[The Sprawl Net]

Utopia Limited

By Richard Ingersoll

Part 4
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(Continued) fewer amenities than the new towns founded a decade later. It occupies dubious land that once was used for oil exploration but no longer yields oil. The first thing one encounters from the off-ramp of I-45 are large oil pipes, surfacing and resubmerging into the soil. The breezes from the Ship Channel are seasoned with the unmistakable trace of petrochemicals. One of the big attractions of Clear Lake City, which is not legally a city, since it was incorporated into Houston in one of the most hotly contested annexation disputes in 1977, is Clear Lake, which is not ``clear'' and is near but not bordering the development. The brackish inlet contains the third largest marina in the country and is the site of great sailing activity. There is some genuine Gulf Coast feeling around the lake, probably because the master planners were not able to include it in the package.

Like Sharpstown, the first plots of Clear Lake City were tightly packed on long, wavy blocks. The later subdivisions seem to have learned from the Woodlands and First Colony and use cul-de-sacs and loops more astutely for greater privacy. One of the chief characteristics of Clear Lake City is that the major thoroughfares are lined with ten-foot concrete walls that shelter the back yards of the internal streets. This gives the subdivision a particularly impermeable and forbidding feeling, as well as walls that are truly ripe for graffiti. There are schools, big churches, and strip retail centers for the spiritual and physical needs of residents, but the landscape exudes about as much sense of community as a Motel 6. The Wetcher House by Peter Waldman, with its fanciful metal extrusions visible from across the Bay Oaks golf course, is one of the few instances of architectural achievement amid some very cheap-looking, expensive property.

Clear Lake City and Kingwood have none of the landscaping coordination of First Colony, nor do they pay much attention to the natural features that are implied in their names and advertisements. Their approaches to siting and subdivision are more perfunctory.

Kingwood was developed on 13,000 acres belonging to the King Ranch on the edge of Lake Houston. The current population is 37,000. Built in a forested area much like the site of The Woodlands, it bills itself as the ``livable forest''; but despite such evidence of good intentions as Charles Tapley's design for a nature trail for the first subdivision, Trailwood Village, which won a Progressive Architecture award in 1971, there is less of an apparent crusade here to preserve the forest. The publicity brochure shows a lush carpet of forest, but the trees of Kingwood have been unceremoniously cleared for construction, which has left lots of bald patches. The sites for the houses are quite visibly scraped, and front lawns are uniformly installed. The wetlands around the lake are preserved by law, so very few houses are close enough to see the water, and the golf courses are set out in this area to exploit the unbuildable land. As in Clear Lake City, the retail is clustered in strip-center packages that would be interchangeable with anywhere else. Each of the subdivisions is segregated by price range. The schools and churches are there, and the publicity boasts that 95 percent of the high school graduates go on to college -- but with incomes averaging $83,000 here, should that be any surprise?

Kingwood has bike paths in emulation of the Woodlands (Clear Lake City is apparently the only new town without them), but they are fairly pathetic grassy alleyways, rather than wooded paths. The houses have the look of being too many square feet for the family they were built for, but because of the trees do not seem quite as cramped on their sites as similar houses in First Colony and Clear Lake City.

Like all the other new towns, Kingwood is spread out in such a way that people do not need to come into contact. The sad relic of Humble, a town that once had a thriving Main Street, is not far away, stricken by a melancholy sort of emptiness that cannot compare with the hollowness of the master-planned environment. The lack of life and spontaneity in the new towns, wherever they are settled, is unsettling. While the Woodlands offers unique access to natural features and First Colony provides a cheery revival of grand landscaping, there is something mortifying about the way the new towns' evasion of the center's human problems is contingent on the invasion of the forests and fields, displacing whatever natural or landscape feature that was there and transmuting it into a name, as the ultimate act of semiotic instability.

HOUSTON'S NEW towns are the latest outpost of what Robert Fishman in reference to the history of the suburbs called the ``bourgeois utopia.''[12] Although the 1982 film Blade Runner contained an advertisement for suburbs in outer space, it is difficult to imagine that real estate developers will be able to entice the middle class to move any farther than this from the center city. Yet retail establishments and jobs have followed -- more than 10,000 people work at the Woodlands -- making it conceivable for development to spread to an even wider orbit around these satellites.

Real estate agents in the new towns emphasize recreation and schools over all other features; the last priority in their pitch is cultural activities,[13] which are generally deferred to the center city. Seen from the new town, the center signifies poor schools, crime, and People Unlike Us. The viability of the edge plays no small part in the erosion of the center. Even the meaning of the word ``center'' has decayed, since one is just as likely to find a ``center'' on the edge.

If the new towns looked more like towns, they would not necessarily feel more like them. ``Citizens make the town,'' Rousseau once said; but these people out on the edge, like most middle-class Americans, are perhaps too concerned about mobility, privacy, property values, and personal safety to really have time to participate in something like a community, which requires a continuous mediation of differences. For the bourgeois edge-dweller, history is a nightmare that can be awakened from as long as the mortgage payments are kept up.

New towns can be blamed for siphoning off the capital of the center and in the process helping to dissipate such notions as the public realm and civic virtue. They are extravagantly wasteful consumers of land and resources. They reinforce social and ethnic segregation. But among the greatest disappointments of the new towns is that there is so little architecture in them. Out there where the new wealth is breeding, and where the most building is going on, the demand for architecture is, paradoxically, at its lowest and most uninspired.

  1. Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York: Basic Books, 1987). [Back to text]

  2. Ewing, p. 63. Ewing did a survey of marketing priorities of 27 new towns. From highest to lowest, they were recreation, location, workplaces, master plan, schools, shopping, transportation, neighborhoods, housing, and social and cultural aspects. [Back to text]

© 1995 The Sprawl Net. All rights reserved.

lda@owlnet.rice.edu 5/22/95