Optimism correspondent Saul Elbein and Raj Mankad, advocate for safe streets in Houston, share a conversation about optimism + urban design.
Raj Mankad’s optimism comes, he says, from “a place of despair.” When he looks at Houston’s urban design, and the social life that grows out of it, he sees huge, dangerous problems—but also opportunities for a new kind of city, with stronger, more connected, vibrant communities.
As a writer and editor based at Rice University, he has pushed a new vision of Texas cities and community that draws on our unique roots rather than trying to transplant the Northeast to Houston. Houston’s suburbs, he believes, can be “walkable” if you look for “a sense of belonging” as the starting point. And in the wake of hurricanes and traffic deaths, he sees his city rolling up its sleeves to get to work—and turning its hardships into something better.
Saul Elbein: So how did you find yourself as a writer and advocate for walkability in this most car-centric of cities?
Raj Mankad: It’s a bit of a crazy story. I was in medical school doing a public health research program in Peru, in the mountains near Ayacucho. Me and a bunch of Mormons were the only foreigners. One day, outside this bullfighting match, I see these three white people, taking pictures. I went up to them and said, ‘You must be from National Geographic.’ It turned out they were! One was a famous science writer, Virginia Morrell. I asked her, ‘how do I get started?’ She said, ‘Well, you start writing.’ And I quit medical school and became an editorial assistant, and worked my way through yoga books, poetry, an economics journal, and eventually made it to Cite: The Architecture and Design Review of Houston. But that public health focus stayed with me. What I saw in Peru with infectious diseases, I saw in Houston with our chronic diseases—that it is the built environment that makes us sick. And I wanted to be part of fixing the root causes, and that means getting out of our cars.
SE: You live largely car-free in Houston. What’s more optimistic than that?
RM: My family has one car we share, but I get places by walking and taking transit if possible. That shapes how I see the city, and how I write about it. I went to a conference in Galveston to talk about walkability, and I decided to take transit, even though there hadn’t been a direct bus for years. But I figured it had to be possible.
SE: Was it?
RM: It took me over three hours, but I did it. First light rail, a commuter bus, a mile walk, another commuter bus. It surprises a lot of people, but commuter buses in Houston are very comfortable, full of people from a broad range of economic classes. I read a book. I got lost when I was dropped off in Galveston, but these two young women helped me chase the local bus down. One of their flip flops fell off, I picked it up. It was just a good time. And I got to the beach, I went swimming. It was fun to write about this really lovely and beautiful journey.
SE: It’s strange how even those little interactions can totally change the way that your day goes.
RM: It gives you this real sense of intimacy, which is a big deal in Texas cities. We go from one air-conditioned box to another, and you can feel pretty lonely that way. When you regularly share a resource—whether it’s the sidewalk, a commuter bus, or trains—your relationship with other people, or the city itself, becomes more intimate. I’ll be walking to work and see egrets, or herons, or possums, or even a little worm. The other morning I helped a woman who had run out of gas refill her car from a gas can. It gives you a sense of connection, the opposite of alienation.
SE: The sense that better things are possible.
RM: Right, but here’s the other thing. While I am having this intimate and beautiful experience of the city, I am constantly aware of other things—of seeing somebody in a wheelchair having an incredibly difficult time navigating the same streets I’m on, or meeting the family of someone who was killed, like the parents of four-year- old Muhammad Ali Abdullah in Gulfton, a couple years ago. My own colleague Polly Koch was run over and killed while walking her dogs near the Menil. Both were in the crosswalk, by the way, and neither driver was prosecuted. I don’t want those names to be forgotten.
SE: So—I’m a bit stumped. How does your optimism come out of something that sad?
RM: Because in a sense we just don’t have a choice. And we have a chance to really change something here. We have a whole lot of models that we can learn from that we’ve developed here already. Safer streets for all people whether they are driving or walking or riding a bike. And we have models from across the country and world, and we can see how other cities transformed their public realms.
“When you regularly share a resource—whether it’s the sidewalk, a commuter bus, or trains—your relationship with other people, or the city itself, becomes more intimate.”
SE: You’re saying—the level of crisis and shared loss creates a widespread motivation to fix it.
RM: Yes, that’s right. It’s a true crisis, one that other cities have overcome. We can do it here too. With how much money we spend on transportation and mobility as a whole, there is actually plenty of funding. Think about what goes into just one highway interchange. How do we prioritize where that money goes and think comprehensively so we can address many needs at once?
