Houston Spotlights: Designing for Change and Resiliency

by Julia Marchetti, Division Fellow, 2019-2020

Designing for Change: Houston's CDRC

Through design, research, education, and practice, the Community Design Resource Center, or CDRC, seeks to enhance the quality of life for low-to-moderate income communities in Houston, Texas. By providing the necessary framework and planning skills, this practical research arm of the University of Houston helps communities plan for themselves by aiding in the setting of goals, visioning, and implementation strategies. Over the past decade, they have engaged more than 100 students in community-based learning projects, and partnered with more than 500 residents and stakeholders to produce four public design exhibitions and eight publications. Their work spans community and economic development, commercial-corridor revitalization, resilience planning in the wake of hurricane Harvey, the reimagining of a historic park, the development of an urban-design toolkit for the community, and research into spatial inequities and public health.

Most relevant to this Division is their Animating History public-art installation. Through an interdisciplinary approach, graphic design and architecture students from the University of Houston preserved the history of Houston’s Third Ward by placing twenty-two life-size map pins along the Dowling Street Corridor where former establishments had once been (Note 1). In this way, the students democratized historic markers by honoring sites that may not necessarily be “architecturally significant,” but are undoubtedly of significance to the community. As havens for entrepreneurship for the marginalized, commercial corridors are often the backbone of communities. Projects such as these push the limits of traditional preservation by attempting to create proxies for what was lost. The case of bygone commercial corridors begs the question: how can historic preservation be used as a tool for community empowerment and business preservation? Is it the responsibility of preservationists to go beyond documenting stories and protecting materials and shifting the field in the direction of preserving entire urban ecosystems?

Designing for Resiliency: Recovering from Disaster in Houston

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Congress allocated 5.2 billion dollars to the State of Texas. The City of Houston was given local control over $1.15 billion of that funding. This local control allowed the City to make sure that federal funds would be directed in the most useful and efficient way towards remediation efforts. In order for the Local Action Plan and resulting Disaster Recovery Programs to adequately address the concerns of the community, the City needed to partner with equity-minded planners and designers to perform meaningful community engagement. Established in Dallas in 2005, the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP [bc] is a Texas-based community design nonprofit with offices in Houston, Brownsville, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. Through intentional engagement and thoughtful design and making, [bc] seeks to design for justice by improving the livability and viability of communities. [bc] worked alongside the CDRC as well as Houston’s Housing and Community Development Department to organize what was the largest community engagement effort to date in the city. Through a combination of public meetings, an online survey, and a tele-townhall co-hosted with AARP, the partners engaged with over 4,500 Houstonians. Through a series of interactive mapping exercises and conversations, the groups collected data concerning residents’ personal circumstances and needs since Harvey. While these discussions were geared towards understanding deficits post-Harvey, they did much more to reveal the community’s values and what was held in fear by each. Furthermore, these conversations allowed community members to prioritize funding for housing and infrastructure programs.

This was not [bc]’s first disaster-recovery project in Houston. In fact, the firm’s first project was Disaster Recovery Round Two (DR2). Working across the Independence Heights, Acres Homes, Near Northside, Greater Fifth Ward, Old Spanish Trail/South Union, and Sunnyside neighborhoods with community leaders, residents, and local architects, [bc] helped to design and rebuild over 400 homes (Note 2). The team at [bc] took steps to center the project on sensitivity to the local context, noting that disasters hit marginalized communities the hardest and that redevelopment is not always equitable. While one might not think in this way immediately, such projects sit at the intersection of design, environmental justice, and historic preservation by allowing residents to reclaim their space and preserve the character of their community through design.

  1. CDRC, “Animating History,” CDRC. 2020. Accessed 8 April 2020. https://www.cdrchouston.org/animating-history.
  2.  [bc], “DR2 Home Design,” [bc]. 2014. Accessed 8 April 2020. https://www.bcworkshop.org/posts/hurricane-harvey-disaster-recovery-guides.