Airline Drive supports the sort of gritty vitality that Houston as a whole should rejoice in more and work harder not to destroy.

airline drive

Airline Drive, just inside Houston’s North Loop, is a messy mix of all the ingredients that make for an unplanned, unadulterated urban experience. Unfortunately, a major public works project to improve Airline Drive could unintentionally diminish this vibrancy, privileging the car (and speed) over all else. While many talk a good game about “good” urbanism, we are still trying to figure out how to make it work in real life, how to collaborate across disciplines and draw in community voices—all within the constraints of time, politics, and economics.

Streets, are nearly all that is left of truly public space. Streets are the spines of communities. Streets move people and cars, organize real estate, carry infrastructure, serve as connective tissue, provide a framework for development, and serve as anchors for commercial, cultural, and civic spaces. Yet, streets prompt divergent aims: traffic engineers dedicate their energies to moving more cars, designers work to create space and form, business owners seek ample access and parking, politicians want money spent in their districts, and the public wants many, many different things—sidewalks, safety, convenience, and so on. So amidst all of these competing interests, who makes decisions about public projects, who establishes the goals, and how can we make these goals more inclusive, multifunctional, and extensive?

One method is to adopt an idea the Community Design Resource Center calls “thick infrastructure,” which is the expansion of public works projects to include elements that enhance civic and public spaces. The goal is to reconfigure existing, single-purpose infrastructural landscapes into multifunctional systems. This is a new theory of what infrastructure is or should be. It requires a new direction for local decision-making related to infrastructure investment, one that welcomes the disorderliness of the participatory process. The idea advances the vision of infrastructure as multifunctional, designed and integrated into the fabric of the city, a new process displacing the reality of single-purpose, disconnected infrastructural landscapes.

The Airline Drive Project was a collaboration with the Greater Northside Management District

Spring 2011
University of Houston
College of Architecture

Project Team: Susan Rogers, Alex Lara, Maria Oran