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Town Square Initiative: Houston

Image © Gensler

The Town Square Initiative is a yearlong volunteer effort in which Gensler designers set out to unearth and re-imagine unexpected open space in cities around the globe. All 43 Gensler offices were invited to participate in the conceptual project, in which we challenged our designers to identify open space in the city and reimagine it as a town square.


How will Houston accommodate 100,000 new residents annually for the next 10 years? What infrastructural improvements need to be made? What policies should be enacted to ensure that the city isn’t caught flat-footed as the rate of population growth increases? These are the necessary and difficult yet obvious questions derived from “How can our city perform?”

A tangential thought process drives us to ask “What should our city be?” Is Houston a place where newcomers want to spend the rest of their lives, or do they come for the jobs and leave when a better opportunity arises? Are we a cohesive entity with a shared vision, or a collection of disparate interests competing for our own vision of the city to prevail? Can you live in the city without participating in the city?

Both lines of questioning are critical for considering Houston’s path forward. The consensus of our group is that the latter set of questions (Why?) should drive the former (How?).


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From Spindletop’s gusher to Enron’s collapse, Houston’s growth has mirrored that of the oil industry. The rise of the automobile fueled and was fueled by Houston. This relentless push outward stretched its urban fabric thin and left its open public spaces emaciated.


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The hard lines of automobile infrastructure, concrete conduits orbiting in loops, and beltways providing passage for people and goods at maximum velocities through the city divide the city into racial territories.


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The results of our internal office survey support the notion that Houston’s culture has coalesced around the automobile. Sixty percent of respondents drive to the park.


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In Houston’s suburbs, the image of a town square is projected onto the shopping mall. This mutation of the highly successful Galleria typology hastens the marriage of culture and consumerism through the application of a nostalgic veneer.


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There is no centralized town square in Houston, and there never will be. We propose a series of strategies aimed at connecting the multi-nodal city and recapturing the public spaces sacrificed to a culture of automobiles and air conditioning.


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Downtown the action is entirely subterranean. A fully conditioned network of privatized urban corridors connects the offices above, eliminating the need to walk outside. We propose injecting the public realm into the heart of the tunnel system.


Image © Gensler

Surface parking lots are ubiquitous features of the Houston cityscape. We propose patching these holes in the urban fabric with pop-up shipping containers and promoting the organic growth of participatory public spaces.


Image © Gensler

The ossifying husk of automobile infrastructure wraps itself around the city like a noose, choking the center and dividing neighborhood from neighborhood. We propose reimagining the spaces left behind in order to reconnect a fragmented city.


Image © Gensler

We believe the town square can exist anywhere. We propose a network of clouds tasked with providing on-demand public space and shelter which can interactively serve to counteract the digitization of the public realm.

Ted Rubenstein is an architect in Gensler’s Houston office. He received an M.Arch and a BA in Rhetoric from UC Berkeley. Ted plays and writes music, puts on the occasional drawing show, and dabbles in home improvement. He recently won a haiku contest. Growing up in Los Angeles, Ted learned the perils of automobile culture and has been interested in the relationship of transportation and the soul of the city ever since. Contact Ted at ted_Rubenstein@gensler.com.

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