also considered a concern of the New York City Planning Commission: How many people is too many in a plaza or open space? “If plazas were made more inviting, might not they attract so many people as to be foul?” So, they studied 10 places. They found that each place had its own effective capacity. People could instinctively tell how many people were too many during normal use. (This rule can be thrown out the window for special events). They also noted that plazas and open spaces should not be sunken. There may be some activity, but most occurs at street level.Houston CenterAt the 25:18 of Whyte's film, he comments on Houston's Houston Center. At this time, it was a newly completed structure. The claims of the development of the Houston Center likely rival what Whyte thought was important in cities. Houston Center was billed as "what a city should be", a self-contained "total environment" complete with "high-rise and low-rise buildings, two 1,000 room hotels, 3-5 motels, apartments, commercial facilities, public plazas and building support uses. It was intended to incorporate "all forms of public and private transit, both vertical and horizontal."Whyte comments:We’ve been looking at places that work with the street. Now let’s look at a directly contrary approach; the self-contained mega structure. These are a sort of urban fortress. Their common denominator is that they take you away from the street. Here, at Houston Center, you’re going up, up, up. The plazas and the terraces are two and three levels above the street. From the street you are completely insulated. You can drive from the suburbs in the morning, into that garage there, walk through the skyways to the office, and spend the whole day without ever having to set foot in Houston at all. This is its streetscape. No stores, no windows. Not many pedestrians, either, for that matter. Street level is for cars. The one activity is a bank window for people in cars.Whyte's criticism for Houston Center is warranted. It is a fortress and isolated from street level. There's a near brutal rejection of the street. It was, however, designed as part of a larger Houston Center that was imagined but never (thankfully) realized. Other parts of downtown Houston do provide inviting public spaces. But, it seems the number of those that do is less than those that do not. Entire city blocks devoted to parking or a single building do not readily offer an inviting public experience. It'd be interesting to see what Whyte would have to say in the present day. He'd probably be surprised to know that the bank at Houston Center is still in operation. And, somewhat ironically, there is record of people sitting out in front of the bank on its planters.As Whyte goes on, he mentions a key person in public spaces: the undesirable. Whyte says “It is for fear of him that spikes are put on ledges, benches made too short to sleep on. In actual fact, these people are harmless and sometimes very well-behaved. Most often, they are to be found in the places that other people are not.” (I suppose this has some reflection on the design of our city’s small public spaces. Ledges also receive those bumps to prevent skateboarding.) Related to this topic, Whyte suggests that spaces be open to the street and without a fence. With these, there's a feeling of entrapment.Then there are the people who do odd things, like drumstick. In many ways the odd people do a service for the rest of us. They reassure us of our own normality. In well used public places people are tolerant of the odd ones. Life goes on with little fuss or trouble.Here is a pigeon lady: every square should have one.Effective Ingredients for a Successful, Social Public SpaceWhyte highlights a few things that every public space should have:Sun – Successful spaces should have a warmth about them and be naturally lit, as much as possible. Many times this can be indirect due to reflections off of other buildings.Water – The sound of it, accessibility to it; either way, have it! Fountains, sprays, brooks. Opening up our downtowns to waterways (San Antonio’s Riverwalk) can pay dividends. Houston certainly has not taken advantage of its position near Buffalo Bayou, but there are a great number of fountains or pools downtown breaking up the noise of the city.Trees – Whyte asks "Why haven’t we planted more?" Trees reduce glare index and cool our cities. The recommendation is to plant them in small groves, creating a defined canopy. Thankfully, Houston has a great deal of street trees, even within our downtown.Food – If you want to see a place with activity, put in food. Almost every lively plaza, you’ll find a pushcart vendor. The vendors provide a service that people want. This is similar to Houston’s food trucks. It wasn't until 2014 that they were allowed to operate Downtown (where a large number of people are). Houston still does not allow food push carts (except ice cream treats). It’s not to be forgotten, as Whyte notes, that these food stations not only provide a service that people want (food), but a social rendezvous. “People who eat usually attract far more people.” Now, Jones Plaza in Downtown Houston is hosting the Theater District