The death and life of great american cities
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The Death and Life of Great American Cities. - or - How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Civic Association Meetings. Urban Renewal Theory - Basics. Attempt to revitalize urban centers 1930s – 1970s, Championed by Robert Moses His view on urban planning: “Cities are for traffic.”

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The Death and Life of Great American Cities

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The death and life of great american cities

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

- or -

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Civic Association Meetings

Urban renewal theory basics

Urban Renewal Theory - Basics

  • Attempt to revitalize urban centers

  • 1930s – 1970s, Championed by Robert Moses

  • His view on urban planning: “Cities are for traffic.”

  • Focused on economically depressed portions of cities, mainly in inner city slums

  • Promoted the building of bridges, housing projects on large campuses, sometimes with open green spaces

Urban renewal theory context

Urban Renewal Theory - Context

  • Segregation was socially and legally sanctioned

  • Racial deed restrictions on housing

  • Redlining -- a common way to restrict housing choices for many ethnic groups

Urban renewal theory results

Urban Renewal Theory - Results

  • Planners did not take into account the organic way in which cities grow to serve their residents

  • Little consideration was given to preserving businesses, leading to further economic degradation of the area

  • Bridges were built with no regard to existing neighborhoods

  • Eminent Domain was routinely used to acquire land for development

  • Promoted urban sprawl by relocating large populations

  • People were moved to projects, which were separated not only from other populations of the city, but from economic centers as well

Jane jacobs

Jane Jacobs

  • Her view on urban planning: “Cities are for people.”

  • Pro-neighborhood activist

  • Passionate critic of Robert Moses

  • “Death and Life” was one of the first critiques on Urban Renewal and still stands as one of the most influential texts on urban planning

Cities according to jacobs

Cities According to Jacobs

  • City streets and sidewalks -- make a neighborhood functional

  • Short city blocks -- encourage pedestrian travel

  • Diversity in architecture -- provides a range of rent

  • Diverse economic opportunities -- necessary for a vibrant city

City streets and sidewalks

City Streets and Sidewalks

  • Residents must feel comfortable on the streets outside their homes at all times of day

  • Sidewalk traffic and social interaction from porches promotes neighborhood security

  • When people use streets and sidewalks, they are more invested in their community and contribute to a large network of “eyes” that patrol the street.

  • Children playing on sidewalks with heavily used streets are more monitored than those playing in designated recreational/park areas

Short city blocks

Short City Blocks

  • Shorter blocks provide more route choices

  • Longer blocks result in a street being isolated. People will choose not to use a longer block because there are very few places they can choose to go

  • Short blocks allow for more social interaction and economic diversity

Diversity in architecture

Diversity in Architecture

  • Results in a neighborhood with mixed-use buildings

  • Older buildings provide units with lower rent while newer buildings provide units with higher rent.

  • Increases diversity of the neighborhood and what kind of activities the buildings are used for

Diversity in economy

Diversity in Economy

  • There must be various businesses which serve residents and visitors at all hours of the day

  • Grocery stores, industry, manufacturing, bars, clubs, restaurants, churches, schools and other uses must be present for a vibrant neighborhood

  • Some businesses will provide street traffic during the day (stores, churches, schools, offices) and some will operate at night (restaurants, clubs, bars, etc).

  • Twenty-four hour use of the streets means someone has a stake in neighborhood safety at all times and will result in better monitoring

Cities are for traffic

“Cities are for traffic.”

  • Unfortunately, this is the attitude that still exists today with urban planners, local government, and metropolitan transit authorities

  • Projects are often evaluated solely upon construction costs

  • Little importance is given to the value of businesses and residential areas when calculating project costs

Case study harrisburg underpass

Case Study -- Harrisburg Underpass

  • An underpass would:

    • Promote more activity on the street

    • Create shorter pedestrian-friendly blocks

    • Preserve historical architecture along Harrisburg

    • Encourage business

Traffic issues for the east end

Traffic Issues for the East End

  • Though we are located directly east of downtown, Highway 59 runs between our neighborhood and downtown Houston

  • We are also bordered to the south by the Gulf Freeway (US 45)

  • When 59 was first constructed, there were several streets which allowed traffic to flow from the East End to downtown

  • Because of construction of the George R. Brown Convention Center, MinuteMaid Park, and the Toyota Center, only four arterials are left open between downtown and our neighborhood

