Photo: Dewita Soeharjono
The answer from Dr. Stephen Klineberg from his recent “Houston Area Surveys,” is a resounding yes! When asking city-dwellers of all ages, millennials, baby-boomers, generation xers, and young professionals, the answer is “yes, we are ready!” However, it is very challenging to name one truly walkable street or area in Houston. In our car-dependent city, walkability seems to have passed us by.
Why hasn’t Houston, as the 4th largest city in America, promoted places that are considered “truly walkable?” Pedestrian Pete asks, “what went wrong?” First, walkability requires strong leadership from elected officials and the Mayor’s Office, which until recently has been short on ideas and financial commitment. Worst of all is the City’s bureaucratic, Public Works “Infrastructure Design Manual,” or IDM. It prioritizes moving cars as fast as possible, while leaving walkability and cycling as a low priority. Finally, creating a walkable city requires innovation, and City Hall has failed to innovate and to plan for pedestrian places.
So, what should the City do at this point given all of the public support? Study the successes of other large cities, especially Los Angeles, Atlanta, Denver, and Oklahoma City, where brilliant and innovative urban planning has transformed the core of these cities. Note that Houston has a new Master Plan for Downtown in the works, for which walkable urbanism should be a prime objective.
Yet, can City Hall pull it off? The City of Houston has drawbacks with high speed one-way streets, which discourage ground level retail and pedestrian activities. The best example to serve as a model for Houston is LA, which over 15 years has completely transformed its downtown into an exciting walkable area for both day and night. It is an amazing transformation, anchored by a network of activity-laden promenades, brilliantly connecting a series of beautiful public squares and plazas. If you visit LA, don’t miss The Grand Central Market (amazing) and the redesigned Grand Avenue, the setting for the magnificent Disney Symphony Hall and the recently opened Broad Museum, with a world class collection of contemporary art.
Walkable urbanism in Houston depends on a set of interactive design principles:
- Wide, safe sidewalks.
- Strong support from City Hall.
- Plenty of varied destinations along the way, for all ages.
- Connections to public gathering places, plenty of people places.
- Easy transit and bikeway connections.
- Visually attractive landscaping and lighting, with plenty of shade.
- Easy public parking nearby.
- Easy direct connections to our City tunnel systems.
- Two-way streets with curbside parking.
- A minimum length of 5 to 6 contiguous blocks of pedestrian activities.
A good start for Houston would be the relatively simple action of revising our obsolete sidewalk ordinance and incorporating these principles into the Public Works. This would open the doors and provide us the steps to change the dynamics of a car-centric city. Walkable urbanism stimulates the city tax base; it attracts businesses and creates large retail shops, scale investments in office buildings and apartments. This has been the case in LA and in other large cities around the country. Why not in Houston?
Visit me at www.pedestrianpete.com