Dr. Naomi Hanakata is an architect, urban designer, and urban researcher with experience in Zurich, Tokyo, New York, and Singapore. Andrew Albers is Chair of the Cite Editorial Committee and Vice President at OJB Landscape Architecture. Dr. Hanakata moderated the Rice Design Alliance civic forum on Wednesday April 25 called "What's the Plan?" that brought together leading national and international voices to discuss Houston’s post-Harvey urban future.
Andrew Albers: Please tell us about yourself and what drew you to design.
Naomi Hanakata: I grew up between a small town in the south of Germany and Tokyo, Japan. This rather schizophrenic condition of urban situations has certainly fed my curiosity about our urban environment and how it is produced and by whom. I always knew I wanted to study architecture and so I studied architecture and urban design in Switzerland while doing parts of my masters at Tokyo University. I was fascinated with increasingly larger scales and after working several years in the field of architecture in Japan I went back to school and did a PhD in Urban Geography and Urban Theory taking a global — or better planetary — perspective on urban questions and challenges.
Currently I am teaching a design studio here at Rice that is looking at sustainable strategies for urban development over the next 50-plus years for a particular area of Houston struck by Harvey and previous floods. At the same time, I am working at the Future Cities Laboratory in Singapore, which is a research branch of ETH Zurich, a leading science, technology, engineering, and mathematics university in Switzerland.
AA: On April 25, you moderated Rice Design Alliance’s civic forum called “What’s the plan?” featuring Charles Penland, an engineer with Walter P Moore; Albert Pope, a Rice Architecture professor; Beth White, CEO of Houston Parks Board; and Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The civic forum considered planning in response to the devastation we saw with Hurricane Harvey. As an outsider with a global perspective who has spent several months now in Houston, talk about what you’ve observed when it comes to planning in Houston.
NH: I encountered a great openness to change here in Houston. The city doesn’t have any zoning but it does have established practices and ways of doing things. I observed a critical questioning of some of these established practices during my work here. I believe it is a very exciting moment for the city, and I do think we need to come up with a “plan.” A plan not so much in the sense of a drawn document or result but a “plan” in the sense of a coherent strategy of how to organize our efforts and move forward. We need to come up with a comprehensive strategy for urban development taking into account the landscape and flood-prone condition of the area which is not going to go away.
AA: Certain areas in the city do planning exercises — Downtown, Uptown, Energy Corridor, and other areas have master plans — do you see the disparate planning efforts, within their own bubbles, as a positive or a negative?
NH: The fact that there is no city planning office or authority to manage and coordinate efforts in the region was quite surprising to me and I think it certainly adds to the challenging situation Houston is in right now. At the same time, the many attempts and efforts we witness are indicative of the energy and willingness of people to act. So what we need is a large-scale and long-term strategy that ties these efforts together and points us in the right direction.
AA: Is it a matter of better engineering? With bigger and grander plans, can we engineer our way out of the flooding problems? Do you see that as a viable approach?
NH: No, I believe we cannot engineer these issues away. On a short-term basis large-scale infrastructural interventions can make a change but I do not think a mere engineering approach is feasible or meaningful in the long run considering the origin of some of the water related challenges here in Houston. They are indigenous to the area — the territory of the city itself is a swamp. This is not a condition that we should consider as an inconvenience that we need to manipulate but as an opportunity to change our way of thinking and how we live with it. There are so many great examples elsewhere in the world where the cohabitation with certain environmental challenges has been more successful in the way people live their everyday life.
AA: Are there examples other than the Netherlands that Houston should be looking at around the world?
NH: Of course we always have to be careful when we try transfer or translate lessons from elsewhere. Though a 1:1 application is difficult, we can learn from how people have responded to challenges in other regions of the world. In Southeast Asia for example, there are regions where a significant change of the water level is part of the seasonal change which they managed to incorporate into their everyday life. There are months during the year where the back entrance becomes the front entrance because canals start to fill with water and the boat becomes the main means of transportation. Houses are built in a way so that they can cope with reoccurring floods without the everyday life being impaired by the water. Because of the limited resources in some of these regions, there is a certain humbleness in the response and a great creativity in finding ways to deal with these challenges rather than just building big infrastructures to make them go away.
AA: Do you think the recent changes to the building regulations in Houston, specifically the requirement for the finished floor elevations in new construction to be two feet above the 500-year floodplain, are important first steps?
NH: I think they are important first steps. We would, however, be misguided if we believed this would solve the problem entirely. People may feel safer when they incorporate these new requirements but if nothing else changes about the way we live, move, and communicate we will not get very far. What we need is a much more diversified approach. We have seen the consequences of Harvey on family life, on the health of people, and on our community networks. The impact of a catastrophe like Harvey is affecting multiple dimensions of the everyday. We need to think through these multiple dimensions coherently and collaboratively in order to make a meaningful and sustainable change in the long run. If we develop sustainable strategies for the area and think about the implementation procedurally we can enact a response that goes beyond the urgency of the moment and we can create a long-lasting change for the city.