Houston's Food Truck Tuesday. Jones Plaza will now have many more people in it on Tuesdays, all thanks to food trucks.Triangulation – This is a characteristic of a public space that brings people in, brings them together. It could be a mime, a street performer, a sculpture, public art, something of the sort. Whyte features Jean Dubuffet’s Group of Four Trees sculpture in New York’s Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza. People are drawn to the sculpture. They touch it, walk under it, stand around it. Again, much like food carts or trucks, sculptures provide the connection between a public space and its people. If the Group of Four Trees looks familiar, it’s because Houston is home to a Dubuffet piece, Monument Au Fantome, which is found at the eastern end of Discovery Green. A bit hidden near the parking garage of Discovery Green, the sculpture will surely see a greater number of visitors.Many of the recommendations made by Whyte and his team were included in the zoning ordinance of New York City. Of note, the zoning ordinance mandated that 50% of a building’s frontage must be for retail activity. Plazas could not be set more than 3 feet above or below grade level, easily accessible to all. These were factors that Whyte found created spaces and places people would use. Not to be forgotten, Whyte covers the idea of scale. The sprawl of squares or public spaces can render them useless.Whyte closes with a thought from Frederick Law Olmstead, noting that Central Park should be a great gathering place for all kinds of people, then goes on to highlight some of the country’s best public spaces. Cincinnati’s Fountain Square is billed as possibly the best public square in the country, as it has a close relationship with the surrounding streets. It is well-enclosed by surrounding buildings and provides a variety of choices of sitting spaces, activities and food options. But, the most important thing about this plaza is its relationship to the downtown district as a whole: it’s in the center of town, not on its periphery. It’s a unifying place.In a recent Strong Towns article, Charles Marohn sums up the wealth that is found in experiences, which is applicable to our cities. Marohn says:"When we focus exclusively on stuff – landing the new big box store, building the new interchange, how many cars we can park – we meet a certain human compulsion for advancement. It feels like progress to the cold, rational parts of our brains. When we focus on experiences, however, we bind people to a place. And to each other. When we make that park pleasant to stroll through, when we make that street safe to cross, when we make that public building impressive to look at, we’re connecting our civic improvements to the more powerful parts of our brains, the part that values experiences over material goods. And these bonds run deep, last forever and are easily transferred to others. In short, when we build a city worth experiencing, we’re building a place that has enduring wealth."Houston is doing a much better job in creating the type of places that attract people. But we need even more sticky places! For what it's worth, I think that Jones Plaza, when compared to Fountain Square in Cincinnati, could be the same for Houston. This is especially true if the park is ever able to re-create itself as presented by Houston First.We've looked to our bayous as conduits of activity and vitality. We're rightfully restoring them, attracting a variety of users. William Whyte would also contend that the same should be applied to city streets. He says, "The street is the river of life of the city. They come to these places not to escape it, but to partake of it." Below are screen captures of Houston Center from its inclusion in "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces". Following those are some pictures from the present day.
The American Planning Association’s Texas Chapter will host “The Texas Big Six: Make No Small Plans” workshop on Friday, March 4th at the Texas State Capitol Building in Austin, Texas. Texas is channeling its inner Daniel Burnham. The Chicago architect responsible for 1909's The Plan of Chicago never uttered the exact words that are the theme of the 2016 Texas Big Six workshop, but the idea sets a guide for the future of the six largest cities in Texas.In 2014 the American Planning Association's Houston Section hosted "The Texas Big Six 2040 - Conversations about Our Future", where the planning directors from Texas' six largest cities (Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio) addressed the major plans, policies, and projects that will shape the livability, resiliency, and competitiveness of these cities and each region's future.The biennial event is back for 2016, with each planning director discussing the “game changers” in their cities and regions that will improve or enhance the transportation, housing, economic development, environment, public health, and culture of their respective cities. The event is a unique time for planners, engineers, designers, architects and students to openly discuss the major issues of their cities. The conversation that takes place, and the