  • The city is going to build a soccer stadium in downtown, which will result in another of these arterials being closed off

  • We are concerned that traffic in and out of downtown from our neighborhood will effectively be cut off

Light rail in the east end

Light Rail in the East End

  • The Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) is also building a light rail line connecting the East End to downtown, the University of Houston, Rice University, the Medical Center, and the Galleria Area, a huge complex of stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues

  • The East End has been very supportive of the building of the light rail line, unlike some other neighborhoods in the city

  • This line will provide a needed means of transportation in and out of downtown

A picture of harrisburg

A Picture of Harrisburg

  • Harrisburg Blvd is one of the major east-west arterials of our neighborhood

  • This street is lined with mechanic shops, homeless shelters, banks, restaurants, a coffee manufacturing plant, masa factories, clothing stores, municipal works buildings, pharmacies, pawn shops, schools, dollar stores, legal offices, a dialysis clinic, tattoo parlors, and other businesses

  • Local business leaders have been pursuing development along Harrisburg that would be similar in nature to the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas. This would be a tourist destination with shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues which would be purely pedestrian in nature

Need for grade separation

Need for Grade Separation

  • We are located very close to the Houston Ship Channel, and because of this, there is a lot of freight traffic through the neighborhood

  • A Union Pacific-owned freight rail line crosses Harrisburg at street level

  • This rail line can have freight traffic at any time of day

  • There are no sidewalks and it is dangerous for pedestrians to cross here

  • If a train is sitting on the track, emergency vehicles must go out of their way to find a street with a grade separation in order to go from one side of the neighborhood to the other

  • The new construction for the light rail line has made it necessary to pursue grade separation

Underpass streets and sidewalks

Underpass: Streets and Sidewalks

  • This location will have light rail stations half a mile away in both directions

  • Perfect chance to promote pedestrian-friendly businesses (bookstores, cafes, specialty shops)

  • People who ride the light rail will not be traveling in their cars, so they will need pedestrian-friendly infrastructure

Underpass city blocks

Underpass: City Blocks

  • The underpass would be half as long as the proposed bridge

  • The bridge would create a 2000-foot-long barrier to pedestrians and residents

  • Building the bridge would require closing businesses and cutting off access to others

  • Bridges can provide shelter for people who don’t want to be seen

Underpass architecture

Underpass: Architecture

  • The underpass would work with plans to create a River Walk-type atmosphere in the neighborhood

  • Historical architecture that would need to be demolished for a bridge could be saved

Underpass economy

Underpass: Economy

  • About 30 businesses along Harrisburg would have to close in order for the bridge to be constructed

  • Bridge will shut off 2000 feet to resident/neighborhood-friendly business development (coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, parks)

  • These are the types of things which would normally be sparked by light rail investment

  • Harrisburg Merchant’s Association – have already spent $26 million rejuvenating area. Plans to spend much more.

Metro s plan

Metro’s Plan

  • Metro initially said that it would be impossible to cross the UPRR because Union-Pacific would not cooperate with them

  • They proposed that the light rail line stop at the UPRR

  • According to this plan, the Magnolia Transit Center, which is further east on Harrisburg and serves many residents of the community, would no longer connect to the light rail system

  • The community demanded that Metro design a grade separation in order to reach the transit center

Metro s solution

Metro’s Solution

  • Metro announced that the only way they could cross the UPRR was to build an overpass

  • Because the warehouses in the area need certain streets to remain open, the bridge will need to be very long

  • Because the freight trains that use the rail sometimes carry double-stacked train cars, the bridge must be tall enough to clear these

  • Because of these considerations, the bridge that Metro proposes will have to be 2000 feet long and 30 feet high

Community issues

Community Issues

  • A bridge of this nature will result in noise and air pollution being spread through the community

  • We will be left with dead space underneath the bridge which might attract homeless people who would otherwise go to one of the shelters on Harrisburg

  • There are two light rail stations being built a half-mile away from this location in both directions. It is rational to assume that if someone is riding the light rail, they won’t be driving a car

  • Traffic studies have shown that people are very reticent to walk up bridges. Pedestrian users of the light rail will most likely not use this bridge. Residents will most likely not use this bridge

  • Metro will need to demolish businesses and houses alongside the bridge

  • Businesses in the future will choose not to buy property along the overpass, resulting in economic depression

  • Because of all these reasons, the community asked Metro to consider building an underpass at this location

