[The Sprawl Net]
This article originally appeared in Cite: The Architecture and Design Review of Houston 31, Winter-Spring 1994. Reprinted with permission.

Utopia Limited

Houston's Ring Around the Beltway

By Richard Ingersoll


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HOUSTON HAS FEW topographical impediments to its continuous centrifugal expansion. The network of concentric, radially connected freeway loops has provided an armature for suburban tracts that saturate the land like huge oil blots, oozing across an incorporated territory of about 580 square miles. Four of the largest and most successful master-planned developments in the United States are tethered at the outer edges of this unrepentant sprawl.[1] The Woodlands, First Colony, Kingwood, and Clear Lake City are the most prominent of a series of self-zoned subdivisions smugly surrounding a city that would not allow itself to be planned.

DISTINCT FROM mere subdivisions and Planned Unit Development schemes, these new towns have a considerable mix of land uses, including retail, commercial, social services, and parks. Each has a population ranging from 30,000 to 40,000 and an area varying from 10,000 to 25,000 acres (the grid of downtown Houston covers approximately 2,000 acres). During the 1980s, the majority of new-home starts in the Houston metropolitan area gravitated to the master-planned developments, indicating a victory in real estate terms for the fully planned suburb over the rest of the city.[2]

A master-planned development is different from a city in that the development corporation guarantees infrastructure and services that otherwise would be the result of a democratically mandated municipal authority: it privatizes what has traditionally been the prerogative of the community. Home buyers, who pay a yearly fee to the developer or community association for maintenance of services (something like 60 cents per $100 assessed value), are attracted because these havens of zoned orderliness appear free of the problems of the city, such as poor public schools, lack of recreation space, and high crime rates. These developments are, moreover, the ultimate eugenic experiment for PLUs (``People Like Us''), since they are generally reservations of that rapidly declining species, the aspiring white middle class. A great deal of breeding goes on out in what might be called Houston's fertility crescent, where the safety of children, access to good public schools, and well-organized sports programs are the highest priorities.

Like the original Humanist paragon of planning, Thomas More's Utopia (1516) -- the name of which is a play on words meaning ``no place'' -- these settlements on Houston's edges cultivate a certain placelessness. Although each of the four developments described below reflects distinct topographical characteristics, and a great deal of design effort has been applied to their landscaping to create a market identity and special physical attributes, all give the strong impression of being nowhere in particular and are in some ways interchangeable. The redounding lack of orientation created by looping roads and the anonymity and remoteness caused by the setback fabric of these environments suggest a kind of existential camouflage.

The cities on the island of Utopia were all identical and were located approximately 24 miles, or a six-hour walk, apart. The Woodlands is 27 miles and First Colony, Kingwood, and Clear Lake City each 22 miles from downtown, all on the circuit of the proposed Grand Parkway, Houston's beltway beyond the Beltway. All the houses in Utopia were of the same model and were arranged 30 to a street with a community house in the center; this bears some correspondence to the conformity of suburban houses (which are now marketed by national mass builders like packages of potato chips) built on cul-de-sacs with a tot-lot or neighborhood park in the center. Utopians were obligated to change houses every ten years so they would not feel proprietary about their dwellings. Americans change their homes on the average of once every five years, usually for the purpose of trading up, and thus the house is always conceived in terms of the value it will have for some normative other who will be the next to acquire it. Utopia, now with the goal of private rather than communitarian well-being, is closer than was previously thought.

Suburban, low-density developments have, in the half-century since World War II, become the site of the new majority of population distribution, accounting for more than 40 percent of the U.S. population in 1990. The suburbs are in general architecturally undistinguished and difficult to represent in plan or through perspectival means, and they seem beyond the pale of human drama, only suitable for the bathos of television serials. Nothing can happen in the master-planned landscape except sheltered breeding to ensure the survival of Homo suburbanis. Because of the suburbs' exceptional banality but overwhelming economic and social importance, there is something unexpectedly meaningful about their ascendancy. By inverting the conventional semantics and values of urban space, history and its oppressive janissaries, architecture and the city, have finally been usurped. Life on the edges of Houston is yet another instance of space apparently overcoming time.

The ambivalence of the suburbs as placeless places and history-free shapers of civilization is symptomatic of the semantic crisis of the late 20th Century, when meanings no longer seem to adhere to words, when signs and referents are constantly betraying rather than portraying. Take, for instance, the fact that new suburbs such as The Woodlands or First Colony are generically called ``new towns,'' that their advertisers promote them as ``communities,'' and that they are usually broken down into 1,000- to 2,000-acre packages referred to as ``villages.'' Not formally, structurally, socially, or in any other way do these developments resemble the entities referred to by the words that are attached to them. Was there ever a town without a commercial nucleus, a village without a main street, or a community without historical continuity? The language is so delusional that recent arrivals to this real-estate package deal, such as the offices of Duany and Plater-Zyberk or Peter Calthorpe, have felt it their rhetorical mission to supply a form that better corresponds to the name, in hopes of restoring the ``traditional'' values of the phenomenon the original words describe. But the rupture in meaning has already occurred, and there is no turning back.