AA: Albert Pope has been advocating the abandonment of the floodplain. Do you think that is a viable or realistic approach?
NH: I do think that vacating areas within the 100-year floodplain has to happen to a certain extent for sure. What makes this proposal challenging to accept is if we don't create alternative housing for people to relocate to while maintaining their social ties and community networks. We cannot just say we offer buyouts but we need to think about what these people need and what can be done elsewhere in order to respond to these tremendous changes we are requesting accordingly. The housing response in particular has not been very successful in terms of a) offering alternative spaces for people who are willing to leave flood-prone areas or b) creating incentives beyond monetary compensation for people to relocate.
AA: People here have a desire to own a house on property they can see the boundaries of. They want to own the dirt. Is that part of the challenge?
NH: We need to discuss the sociocultural importance of owning the dirt. For me this is what needs to become part of a public debate: the possibility of a change in values and what that might imply. And I think that is exactly where a comprehensive and long-term strategy becomes necessary: a way forward that speaks to the socio-cultural specificities of the area and a way forward that addresses the various fears people might have. One thing we can do is work with natural lifecycles of buildings which is about 20 to 30 years rather than forcing buyouts. If we can work with the given cycles of building stock for example, people might be more willing to cooperate.
AA: You have only lived in the US for this semester. Do you see your students having the same relationship to property and the automobile as older generations that own most of the land? Do you see that same pattern?
NH: This is a very interesting question. In an international environment like Rice, some of the U.S. students see it as natural to own land and a car but they are then confronted with different scenarios shared by their colleagues from China and Europe, for example. Having international students makes them reflect on different scenarios of what a good urban environment can entail. So I would say we can witness a questioning of certain aspects of what defines accomplishment and what defines our identity – aspects that have become the norm over decades. Also, this younger generation of students today is to some extent already much more mobile and the commitment to a piece of land is already more challenging.
Here, it is also interesting to look at Japan: natural catastrophes are an eminent threat, whether it is earthquakes or tsunamis. Your material possessions are always at a high risk of disappearing the next day. That has led to a high cultural value of the immaterial and the symbolic meaning of things. You find the most sophisticated artisan productions but it is much more the knowledge and process that people celebrate. The product itself can disappear. Land is valued highly but the building you construct on the site can perish instantaneously. It is a completely different value system.
AA: Beth White was on the panel speaking of the relationship of parks to the issue. How do you think parks fit into the strategy?
NH: I think it is not only a question of parks but one of open space — addressing open space in and of itself is a very important dimension when dealing with water related challenges in particular. Providing open spaces and buyout options is something that has to be developed hand in hand in forming a long-term strategy.
AA: What are your thoughts of the Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative right now? Bayous and power-line easements are being used for trails. These initiatives in Houston are creating an open space network, a park network that forms another network of connectivity through the city. Is that a viable place to start?
NH: Absolutely. These networks are interlinked not just for the sake of water — water is always connecting — but also for the quality of our habitat. Having a network of open spaces is one of the potential starting points, I believe. Furthermore, a good open space network can also be an incentive for people to rethink their mode of daily transport – something which has to happen even in a city like Houston at some point.
AA: Rice Design Alliance recently held a tour celebrating women designers and published a series of interviews on the same theme. Like many other professions, architecture is in the midst of questioning and organizing associated with the #MeToo movement. What has been your experience and do you see changes underway?
NH: Yes I’d definitely say there is a strong gender bias in the practice of architecture and within the academic discipline. At the same time, I also see it as a time of amazing opportunities where different voices have a greater chance to be heard and it is becoming more obvious how important it is to consider a range of opinions and perspectives in order to create a good urban environment.
The Balance series and tour of the Rice Design Alliance is a testament to that I would say. There is still a long way to go but I am optimistic.
AA: What advice would you give to people entering design?
NH: Coming back to your initial question about what drew me to architecture to begin with: one of the most fascinating things about design is that it speaks to so many different dimensions in our immediate surroundings. It requires you to take different perspectives and to work with different disciplines. The advice I always give students is to think from different perspectives. It is fundamental that we develop the capacity to take up different perspectives and viewpoints and be aware of the barriers that might separate them. This applies to different disciplinary perspectives as well as different socio-cultural perspectives. Always be curious and think through different places and understandings; do not limit yourself to the one you have grown familiar with.
This capacity is key with regards to the flooding issues as well: it is not something we can tackle in one location nor by ourselves. There is always a place upstream and a place downstream. Just by intervening in one place, we are not going to make much of a difference. I think that water lends itself as a great opportunity to realize how important it is to pull together on the same string and for that to happen communication is the most essential element: to find a common ground for communication and understanding not only of the issues that concern all of us but also better understanding of each other. It is hard work to establish this common ground, but I am optimistic we will be able to build it sooner than later.
I hope the civic forum was an opportunity to place the first stone for such common ground, for a productive and respectful communication. We have to think collaboratively in new ways, and in a manifold of scales, and temporalities.