Top 10 of 2012!

Oh my goodness. The Oscars are this weekend and I still haven’t posted my top 10 list from last year!

So, every year I compile lots of top 10 lists from the critics that I like (NYT, Slate, Filmspotting, SlashFilm etc) into a master list of the years best films and then try to watch as many as I can. There are some important ones that I still haven’t watched, most notably The Master and Amour. Regardless, here’s my top ten so far. Overall, I think it was a great year, especially for genre movies. Even though I didn’t include many in my top 10, films like Hunger Games, Cabin the Woods, and Skyfall, and even The Avengers and Chronicle, were really fun to watch. With regards to the oscar nominees, I skipped Les Miserables and as mentioned, haven’t caught up a couple of the important ones. I enjoyed most of the frontrunners, with the exceptions of Zero Dark Thirty (I thought it was discombobulated, though the final scenes are incredible) and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Here’s my top 10:

  1. Footnote
  2. Django Unchained
  3. Holy Motors
  4. Argo
  5. Moonrise Kingdom
  6. Take this Waltz
  7. Bernie
  8. Lincoln (minus the first and last scenes. sentimentality much?)
  9. The Impossible
  10. Looper

Runners Up: Zero Dark Thirty (but only the last hour), Safety Not Guaranteed, The Hobbit, The Hunger Games, Secret World of Arriety. Skyfall, Life of Pi, The Cabin in the Woods

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East End Mobility Study Final Report

Working over at Asakura Robinson on a team lead by Traffic Engineers, we recently completed the East End Mobility Study. Funded by the Houston-Galveston Area Council and the Greater East End Management District, the study looked at the western end of the Greater East End Management District and all of the East Downtown Management District. The study area was bounded by 59 on the West, I10 on the north, Lockwood on the East and I45 on the South.

The study addressed the need for strategic, holistic transportation planning in the historic neighborhoods just east of downtown Houston. Having lost more than half of their population and a significant amount of their job base since 1950, the community is now stabilizing and beginning to see new development again. Indeed, the addition of two new METRORail lines with stops in the area has opened up the possibility of significant new development. As such, there was a need to examine the existing transportation infrastructure to ensure the community can continue to develop in line with the existing Downton-Ea/Do Livable Centers Study, the East End Livable Centers Study and the East End Master Plan. With the assistance of numerous stakeholders, our project team developed the following goals:

  • Address short and long-term capacity constraints and opportunities
  • Address barriers to mobility and increase connectivity
  • Enhance multi-modal trip alternatives
  • Prioritize transportation infrastructure investments that support development objectives
  • Reduce safety concerns

Our role in the study was to develop future land use scenarios to test future mobility constrains against and to develop recommendations relating to bicycle and pedestrian facilities, wayfinding and parking. We also developed the report’s graphic standards and provided graphic design and layout for the final report.

The full study can be downloaded here!

Washington Avenue Livable Centers Recommendation Boards

One of the biggest projects we’ve been working on over the last 7 months is the Washington Avenue Livable Centers Plan, a neighborhood driven plan for a community of 20,000 directly to the west of downtown Houston. The image below has a link to download the boards of our team’s recommendations. Our hope is that many of the recommendations will help serve as a framework for how the City can think about the future development of its inner-urban neighborhoods.

…and we’re back. again.

After a two year hiatus during which I’ve been writing primarily at other sources, including Plurale Tantum, Cite Magazine and for my firm’s blog, I’ve decided it’s time to revamp and reactivate this site as an outlet for writing more about project work, general thoughts on Houston and other things.

So, what have I been up to? I started working for a small planning and design firm in Houston called Asakura Robinson about a year and a half ago. I’ve been lucky to have a supportive environment to develop my own interests. Within the planning work, we’ve had a focus on bicycle and pedestrian work including the recently completed Clear Lake Bicycle and Pedestrian Study (Houston, TX 2011) and East End Mobility Study (Houston, TX 2012) and on neighborhood scale planning work, such as the Washington Avenue Livable Centers Plan and recent work helping the City of Houston identify communities for investment using Hurricane Ike recovery funds.

Last year, I co-founded a small design collaborative called Social Agency Lab along with a bunch of friends that I wanted to work more with. We’ve done a few design competitions, including a third place finish in Pruitt-Igoe Now and a publication in the Atlas of Possibility for the Future of New York (more about both these projects and others are up at Plurale Tantum).

I’ve also been teaching a course a semester at Texas Southern University in the planning department, including a course on the Theory of Urban Form and a one week joint studio with Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China.

Perhaps the most exciting news is the new baby we have on the way, due in September. Though I promise this won’t turn into a baby blog, I’m already noticing how thinking from the perspective of having a child changes some views of the built environment, transportation and so on. Where I do reference the kid, I’m sure it’ll be through that perspective, especially thinking about how it applies to practice and theory. One sort of crazy thing that’s already been coming up is how difficult being a car-free parent in Houston may be, not because it’s actually tough to get around, but because of the amount that having a vehicle is institutionalized here. For example, we choose a hospital and doctor right on the light rail line for convenience, but found out later on that the hospital has a policy (which may or may not be Texas state law) that they don’t release the baby from the hospital without a car seat. Which basically means an expensive purchase of something we don’t need. For us, its only a frustration, for someone who doesn’t drive because they can’t afford to, it’s got to be a major challenge.

So, that’s it. We’re back. Lots more to come.

