Lisa Gray writes about a guy who thinks Houston’s streets could be much more user friendly if only we tried a little harder to make them be.
“Houston’s streets behave like alleys,” Nathan Norris shouted to the 20 or so people who followed him like ducklings, single file, on Jackson Hill Street’s skinny sidewalk.
Norris is a professional urban scold, a consultant for the town-planning firm Placemakers, who travels the country telling developers, neighborhood groups and cities what they can do to improve their street life.
He gestured, disgusted, at what he saw on Jackson Hill — a prosperous-looking residential street. It’s part of fast-growing Super Neighborhood 22, the area around Washington Avenue’s clubs and restaurants.
But Jackson Hill is not a street where you want to linger.
“I have traveled far and wide, and I have never run across a city that has as much unmet potential as Houston,” Norris wrote. “And the funny thing is that it would take such a minor change for Houston to reach its potential.
“Imagine New York, Chicago or L.A. trying to undo its business-unfriendly culture. That is not going to happen anytime soon. Dallas and Austin are not going to grow a port.
“But Houston could simply tweak some minor functional design regulations, and the developers would start building beautiful places that could provide Houston a vibrancy and hipness that would attract the next generation of leading professionals.”
I like what he’s saying, but I have two simple questions: What exactly are the simple tweaks that need to be done to make Houston’s streets better? And how do they affect existing streets where there’s unlikely to be much new housing construction?
Documenting the problem is easy enough, and Gray quotes Norris at length: Skinny sidewalks (where they exist at all), lack of trees, and utility pole obstruction. I figure a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are a few I snapped on Jackson Hill the other day.
That’s a block south of Washington at the corner of Jackson Hill and Lilian Street; a parking lot for Patrenella’s is right behind where I’m standing. Talk about useless – anyone walking this way will have to take the street, which could be dangerous that close to a busy road like Washington. There were plenty of other examples, all on the same (east) side of the street, or utility poles getting in the way.
I guess utility poles have to go somewhere, but is this the middle of the sidewalk really the best place for them?
At least on the corners there are some limited options for working around the problem.
These metal poles were incredibly tall, much taller than any of the houses in the area. I guess they kind of hide their ugly mess of wires by being too high up for most people to notice, but they sure do take up a lot of space.
Go ahead, get past that on the sidewalk. I double dog dare you.
The solution to this problem is obvious enough: Bury the utility lines so you can lose the poles. Bingo, you get better sidewalks, more room for trees (whose branches won’t need to be trimmed to avoid interfering with utility wires), and no blackouts due to downed power lines during nasty storms. Remember how some parts of town didn’t lose power during Hurricane Ike? What they all had in common was buried power lines.
How to pay for all that is another question, but at least we know what to do. The problem is that at least in this area, Jackson Hill is an exception. It has sidewalks and curbs (no drainage ditches), and is wide enough to accommodate street parking without making the street impassable when two cars approach from opposite directions. Compare Jackson Hill to Snover Street, two blocks west:
You can actually envision Jackson Hill as a better, more pedestrian-friendly street, once you remove the poles and widen the sidewalks. There’s room to do all that and not make the streets a choke point. Can you do the same here?
That’s Snover Street, which is narrower, has a sidewalk on only one side, has no curbs, and has a drainage ditch. Filling in the drainage ditch and installing another sidewalk with curbs on each side of the street would help, but it’s not clear you want to encourage street parking on this narrow roadway. And a lot of the other streets in the area are worse. Try navigating Malone, where the Beer Can House is, for example. How do you deal with streets that are too narrow to accommodate the addition of sidewalks?
That’s the crux of my question. How do you retrofit these ideas into existing neighborhoods? If we were to tear Houston down and rebuild it all from scratch, it would be easy to install better streets. What do we do with what we’ve got? How practical is it, and how expensive? I’m all in favor of adopting better standards for new development – there’s certainly no reason to keep making the same mistakes if we don’t have to – but we should recognize the limited extent to which that would transform Houston. Even when that new development takes place in the existing urban core where you’d really like to have it, the positive effect will be mitigated as soon as it runs into a typically pedestrian-unfriendly bordering development. Still better than nothing, but color me less optimistic than Nathan Norris.
Anyway. I haven’t spent any time researching this myself, and maybe if I’d attended Norris’ presentation he’d have answered all of my annoying questions. I didn’t really expect an answer in an 800-word article. But these are the things I think about when I hear someone talk about transforming Houston’s streets, and they’re the things that I think about when I start daydreaming about a more robust light rail network. I hope someone has better answers to these problems than I do.