A Game Changer for Houston Streets

Design Workshop

Houston, Texas
By Ingrid Spencer
August 05, 2014
Photo © Dale Horchner/Design Workshop

What began as a mundane plan to make standard improvements and install a 60-inch storm water pipe below Bagby Street, a 12-block planned commuter thoroughfare in Houston’s Midtown district, has become a model for balancing automobile needs with “livable center” elements that promote walkability, community, environmentalism, and private redevelopment. In a city with a famous 7-mile air-conditioned, underground mall, this project brings Houston back to street level.

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The City of Houston and the Midtown Redevelopment Agency (MRA) hired landscape architecture and urban design firm, Design Workshop, for the task. After a traffic impact analysis it was clear that here was a chance to shift the focus from moving cars to creating a pedestrian friendly corridor that could help Houston, a city with an ozone nonattainment classification from the EPA (meaning an area that does not meet the national ambient air quality standards for ozone pollution levels), take a step toward improving its air-quality standards. “What we saw here was a dilemma and a great opportunity,” says Design Workshop principal Steven Spears, “Walkable streets and moving cars don’t play well with each other, but we were tearing up the street anyway, and the MRA believed that meeting the status quo was not acceptable.”

With the support of the City and the MRA, the team adopted a strategy based on a detailed context-sensitive analysis that identified the essential systems needed for easy auto, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian mobility. The analysis framework looked at heat island effect, land use, demographics, crosswalk distances, irrigation, on-street parking, and human comfort, including light, sound, and wind analysis, historic and cultural patterns, walking distances, and tree health.

The resulting 12 blocks were reduced from four to two traffic lanes with periodic lane turns. The new plan transformed sidewalks by creating a human-scaled mix of natural and designed elements, with each block unique yet inter-connected by like materials, that include paved sidewalks, sculptural steel bike racks, and Ipe wood and concrete seating, and tree surrounds that encourage lingering and gathering. Thirty percent of rainwater is captured in nine rainwater gardens along the 12 block expanse that feature a proprietary blend of dirt specific to that purpose, along with drought resistant plantings. Historic live oaks were given better room to flourish, and those and other native trees will provide shade for 88 percent of sidewalks when mature.

LED lighting lines the street, with bright, modern signs revealing some of the science of the sustainability achieved. “People want to know that they are part of a community that is doing good for the environment,” says Spears. Facts to be touted include information about the fly ash concrete that was used throughout the project, resulting in an avoidance of 300 tons of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere. “That’s the equivalent of the carbon emitted from 12,500 automobile miles per year for 125 years,” says Spears. Each rain garden includes a monitoring well that has reported the removal of 85 percent of total suspended solids, 75 percent of bacteria, 73 percent of phosphorus, and 93 of percent oil and grease before leaving the rain gardens.

Local businesses that complained about the nearly four-year effort are grumbling no more, as people throng the area, and new restaurants, retail, and residential mixed-use developments continue to appear. As the first Greenroads certified endeavor in Texas and its highest scoring project to date, Bagby Street ignited a noteworthy change in Houston’s urban policy, marked by Mayor Annise Parker’s announcement at the ribbon cutting to issue a Complete Streets’ executive order. (A planning and design process put forth by the National Complete Streets Coalition to make roads more safe and accessible for all users.) “As Houston works to improve our environment and quality of life, it is vital to rethink our streets,” says Laura Spanjiam, director of Houston’s office of sustainability. While Bagby is a more rigorous example, other cities have adopted Complete Streets policies including Chicago, Baltimore, San Antonio, San Diego, Sacramento, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and New Orleans. And more municipalities continue to join the fray—Design Workshop is now working on a project to similarly transform numerous blocks in the Chinatown District of Washington DC.