The master-planned development's street patterns derive from the picturesque, curving streets deployed by Frederick Law Olmsted in such plans as that of Riverside, Illinois (1869), and from the patterns used to separate traffic that were devised by Raymond Unwin for the early garden cities in England during the first decade of this century. The practice of the latter led to street configurations that avoided frequent intersections and provided secluded streets. Arterial fast streets with internal loops and cul-de-sacs were the ingenious solutions.

Locally, Houston's master-planned developments aspire to a combination of the elite 1920s Olmsted-style subdivision of River Oaks, which was given easy automobile access to downtown by Allen Parkway, and the quick-profit middle-class development of Sharpstown, Houston's version of Levittown, located in the next ring of western expansion on U.S. 59. Sharpstown, begun in the mid-1950s, supplied more-affordable houses on smaller lots with such amenities as schools, a golf course, and a shopping mall.[3] The decline in the status and security of Sharpstown, which now embraces a significant minority population, is not likely to be repeated in the current new towns. The new new towns are not named after their developers and tend to have neighborhoods named after natural features, such as Bay Oaks in Clear Lake City, Sweetwater in First Colony, Panther Creek in The Woodlands, and Elm Grove in Kingwood. Although The Woodlands has some commitment to the concept of human diversity, the process of real-estate competition has confined it to marketing strategies that inevitably focus on a middle-class clientele.

Squiggly street patterns as an alternative to the conventional grid made particular sense to developers during the car-crazed 1950s and were encouraged by the FHA guidelines for subdivisions, since they provided a method for keeping houses from facing directly onto loud and dangerous thoroughfares. But while such systems facilitated movement on a larger scale, they tended to fragment the urban fabric and limit interaction at the local scale. Viewed from the air, the patterns of arteries threaded with cul-de-sacs and internal loops bear a remarkable resemblance to plates of microchips found in the innards of a computer, a correspondence first intimated by the novelist Thomas Pynchon in the 1960s, when he referred to suburbs in terms of printed circuits.[4] There is a peculiar morphological resonance between the formal patterns in the item that densifies information into miniscule packages, tools that make spatial contiguities irrelevant, and the formal patterns of the system of maximum dispersal that produces irrelevant space.

The irresistible logic of these street patterns is determined by the primary role the automobile plays in American life. To drive in Houston is a political act. It means support of the industry that linked the city's economy to the destiny of the nation. The settlements at Houston's outermost limits are so intimately linked with the oil economy that the relationship cannot be seen as casual: Friendswood Development Company, an Exxon subsidiary, developed Clear Lake City (1963) and Kingwood (1972); Mitchell Energy developed The Woodlands (1974); and the Royal Dutch Shell Pension Fund has replaced the Ford Foundation as the primary financial partner of the Gerald D. Hines-initiated First Colony (1976). (Mobil Oil is currently developing 11 master-planned suburbs throughout the Sun Belt.) It is, of course, in the interests of the oil and automobile industries to encourage development on the edge, thereby making the demand for their products integral to a way of life -- a round trip to one of these new towns is equivalent to half a tank of gas in my car. That Gerald Hines and George Mitchell supported both light rail and zoning does not necessarily contradict this scenario, since these measures would benefit the center and the edge, where both developers have a lot at stake.

The Woodlands

THE LARGEST of Houston's master-planned developments, at 25,000 acres for a projected population of 150,000, is The Woodlands, and it is by far the most utopian. The developer, George Mitchell, has persevered with undying idealism in planning a real estate domain that will foster social diversity and respect for environmental concerns while attracting employment and culture. Mitchell is one of the great self-made condottieri of the energy business, one of the last of the Texan ``can-do'' entrepreneurs, and it is hard not to (Continues)


  1. In Developing Successful New Communities (Washington, D.C.: Urban Land Institute, 1991), Reid Ewing identifies 58 master-planned new towns built since 1960 in the U.S. that have sufficient area, population, and diversity of functions to be called such. There are eight that merit this distinction in Texas. Nationally, the largest are Irvine, California (150,000), Coral Springs, Florida (75,000), Columbia, Maryland (72,000), Mission Viejo, California (70,000), and Reston, Virginia (53,000). [Back to text]

  2. Kimberley Reeves, ``And the Winner Is . . . Fort Bend County Master-Planned Communities,'' Houston Business Journal, 22 February 1993, p. 28. Arthur Andersen Real Estate Advisory Group data show that Houston leads the nation in sales of homes in master-planned communities. [Back to text]

  3. Peter Rowe, Making a Middle Landscape (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991). Sharpstown was begun by Frank Sharp in 1954. It contained approximately 25,000 residences on 6,500 acres, commercial and retail space, a country club (that went bankrupt), and six schools. The developer coordinated the donation of ten miles of freeway right-of-way for U.S. 59. [Back to text]

  4. Ibid., p. 55. Rowe cites Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). [Back to text]


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