De-Sprawling Houston

Galina Tachieva & Tom Low

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Ever since post-war communities like Levittown and the advent of cheap gasoline, the suburban model has been one built around the automobile. But that model may be changing, even in the sprawling suburbs of Houston. Old strip malls and shopping centers are being retrofitted into walkable town centers, and high density, pedestrian-friendly enclaves, where people can live, shop,  and grab a bite to eat, are popping up around the region. I sat down with two sustainable development experts, Galina Tachieva and Tom Low, to talk about this move to urbanize the suburbs. They're in Houston today to lead an urban planning workshop, where they'll talk about how their ideas can be applied to Houston. (You can listen to the interview over at KUHF News.)

Wendy: Galina Tachieva, you wrote a book called The Sprawl Repair Manual. In the book you give a lot of examples of how to turn sprawling, suburban areas -- where people have to depend on cars -- into pedestrian-oriented places where there’s a mix of residential, business, and retail. Why is that a better solution for what exists in Houston now?

Galina: In Houston there are many examples of places which are entirely auto-oriented. We call them sprawl patterns. And they’re actually typical, not only for Houston, they’re typical and normative and standard for the rest of the country. And so we believe that some of these places have out-lived their kind of life. And it would be much better if they are turned into mix-use and walkable places. Right now they are single use.

Wendy: Why is that better?

Galina: Because these places — single family residential developments, or the typical malls, shopping centers, office parks — they are single-use, very auto-oriented, separated pods of development. And they need to be rebalanced with different uses so people can walk to destinations.

Wendy: But certainly there are still a lot of people who want the two-story house, the big yard, in quiet suburbia.

Galina: These neighborhoods are not going anywhere; they will be basically readily available. And there will be still probably more construction, but this comes together with the ability to “amenitize” them, to create additional things which are going to improve people’s lives, and quality of lives. If people have their house, and have their yard, and love their privacy, but they’re also able to go around the corner and have a cup of coffee and socialize, grab a newspaper, or enjoy a book at a bookstore, then it becomes a much better environment.

Wendy: Tom Low, your book is called the Light Imprint Handbook. What is light imprint?

Galina and TomTom: The term light imprint basically means ‘laying lightly on the land.’ And that’s where the name came from, it’s just thinking that way. Respecting the natural drainage and topography in a way that actually makes more sense. People think, 'Well that sounds like it’s more expensive.' But we’re finding out is, that because we’re actually using less land, we’re actually connecting things in a better way, we’re actually figuring out that it’s actually less expensive to do, and it’s better for the environment, and a growing number of people really want to live in places like this. So it’s really a win-win-win opportunity.

Wendy: In your book you offer a lot of case studies of sustainable practices from all around the developed world, from Italy to Tennessee. How does Houston compare on a global level?

Tom: For the most part, Houston was and continues to develop on a suburban model. What’s going to happen in the future is that there’s going to be less interest in living in suburbia and more interest to live in walkable, compact, connected communities. And therefore, the cities that will thrive in the 21st century are the ones that actually deliver that in a cohesive way. So, in a sense, Houston has a pretty significant challenge ahead of itself as opposed to some of the older cities which were built on more traditional bones.