Houston Gets a Transit-Oriented Development Spark


In recent years, Houston has been straining against its reputation as a car-crazy city and rethinking neighborhood connectivity. The big Houston transportation story of 2014 was the opening of three new light-rail lines, expanding on the success of the original Red Line through downtown to reach out to the East End, Southeast and Near Northside. In 2015, the overnight overhaul of Houston’s entire bus system to better connect outer neighborhoods — without going through downtown — lapped upheadlines. This year, the completion of the Houston Bike Plan could start the process of making cycling safer and more complementary with bus and rail commutes.

Last week, 45 young urban leaders from around the world saw this evolution-in-progressfirsthand. They were selected to attend Next City’s annual Vanguard conference, which brings a new group of changemakers to a different city every year. What stays the same: the Big Idea Challenge. As at past conferences in Reno and Chattanooga, the Vanguards split into teams to create a winning proposal around a specific theme. In Houston, the 2016 Vanguard class looked at five underutilized properties (find full descriptions here) to consider ideas for making them useful to nearby residents. Each of the five teams talked with stakeholders to better understand the needs of the surrounding neighborhood. After a site visit and two days of brainstorming, the teams publicly presented their visions at Houston’s Discovery Green park on Friday night. Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, which hosted the Vanguard conference, and Next City will work together to implement their idea with the support of a $10,000 grant from Kinder.

Each of the five sites, located in neighborhoods across the city and in varying states of disuse or disrepair, presented its own problems. One team was tasked with activating the space around the historic Rufus Cage Elementary School in the East End neighborhood, a food desert with a dearth of green space and informal education opportunities. Another focused on a green space that has deep significance to the adjacent SHAPE Community Center but is in need of a more cohesive design and better connections to both the surrounding streets and the African-American cultural center next door.

After the presentations, the judges named the “Little Oasis” plan as the winner. That team had been charged with coming up with an idea for a 2,400-square-foot wedge of land on the Near Northside that had been used to store equipment during the light-rail expansion.

“We were actually skeptical going to such a small piece of land,” says Vanguard Rohit Malhotra, executive director of Atlanta’s Center for Civic Innovation and member of the winning team. But when the group met with City Council Member Karla Cisneros, who represents the district in which the plot is located, “her passion [for this small piece of land] was pretty contagious,” says Malhotra. “She talked about it as part of something so much bigger.”

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