Cities Shouldn’t be Afraid to Look to the Suburbs for Inspiration

Kyle Shelton | @kylekshelton | November 17, 2016

East Aldine and The Woodlands are two Houston communities that most people would rarely compare to one another.

East Aldine is an unincorporated, mostly Hispanic and working-class community south of George Bush Intercontinental Airport. The community houses hundreds of local businesses and is home to a vibrant, long-tenured population that cares deeply about its future.

Yet, as an unincorporated area, it has always confronted infrastructure challenges, particularly its limited sewers and drainage systems. Many residents also struggle to access educational and employment opportunities that are spread out across the region.

Meanwhile, The Woodlands is an internationally recognized, master planned community populated by a mostly white, economically well-off population well removed from the core of Houston.

Though also unincorporated, that decision was a deliberate choice, and the area is governed by a novel set of agreements between its primary developer and private resident associations. The Woodlands faces its own challenges. Residential areas that are mainly single family and car-dependent must continue to adapt to new market preferences, which is often a difficult task with restrictive design guidelines and covenants. Similar to all master planned communities, The Woodlands must ensure its decisions about growth mesh productively with regional goals, particularly when it comes to coordinating transportation and other infrastructure.

A new Kinder Institute and Urban Land Institute Houston report suggests these very different areas have something in common: they can both teach us valuable lessons about how to build strong communities.

Funded by a grant from the ULI Foundation and matched by funds from ULI-Houston,  “Building Stronger Suburbs: Adaptability and Resilience Best Practices from Suburban Houston,” brings to light practices that help suburban communities become adaptable and resilient in the face of numerous challenges. It concludes seemingly disparate communities — such as East Aldine and The Woodlands — that have a great deal to learn from one another and to share with the rest of the region.

The report contends that master planned suburban communities such as The Woodlands are too often dismissed as sites of homogenous repetition. Areas such as East Aldine, filled with traditional postwar tract home subdivisions, are often oversimplified as declining, outmoded relics. Neither characterization tells a complete story about the communities and their strengths. At a time when many challenges are confronting our metropolitan regions — from climate change to uncertain economic markets — suburban communities and central cities are working to find appropriate responses.

Rather than limiting our sources of best practices, or where we apply them, our regions need to share ideas about how we create and maintain value and vibrancy.

Here is where it pays to compare East Aldine and The Woodlands.

Both areas posses inspired leadership that has pursued a long-view vision for the future of the communities. In East Aldine, the leadership of the East Aldine Management District, State Rep. Armando Walle, Lone Star Community College, Harris County, and Neighborhood Centers Inc. have led to a partnership to build the East Aldine Town Center.

eastaldinetowncenter

The project aims to bring education opportunities, job training and actual jobs into the community. It also will create a major gathering space and aim to serve as a hub for pending pedestrian and bike improvements. Much of the project has been developed in close consultation with East Aldine residents.

The same can be seen in The Woodlands, where developer George Mitchell’s vision for a residential ring surrounding a central core of jobs and activities has been consistently seen through over the course of nearly five decades. Rather than abandoning the plan for a job center, and building a strictly residential community, leaders followed through with the creation of The Woodlands Town Center, which is now a downtown in its own right and a regional job center.

woodlandstowncenter

Both communities have also embraced cross-jurisdictional and public-private partnerships that provide more resources to their residents.

The Woodlands’ unique township governance model is a limited, special district government that is made up of a set of private residential and commercial associations. The township mainly operates a set of enhanced services — from maintaining parks to providing extra police patrols — that it funds through set assessments and property taxes. The entity then works closely with area Municipal Utility Districts and Montgomery County to coordinate larger infrastructure projects. The arrangement allows the township to focus on responding to residents’ concerns and does not overburden the entity with major, costly responsibilities.

Similarly, the East Aldine Management District uses a combination of its assessment, grants and collaboration with other public entities from Harris County to the State of Texas to attempt to tackle the communities’ major infrastructure challenges. This has been primarily focused on bringing functioning sewers to many areas of the community that remain on septic. Without the special district powers and coordination of the management district, this work would be significantly slowed, if it existed at all.

These Houston examples and the other case studies from “Building Better Suburbs” highlight the fact that suburban communities aren’t monoliths, and the stereotypes about them are often inaccurate. They are dynamic parts of ever-changing regions. Suburbs house the majority of most regions’ populations, and they and transforming demographically and economically in ways that will affect all metro areas.

The reality of most American metropolitan regions is that they are increasingly becoming dominated by dispersed activity nodes, rather than by the historic central city-suburb dichotomy. In this shifting equation, traditional urban cores remain crucial players, and they can share their expertise burgeoning suburban activity centers.

But we must also be willing to trade best practices the other way, with cities learning from suburbs, as we attempt to make our regions stronger and more successful.

Finally, we cannot look just at “successful” master planned suburbs. Those parts of our regions that lack resources and are striving to improve also contain a bevy of innovative approaches that can be tailored to fit into every community. Only by looking far and wide, and examining the strengths of every part of our region, can we begin to understand the best ways to strengthen it on both a neighborhood and metropolitan scale.

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