Advancing the Texan City-Building Model

Houston Map - 1873Reading the recent report “The Texas Way of Urbanism” promptly reminded me of my status – twice a migrant; from small town to big city (Athens) and from big city to another country. These moves were propelled by a singular motivation: seeking opportunity to better my lot. I knew next to nothing about the cities I moved to: their shape and history, their culture, their social divisions and even language were absent from my viewfinder. All that mattered was the chance for a new start. And that’s how Texan metropolises emerge from the report’s pages – gates to opportunity. I carry this typical migrant perspective as a fact-checker to all discussions about cities – magnet-cities.

It also rekindled an irritation about how warped the conversation about cities often is; as if a group of dilettantes in a pageant give cities points and declare winners. Points are given for: “urban/suburban”, “dense/spacious”, “compact or not”, “grid or not”, “beauty/ugliness” and so on. These arbitrary, spurious abstractions do not register with the migrant – the city’s wealth generator. A professor moves to a post away from home, a multinational corporation executive to another continent, and an oil rig specialist to a small-town with black gold – they are all wealth generators; they move to pursue a goal and, in the process, they build cities unwittingly. They shape them by their actions.

In admitting that Houston “[….]is not beautiful upon first blush, nor does it offer the charm of pedestrian fancy that denser cities boast”, the report affirms that Texan cities have the right approach: first mind how to generate wealth, then empower citizens to achieve the good life. What follows is a city like no other in history, one that reflects its time, culture and values. It is not Paris, or London, or Tokyo, it is Houston or Austin. The model works. And just as all its predecessors, the new city is never static, not a stage set, it’s a movie in slow motion – it evolves.

Evolution means adaptation to new pressures. It does not have a destination, a preordained ultimate goal, or shape. In that light, it is a reactive process, constantly responding to emergent conditions.

The pressure for movement space and its distribution in cities like Barcelona is intense

From that perspective, the model that builds Texan metropolises is neither final or complete. It inevitably misses unanticipated, emergent factors that today play a role in a functioning city. It has, for sometime, incorporated responses to the pressures of a motorized economy by building infrastructure sufficient to move people and goods to their destinations and it does that better than other U.S. cities. But as the combined effects of automobility are tallied up, a new pressure point has built up. It demands an adaptation to the nature and function of non-motorized mobility and its realm – the foot realm. The pressure is not about more “beauty” or “charm” or a nostalgia for old times, it is about space: redressing the imbalance between space assigned for speeds exceeding 20 miles and space for those below. These two spaces are incompatible. A response to this pressure would add functionality to the Texan model of city making.

Redistribution of space with controls

Adaptations to rectify this imbalance need not be invented; they already exist mostly in older cities but also in Texan urban areas. However, they have been mostly sporadic and unsystematic. Nevertheless, all these case-by-case changes nurtured an appreciation for the vast improvement in the quality of the daily city experience, the heightened sociability and the intensified economic activity. In turn, this new appreciation generated greater demand for spaces and places endowed with these qualities.

Two systematic, universal versions of a layout model – call them “hybrid” grids – have appeared; one in Barcelona, Spain and the second in Calgary, Canada. One for fixing built-up areas and the other for greenfield development.

That the city of Barcelona would propose a model for transformation might have been expected. It has an expansive, regular grid that is under perilous pressure: extremely dense, congested, mired in emissions and all its surface space taken for motorized movement and parking. The only option was to reallocate the available space. And that reassignment is now underway.

A team of Barcelona planners have started the implementation of the “superilles” (superblock) model to the classic Barcelona square grid, (see drawing).

The principles underpinning the concept are simple and intuitive:

  • No through motor traffic means that streets at the walking scale (400×400 m) serve as capillaries only; they occupy the lowest rank in the network hierarchy, where circulation essentially stops. They serve the residents of a “quadrant” (or “quartier”) only, are unmistakeably local and, thanks to lighter traffic, can be made narrower, freeing up space for other functions.
  • Full accessibility for active transport within the quadrant: people circulation is switched “on” while motorized transport is “off” by means of looping cars back to its perimeter. This preferential filtering manages the permeability of the quadrant to its residents advantage. Additional switches, such as card-activated bollards and the scheduling for entry, parking and deliveries, would add accuracy and flexibility of the “on-off” switching and refine the filtering.
  • Surface space gained from the circulatory function is then assigned to nature and to recreational/social activities thereby strengthening cohesion within each quadrant.

These typical modular layouts are then applied to the entire grid of the city with appropriate modifications for circumstantial conditions.

Houston and Austin are two among many U.S. cities that sport square grids just like Barcelona’s. Houston in particular has inherited exceptional 80-foot right-of-ways that offer considerable design flexibility for rearrangement.

The adaptation that will address the imbalance between vehicular and non-vehicular space in a city is here awaiting adoption. Texan cities can advance their already effective city-building models to a higher state of completion and of responsiveness to current pressures.

Fanis Grammenos heads Urban Pattern Associates (UPA), a planning consultancy. UPA researches and promotes sustainable planning practices including the implementation of the Fused Grid, a new urban network model. He is a regular columnist for the Canadian Home Builder magazine, and author of Remaking the City Street Grid: A model for urban and suburban development. Reach him at fanis.grammenos at

Top image: Augustus Koch (1840-?). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons