Experiencing Houston as a Next City Vanguard

Editorial by Ennis Davis, AICP

Next City is a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire social, economic and environmental change in cities by creating media and events around the world. The annual Vanguard conference is one event I’ve become quite fond of. It was held in Houston this month, bringing together top urban innovators aged 40 and younger, all working to see change in their respective cities.

Vanguard alumni group photograph taken at the BRC in Texas Medical Center. Front row from left to right: Alison Joe (Sacramento), Kate Didech (Oakland), Emily Sadigh (Berkeley), Kareeshma Ali Merchant (Chicago), Ennis Davis (Jacksonville), Sara Mokuria (Dallas), Lou Huang (New York City) and Ariella Cohen (Next City Editor-in-Chief). Back row from left to right: Alex Feldman (Philadelphia), Jay Wall (Toronto), Guillaume Lavoie (Montreal), Carlos Moreno (Tulsa) and Bryan Lee, Jr (New Orleans).

Since my selection to the Cleveland, I’ve made it a point to attend other conferences in Chattanooga and Reno , for the opportunity to build relationships with Vanguard alumni and to connect with new Vanguard members. After all, there’s something to be said about the ability to spend time with a close network of some of the smartest individuals across the country, involved in improving the quality of life in their respective cities. One essential element for me, is the opportunity to engage in deep conversation concerning city and social issues, which simply is not possible in my everyday life.

Traveling to downtown Houston on I-45 after arriving at Hobby Airport.

This year I got to do that in Houston, the country’s fourth largest city by population, which is compelling in its own right. It’s a major southern port city, circled by multiple highways with a humid climate, an AFC South NFL franchise, a recently overhauled transit system, and one of the largest municipalities in the country by land area. Writing this down, I’ve just described another city served by Interstate 10. It’s the city I reside in – Jacksonville. However, what really makes Houston a unique urban setting is its lack of zoning regulations. So a quick (1.5 hours to be exact) flight to this Texas metropolis was definitely in order.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Zakcq Lockrem leading the alumni walking tour. From left to right: Zakcq Lockrem, Eric Shaw, Kareeshma Ali Merchant, Nolan Marshall, Emily Sadigh, Efrem Bycer, Sara Mokuria, Kate Didech and Lou Huang.

My Houston journey began by meeting up with other alumni in the lobby of the Magnolia Hotel for a walking and transit tour led by Zakcq Lockrem (2015 class), a principal and planning director with Austin-based Asakura Robinson. The downtown portion of the tour led us through some of the oldest areas of the city’s core, before we hopped on a light rail line to reach East Downtown, a former industrial area now anchored by BBVA Compass Stadium and infill housing. It was here I learned that even though the city does not have zoning regulations, it does have parking requirements, which in turn help shape the style of infill housing that has grown to become quite popular around the city.

Infill single family residences in East Downtown with widths determined by the width of alley accessed two-car garages.

Following the brief stop in East Downtown, we headed to Northside Village, a working class neighborhood fighting for a balance of cultural preservation, while still accommodating new infill redevelopment opportunities. The highlight here was a break from the humidity and heat inside Gorditas Aguascalientes, an authentic neighborhood staple known for its house-made tortillas.

Hanging out at Gorditas Aguascalientes. From right to left: Jay Wall and three FAMU alumni; Ennis Davis, Bryan Lee, Jr. and Nolan Marshall.

Lunch gave way to three rounds of unconference sessions at Architecture Center Houston. While the discussions were engaging, it was during this time I found out that two (Nolan Marshall, Director of Public Affairs and Policy, Downtown Development District of New Orleans and Bryan Lee, Jr., Place & Civic Design Director, Arts Council of New Orleans) of the 18 Vanguard alumni in Houston were also alumni of my alma mater, Florida A&M University (FAMU). As the saying goes, it’s a small world.

Getting educated on how “Civic Engagement” plus “Civic Tech” can equal “Better Places” at Architecture Center Houston.

Unconference Session - Round 1 -Lou Huang (2013) & Carlos Moreno (2014): Civic Engagement + Civic Tech = Better Places -Alex Feldman (2015): Finding and Leveraging Community Anchors for Economic and Community Development

Unconference Session - Round 2 -Jay Wall (2015) & Zakcq Lockrem (2015): Beyond the Usual Suspects of Public Engagement -Nolan Marshall (2012) & Allison Joe (2013): Unconventional Partnerships: Engaging Allies to Tackle Homelessness, Housing, Transportation, & more

Unconference Session - Round 3 -Kareeshma Ali (2013) & Eric Shaw (2013): Rightsizing Planning -Kate Didech (2015) & Bryan Lee (2015): Visuals of the Built Environment

The Vanguard 2016 class and alumni at Project Row Homes in Houston’s historic Third Ward.

The night of May 12 ended up being a real treat. It was my first opportunity to meet and socialize with the 2016 class, as well as explore Houston’s Third Ward. A historic African-American neighborhood, the architecture, history, social and economic issues facing the area are nearly identical to what older black neighborhoods in Jacksonville and throughout Florida are dealing with. Growing up “across the tracks” myself, walking through the interactive art galleries of Project Row Homes and experiencing the famed Eldorado Ballroom were right up my alley. Especially the latter, when we were treated to swing dancing, a dance started by Jacksonville’s own Frankie Manning.

A night of barbeque, swing dancing and social justice inside the Chitlin Circuit’s Eldorado Ballroom.

In addition, while being fed a buffet of Texas-style barbeque, Vanguards had the opportunity to hear keynote speaker Robert Bullard, Phd, Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. Bullard exposed a series of environmental justice concerns impacting the South, which have been largely overlooked by national media and the general planning community. Described by Houstonians as the “Father of environmental justice”, Bullard’s presentations and maps highlighted perspectives on environmental justice in regards to land use, sustainability, and health concerns impacting minorities, which have yet to materialize in Jacksonville’s planning community. After Bullard’s words, a good mix of alumni and 2016 Vanguards got together at the hotel bar where the conversation advanced to additional social justice issues facing minority communities, such as public education and downsizing policies in communities with decreasing populations.