SE: Like, as long as we’re going to have to be replacing all this infrastructure, we can really make a difference.
RM: And there’s a real case for optimism there. For example, the Houston Parks Board is making sure that the huge amounts of capital we’re putting into flood mitigation serves more than one purpose. By 2020, Houston will have a 150-mile network of trails along the bayous. That’s the first step. If we’re rebuilding the bayous, or a highway, or city streets to address flooding, let’s make sure we connect sidewalks and bike paths. Let’s make sure multiple needs are met.
SE: So, what makes you think that creating what you call intimate neighborhoods is possible in suburban Houston?
RM: Because people do it naturally. In Gulfton, which is the most densely populated area in Texas, immigrants have adapted a built environment set up for people driving everywhere, and they live there without cars; in suburbs people find other hacks. I grew up on a cul-de-sac in Mobile, Alabama. My parents went to work with the cars and I was left with my grandma. I couldn’t drive and neither could she. It was really isolating.
SE: Right, I grew up in a similar cul-de-sac neighborhood in Dallas. You couldn’t really walk anyplace.
RM: But here’s the thing: in Mobile, my friends and I found this one gap in a fence at the end of one street, and if you went through you were suddenly at Baskin Robbins.
SE: Oh. So, there’s that hope out of despair. You figure it out because you‘re really motivated not to be stuck in the cul-de-sac.
RM: I think every kid who grew up on a cul-de-sac has the same experience. We scrambled down and rode our bikes down on the concrete bayous. It was magical, like being transported underneath the fabric of the city, with cars passing overhead. So we ask what’s already working—then we formalize local know-how and hacks to retrofit the environment to help it work better.
“Norms can change really quickly. There’s a case for optimism there.”
SE: Like a hike-and-bike so you don’t have to ride on the concrete bayou.
RM: Right. And I could get through that cut-through, but my grandma couldn’t. The house where my parents lived in in Missouri City, Texas, backed up on a utility corridor: a right-of-way that belongs to all of us. Those corridors can connect neighborhoods to bayous, or parks, or major thoroughfares where there are buses. And as we have seen with Houston bus reimagining, when you have high frequency buses, people will ride them.
SE: This idea of the city that serves a bunch of uses brings me to one idea you had to shut down major city streets on Sundays in different neighborhoods to create a safe area for street life.
RM: Well, it wasn’t my idea. All over Latin America on Sunday evenings they open the main street to pedestrians and people on bicycles or roller blades. Many of these towns, like Tamaulipas, Mexico, are in the middle of a drug war! But people and families defy their fear by gathering. If they could do it, why not Houston? Drawing on articles I had edited, I wrote up a petition, then the Chronicle endorsed it. Pretty soon I was meeting with staff from the city of Houston.
SE: Did you get a lot of pushback?
RM: Oh yeah. People were telling us it wouldn’t work. ‘You’re in Houston; people love their cars; it won’t be safe; it’ll make people mad; there will be a backlash.’ All kinds of nightmare scenarios. But it brought life to streets where most people would think it’s just impossible.
SE: I’ve been to those events in Latin America, and it is incredible what develops when you open a thoroughfare to pedestrians for a few hours.
RM: Now it happens on six Sundays per year in a different neighborhood. We did one in the Energy Corridor, in this really suburban environment. There was this giant parking lot in front of a grocery store. And there were all these bands—Indian Christians singing devotional songs in a Malayalam; a baby boomer garage band playing classic rock hits. People riding bikes on the streets. It was black people, Indian people, Asian people, white people: all these cultures mixing in this suburban parking lot. It was cacophonous, and really beautiful. I wish it were every Sunday.
SE: So you feel like Sunday Streets shows that the social life and connection emerge on their own even when the streets don’t look like, say, Brooklyn? That we can find optimism in that.
RM: The only thing that the city does is close the streets, and the neighborhood, businesses, and nonprofits do the rest. The design of the street matters and changing that takes time, but these temporary events show us what’s possible. We talk about Houston as the most diverse city in the country, but it often feels like we’re a bunch of little enclaves, without that mixing of people and ideas that we’d hope would come out of that diversity. But it happened then on that suburban street. The cars come back, and the life goes away, but the images that come out shift how people think about what’s possible. Norms can change really quickly. So there’s a case for optimism there.