Architecture Stays in Motion

Solution Houston

Our love affair with the automobile has driven development to the suburb for cheaper land and lower-cost housing (because city land builds up and is more expensive). Empty nesters and baby boomers are trying live closer to arts and recreation and moving back into the urban Houston. Houston’s CityCentre is one mixed-use development that is quite pretty and a good way to consolidate many functions into one Utopian living environment. There is no zoning in Houston.
Most people are under the false perception that higher density developments create more regional traffic and parking problems than lower density developments. The fact is that higher density development generates less traffic by making walking and public transit more feasible and creating more shared parking. Ironically, sprawl also increases vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per household, negating the perceived lower cost of housing (which is the reason people moved to the suburbs in the first place). More importantly, the long term infrastructure cost of maintaining our freeways, MUD districts, sewer, water, electric service, police, fire protection and EMS is unsustainable.

Houston is one of many cities that has begun to adopt the idea of a micro-village: a living complex that serves a multitude of functions and has a strong sense of place. It fulfills all of the necessary daily needs of its residents and promotes foot traffic. It is essentially a high-density mixed use development on a scale of six to seven stories tall, with a focus on revitalizing life through aesthetics, art, and quality of living. The CityCentre, along with other recent developments in Houston, show the emergent nature of the micro-village.

CityCentre, Houston

(Resource: “Back to the City: Houston”, houston.culturemap.com)


The Details of Sprawl

Knowing a few things about sprawl can help to establish why it is such an affective topic in regional planning and urban design.

By 2000, US suburbs contained more than countryside and city put together in a span of 40  years. There is a growing diversification of suburbs Рimmigrants skip cities and go directly to exurbs (commuter town/ bedroom community/ an urban community that is primarily residential). However, less homogeneity means a less cohesive and communicative group of residents, which means that they are less efficacious and likely to effect change. Suburbs are controlled by urban city halls that largely ignore them except as generators of taxes, however.

What is the primary reason for the shift to suburbs? There are many jobs right outside the city and also the appeal of a cleaner, more pleasant environment. The development of new, attractive town centers caters to the desire for a place that looks like a city but feels like a suburb.

(Resource: “An Age of Transformation”, Economist.com 2008)

The terminology of sprawl: The capitalist nature of American society to build, use, and build anew instead of restoring and improving generates a supply of terms that are useful to the study. Large supply stores such as the Home Depot or Wal-Mart are known as ‘Big Blocks’ based on the nature of space they take up – a large, horizontally configured chunk of space in the heart of suburbia. The same stores are often known as ‘Category Killers’, driving small, local businesses out of commission by selling a larger range of items. “Greenfields” are rural land used to develop residential space and turned into a suburbia, thereby depleting a region of agricultural resources. The low albedo of asphalt causes road-abundant regions to form ‘Heat Islands”, and many projects are currently trying to divest and harvest this heat elsewhere.

One observation is that people are not dissatisfied with the way suburbia is arranged, and thus do not see a reason to take any action. Unfortunately, this type of ground development is not feasible in the long run. If the entire nation were turned into suburbs, there would still not be enough land to house the current population. Although the general population may not be concerned with the long term effects of sprawl, it is important for city governments, regional planners and architects to analyze the issue further and enact corrective practices.