Small and Collective: A Case for Resilience Action in the City of Houston

Estefania Barajas, Graduate Student, Department of Architecture

“The story of Harvey, Houston and the city’s difficult path forward is a quintessentially American tale. Its sprawl of highways and single-family homes is a postwar version of the American dream, the very forces that pushed the city forward are threatening its way of life...”

—Michael Kimmelman, New York Times

According to the National Hurricane Center, Harvey caused $125 billion in damage. As we experienced a few months ago, in addition to flooding, Texas has revealed its fragility in terms of energy and water infrastructure—adding to the list of precarities that extend the effects of race, gender, and economic inequality. In addition to the lack of climate action on behalf of the state, the challenges are inherent to the fabric of Houston—a product of urban sprawl; a car-centric metropolis—an overflowing landscape of impermeable surfaces across the city.

The obstacles carry a multitude of scales: regional, local and individual. (a) The problem can be approached as selves, making changes to buildings, or components that relate to rain and flooding; (b) the problem can be approached as infrastructure, a common consignment.

In the essay "From-Ubi-to-Ubu: The Case for Universal Basic Urbanism," Ginger Nolan, an Assistant Professor of Architectural History and Theory at the University of Southern California, makes a case for promoting and re-investing in both the collective and individual scale. In her essay, she describes Universal Basic Income (UBI) as an inherent response to some of the shifts in technology (machine automation in manufacturing, service, administrative, food processing, and even agriculture) that have produced unemployment throughout the world. She suggests that one way to "contest an erosion of popular political power is to shift focus away from individuals’ rights toward the rights of (and to) the city—that is, toward collective, locally nuanced, and small-scale forms of self-determination".

This research will be studying at both the "urban" and personal scale Nolan suggests, and propose a series of small and collective urban interventions to improve existing monofunctional infrastructures in the city of Houston. In response to the article, the motivation is not just to prepare for expected labor, climatic, and economic shifts, but to improve the existing conditions. In a state of the temporal, what modifications can be employed to help alleviate some of the problems within the existing fabric of the city?

This project will map and help visualize potential changes in the urban form and planning of Houston. The research will generate a matrix—a syntax of "tweaks" that can help gain resiliency and identify areas of opportunity and will quantify the problem and the percentage of improvement. The study will identify FEMA projects throughout time and estimate exiting conditions such as sqft miles of asphalt, sqft miles of highways, amount of swimming pools, and green spaces. Furthermore, the research will envision the following: parking lots as solar energy hubs, roofs for water collection, schools as shelter, and abandoned properties as temporary green spaces.