Metro s reply

Metro’s Reply

  • After hearing all of this, Metro responded by stating that an underpass would be “exponentially” more expensive than an overpass

  • Official quote

    • Underpass: $67 – 80 million

    • Overpass: $45 million

  • Metro refused to release any documentation on where they were getting these figures, who was providing them with these figures, or what they were basing their numbers on

A lucky break

A Lucky Break

  • The engineers at the Citizen Transportation Coalition did not think these numbers sounded accurate and began doing some research

  • They were attempting to compile estimates for similar underpasses that have been built around the country

  • What they found was a 2004 Harris County Freight Rail Grade Separation study that had been conducted on the EXACT SAME INTERSECTION and found that this location would be “ideal” for an underpass

  • Their quote for the underpass was $16 million

Metro s scare tactics

Metro’s Scare Tactics

  • Instead of reconsidering their proposal, Metro states that if an underpass is demanded, they will not continue the light rail line past the UPRR

  • Many of the civic clubs of the East End cave and release statements that the light rail is more important than the type of grade separation at the UPRR

  • Metro maintains that the overpass will not have a detrimental economic affect or change the character of the neighborhood

East end chamber of commerce

East End Chamber of Commerce

  • One of our civic club members persuades the East End Chamber of Commerce to create a Light Rail sub-committee, which consists of local business owners, community members, and representatives of the Citizen Transportation Coalition

  • The EECOC works to get a consensus among all the civic associations in the area that the underpass is the community’s preferred method of grade separation

Talks with metro

Talks with Metro

  • At this point, Metro agrees to allow our engineers to meet with Metro project heads

  • Though our engineers point out flaws in their assumptions, the Metro engineers do not revise their estimates

  • After several meetings with Metro, the community has all but conceded to the building of an overpass

Enter the media

Enter the Media!

  • I begin writing letters to every English and Spanish media organization in the city

  • The story is picked up by the Houston Press, Channel 13 Eyewitness News, and the Chronicle

  • This media attention informs many more members of our community about the issue

  • At a city council meeting in January, we make our case and gain some support from local representatives

It s also and election year

It’s Also and Election Year

  • Councilmember Peter Brown, who is running for mayor this year, decides to make this a main campaign issue

  • Brown contacts a civil engineering firm to make a more cost-effective underpass design

  • The engineers return with a new design and estimate the underpass at $52 million

More attention

More Attention

  • After an outpouring of community support for an underpass, Congressman Gene Greene says he will do all he can to get federal funding specifically for an underpass

  • Harris County’s head engineer reviews Metro’s itemized bid and notes several errors in unit prices

  • These errors resulted in Metro’s estimate for an underpass being ten to fifteen million dollars more than it should have been

Civic club meeting with metro

Civic Club Meeting with Metro

  • At our March civic association meeting, Metro made a presentation trying to convince us that there was little difference between an underpass and an overpass in terms of community impact

  • Metro could not counter arguments that the closing of businesses will result in a loss of economic development for the neighborhood and tax revenue for the city

  • The civic association adopts a resolution stating that an underpass is the only grade separation that will benefit the community

The next day

The next day…

  • The mayor calls our council member and says that an overpass is officially off the table for a grade separation.



  • Though we have not gotten Metro to commit to building an underpass yet, we are more confident than ever that we will succeed

  • Metro has shown time and again that the organization is overly concerned with the costs of the project and does not factored in the loss of business or tax revenue to its estimates

  • Metro did not take into account the affects this bridge would have on the community while it was being designed, and refused to consider another design when these issues were brought to their attention

  • Media attention was required in order to inform the community of the situation

  • Community involvement was crucial to getting local government leaders to take note of the situation

  • Local political support might have been much harder to come by if it had not been an election year



  • Instead of urban design being based on reason, logic, and the most effective ways to serve the community, we have had to go through meetings with engineers who had no intention of listening to us, community leaders who were oppositional to our cause, and constant rejection of logic and reason on the parts of Metro engineers



  • Urban design as practiced by Metro is not based on logic.

  • This organization is not swayed by reason.

  • For citizens to realize change in urban design, it is necessary to:

    • have people in the engineering field who are willing to volunteer their time for months of meetings, conceptual drawings, fact checking

    • an active civic association

    • community businesses working with residents

    • media attention

    • have the social capital required to navigate this intimidating political process

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