Designing Density. Making Gray Cities Green.
Urban designer Albert Pope’s only professional regret is not reacting to climate change sooner. “I’ve always had a reverence for the natural landscape, but focusing on cities (in my work), climate change was never front and center until recently,” Pope said. “I was prepped for it in my attitudes and approach, but compared to how long this problem has been here, I did come to it rather late.”
Pope, Rice University’s G.S. Wortham Professor of Architecture and director of Rice Architecture’s Present Future program, studies the changing role of design in the face of global climate disruption. “Today, it’s not difficult to talk about climate change even though there is a lot of resistance to it,” he said. “As architects, we have to track the popular, collective imagination in order to respond to certain things. We have to take on problems as they’re presented.”
The problem has certainly been presented, and, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, there is no audience more eager for urban design to weather climate change than the people of Houston. “The price tag for Harvey was $125 billion,” Pope said. “This is an enormous problem that forces us to rethink where the city is going.” While a breadth of green initiatives can be incorporated at the scale of a building, Pope insists architects must react to climate change from the scale of the city. “Green roofs, shading and energy-efficient systems are great design elements to add to a building, but climate change is a bigger problem,” he said. “In order to tackle this, it really has to be taken on at the scale of the city, which is why urban projects dealing with a preemptively urban problem like density, started to make sense to me.”
Pope says his approach to architecture was cultivated from his experiences in Houston, a relatively new city without a traditional urban fabric. “Even when I do work on small buildings, my research and teaching is always thought through and developed within the larger framework of the city,” he said. “That’s something that has changed over time. There has been more and less interest in cities, but it has always been a continuity in my projects.”
Growing the City, Shrinking the Footprint
Pope is currently working on two projects. The long-term project, “Growing the City, Shrinking the Footprint,” focuses on the premise of the green metropolis, or the idea that "the grayest city is the greenest city." Ecologists use the Environmental Footprint, a sustainability measure that uses basic input-output analysis to calculate the carrying value of the planet. According to findings at footprintnetwork.org, the planet is now in a 50 percent deficit, using the resources of 1.5 planet earths in order to support its existence. Pope is leading his studio class to confront an absurd contradiction: how do we meet the needs to expand our modern, growth-based economies while simultaneously shrinking our environmental impact?
“The per capita energy consumption and carbon emissions of a resident of Manhattan is one-quarter of the per capita energy consumption and carbon emissions of a resident of Houston,” Pope said. “In short, if we all lived at a higher density, we would have no climate crisis.” The studio project attempts to show how Houston could increase its population over the next 50 years, while also becoming a high-density urban environment with a low physical and ecological footprint.
Houston’s Flood Strategy
Pope’s short-term project is a yearlong effort that strives to solve Houston’s immediate problem of flooding. An extension of the first project, shrinking the urban footprint is not only a strategy for reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions, it’s a strategy for removing houses from Houston’s 100-year floodplains. “Presently, there are over 100,000 houses in the 100-year floodplain, and with new post-Harvey calculations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that number will be growing,” Pope said. “We cannot engineer our way out of this problem, which means the majority of these structures will have to be removed over time.”
Pope’s studio is collaborating with researchers in Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering to design a large-scale, long-range buyout program that will reconstruct the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods over time, enhancing their relationship to the bayous, while drastically shrinking their carbon footprint. After the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, Pope said it helped Houstonians and people around the world understand the importance of climate change and urban design. “It certainly gives me a catalyst,” he said.” I have a discourse that I can connect to, whereas before 10 years ago, I would have had a much harder time making the case.”
The average lifespan of a building in Houston is approximately 50 years and commercial buildings are even less. “We don’t realize how fast cities change,” Pope said. “Every 50 years, you virtually have a new city. It’s been rebuilt. You can significantly change the profile of a city.” The premise of all of Pope’s projects are to show that urban design is not a matter of scraping an existing neighborhood and putting up something new; rather when a lifespan of a building comes to its end, it can be replaced with something better, based on a plan that makes more sense today than it did when it was first built. “There’s a transformation over time, which is how cities grow,” Pope said. “Once that dynamic is understood, then a discussion of the role of the city in the context of climate change becomes possible and interesting.”
The Future of Houston
While Hurricane Harvey is tied with 2005’s Hurricane Katrina as the costliest tropical cyclone on record, Pope is optimistic for the future of Houston. “I look into the future, and I see the beautiful recovery of all 150 miles of the bayous as an ecosystem that is all in the public domain,” Pope said. “And I see that bayou network surrounded by higher-density buildings that allows us to shrink our carbon footprint and gives us the kind of economics that we need to survive in the future.”
Pope says rather than fantasizing about what Houston could be, we should look at what shape the city might grow into by looking at the evidence that is currently on the ground. “We already have a lot of solutions in the present that are seeded in the environment, and all we have to do is recognize those and use our imagination to expand on them to hopefully have better outcomes for the future,” Pope said. “I’m very explicit about imagining the city and how Houston will grow over the next 50 years. It’s actually my job to imagine that.”