Upcoming Conference Presentations

If you don’t get enough of my pontifications in blog form, I’ll be presenting papers at two upcoming conferences in the next month and a half.

On October 1st, I’ll be at the Middle Atlantic and New England Council for Canadian Studies Conference in Providence, Rhode Island presenting a paper based on my thesis research entitled “La Révolution Moderne: Expo ’67 and Spatialization of Québec Identity.”

On October 12th, I’ll be at the 2010 Community Development Summit in San Antonio, Texas speaking on how Central Texas can adapt for climate change.

Homebrew Batch 1: Texas Belgian

One of the best things about being out of school for first time in about 6 years is having some time to pursue some new hobbies. Two or three years ago, I got equipment for brewing from J’s parents for xmas, but I’ve never had the time to actually use any of it. Over the summer, I was able to spend some time with my friend Driver 2165 and his wife and finally got to see (and taste) some homebrewing in action. Loaded with knowledge, equipment and time, I finally got my first batch going once I got settled in to my new place. I’d like to qualify that brewing is not for lack of beer in Houston. In fact, in quality, price and quantity it’s got to be one of the best beer cities in the US. Our bar of choice is the Flying Saucer, which has like 80 beers on tap.

For my first batch, I went with a Texas style Belgian recipe from DeFalco’s down in Southwest Houston on Bray’s Bayou. The actual experience of getting to the brew shop car free is quite a story. Leave it to say that after several miles of construction detours, 2 hours of biking in 100 degree heat and 99% humidity, some serious dehydration and almost throwing up in a Popeye’s Chicken bathroom, I’ll be ordering kits online until the temperature falls about 20 degrees.

ANYWAY. I finally got everything home and started a batch. Here’s the wort (the unfermented beer) boiling. As an aside, there’s a second epic bike story: I brought that 5 gallon stainless steel pot home from Target in the Heights strapped to the back of my messenger bag. I looked like a turtle.

Following the boil, the beer ferments for anywhere between 2 weeks and a couple months depending on the style. Here’s it is in the secondary fermenter. It’s kept that nice reddish-brown color. After that, you bottle, and then go through the torturous couple weeks of having 50 perfectly good-looking beers sitting in your closet while you’re waiting for them to carbonate. This one actually took a little longer than a couple of weeks, I think because it’s tough to regulate temperature in an apartment (more specifically, it’s tough to find a temperature that both beer and people can agree on).

And finally, here it is ready to drink. It’s really fun to have created something like beer that you don’t usually think of as something that people make at home. As you can see, it kept a nice color. It’s a very drinkable beer with a hint of citrus (there was orange peel and coriander in the recipe).

In a final bit of fun, J and I have branded our beer (as well as the Houston-centric t-shirts I’ve been designing) Houstopia. Our label for this beer, which pays homage to the Astros rainbow guts uniforms along with the city seal, is above.

We’ve currently got a Nutty Brown Ale from Northern fermenting and an Eskimo IPA to start in a couple days. I’m sure I’ll be posting on those as well in the near future.

Building Houston’s Identity

Texas is an extremely urban state. 86% of Texans are urban dwellers. 3 Texan cities are among the 10 largest in the country and 6 are among the 25 largest. Yet, in the popular imagination, Texas is the embodiment of the west. Cowboys, Indians, Mexicans, the Alamo, the Texas Rangers and “land, lots of land” are the images that Texas conjures. More than once when moving, people told me to enjoy the southwest and I had to let them know that Houston is in a coastal sub-tropical jungle, with a climate (and culture) more akin to Southern Louisiana or Mississippi than Santa Fe. The arid part of the state is about a 10-hour drive west of me.

With all of the investment of the Texan (and American) imagination in a rural state, it’s little wonder that Texan cities seem largely devoid of identity. While (relatively recently) Austin has developed a reputation as the hipster capital of the South and San Antonio is known as the center of Tejano culture, the state’s largest cities aren’t much more than an afterthought on the list of the country’s great urban centers. Dallas is either a primetime soap opera or the place where Kennedy was shot and Houston is where you call when your spaceship breaks down. Neither is the sort of place where you’d want to honeymoon, or even go out of your way to visit if you were in the area. Both are thought of as sprawling, bland corporate centers, if they’re thought of at all.

As Houston looks to surpass Chicago in population and become the third largest city in the country (something that will happen in the next ten years), there’s come a sudden realization that the city does need an identity. Houston is inventing its urban culture right now.

Of course, for many Houstonians, this is nothing new. One of the most fun projects that looks at Houston is “Houston. It’s Worth It,” a series of photo exhibitions and books completely generated by random Houstonians. Interestingly, the project takes some of the things that are potentially the most hideous about the city and invokes them as symbolic, ranging from refineries to sprawl to flying cockroaches. Another is the Rice Design Alliance and their fantastic magazine Cite. Published since 1982, Cite is one of the best design magazines I know. It should be read far and wide, not just in Houston.

For me, this is a very interesting process to watch. I’ve been interested in urban identity for a long time, and Texas, while not separated from the rest of the country by language like Québec, has a fascinating history and “national” identity that’s very distinct from the rest of the country. While doing my research on Montréal, I found an interesting little book that Jane Jacobs wrote on Québec separatism. Like her writings on the economy, Jacobs saw cities at the center of identities. She said, roughly paraphrased, that a people without a metropolis would only survive as a museum piece. So perhaps, like Montréal in the 60s, Houston today is where what it means to be Texan is being worked out.