understanding of how other cities in a region or state respond to challenges, is tremendously valuable.A Thursday, March 3, 2016 evening happy hour with workshop attendees will be hosted at III Forks Steakhouse in Austin. Friday, March 4, 2016 will feature the all-day event from 8:30 AM to 4:00 PM.The event's keynote speaker is Steve Cover, who serves as the Director of the Department of Community Planning, Housing, and Development in Arlington County, Virginia. Mr. Cover previously served as the Director of Planning and Community and Economic Development for the city of Madison, Wisconsin.As we look forward to the event, it's interesting to know what might be some of the major topics discussed by each planning director, or topics that may be brought up by planners or others at the event. Here's a look at some possible topics: (Graphics are from the event's program.)A few weeks ago Alana Semuels published an article at The Atlantic titled "El Paso's Uphill Battle Against Sprawl". Like other sunbelt cities, El Paso grapples with its sprawl.El Paso is now served by bus rapid transit. We may get an update as to how the region and city are reacting to the BRIO service.When Fort Worth turned down the possibility of a streetcar, the bus service that has followed may not be where residents need it to be.In 2015 Fort Worth signed on to be a part of the Blue Zones Project, aimed to promote healthier lifestyles and increase health of residents. Fort Worth is the largest city to sign on to this initiative.Fort Worth's Mayor, Betsy Price, was featured on Fox Business, highlighting her "rolling town hall meetings", where Price encourages "city residents to participate in their local government while getting active."Austin recently approved changes to the city's accessory dwelling units, opening the possibility to more housing.Austin's rapid growth comes with traffic. And more roads. But is more pavement the answer? Some suggest that there's no place to go but up. Austin's growth and resolve to be one of the most efficient cities in terms of emissions and waste poses a great challenge in the future.Parking minimums in Austin are posing challenges to providing affordable housing, especially for student housing near the University of Texas. Will parking minimums in increasingly urban areas be reassessed?As Austin changes, some are embracing that change, and others oppose it. The YIMBY crowd is growing in Austin.As some in Dallas have fought highway expansion, other parts are preparing for it.While Houston has been celebrated for METRO's New Bus System, others around the country are taking notice, including Dallas.I'm sure parking minimums will be brought up. Dallas and Houston are likely the leading candidates for that topic of discussion.Dallas has boasted an increase in downtown apartment construction, even claiming to out-pace apartment construction in Downtown Houston.San Antonio continues to add residents to its urban core, including affordable, workforce housing. Major developments, like the Pearl Brewery, are boosting tourism.With all this growth, dog parks are inevitable. Residents are crowdfunding to build one in San Antonio's Maverick Park.Will the city's continued annexation policies be something it can afford? The city's police union says the department and the city are not equipped to provide service to an increasingly growing area.As the urban core of San Antonio grows, the city's transit agency, VIA, is looking to change several of its routes, better connecting major destinations.The Great American Cooking Story "explores urban change through the lens of restaurant owners in the heart of neighborhoods that are in varying degrees of revitalization." San Antonio is featured.Plan Houston was recently approved and adopted by Houston City Council. This is the city's first general plan.Houston's METRO agency adopted a new bus network in 2015. The result was more frequent routes covering a larger portion of the city. The changes have boosted ridership. Nearly 5,000 housing units have been, or are being constructed, in Downtown Houston, largely due to the Downtown Living Initiative. Some challenge that this was an opportunity to add workforce housing in the city.The City of Houston is in the process of finalizing the Houston Bike Plan. A draft plan has been released and is currently seeking public input. It's the city's first bicycle planning activity since 1993. The goal is that “By 2026, the City of Houston will be a Safer, More Accessible, Gold Level Bike-Friendly City”.Texas cities continue to grow, and there's no sign that this growth is going to slow down any time soon. Planners must continue to grow in their knowledge and understanding of cities, and how they might be able to share information that serves other cities. All of our cities have big plans, but sharing our challenges and experiences might be the biggest magic to stir us toward greater city building.Tickets will be available at the event on Friday, March 4th, but attendees may not be guaranteed lunch due to advance catering arrangements. For more information please visit the event's Eventbrite page. The event’s program and agenda can be viewed here.