Shannon Van Zandt
A comprehensive planning document that is already shaping growth in Liberty County, Texas earned its graduate Texas A&M urban planning student authors top honors from the American Planning Association Texas Chapter, a distinction ordinarily reserved for practicing professionals.
“The chapter’s awards committee considered the students’ work such a compelling entry they moved it into the professional planning category, where it topped a group of entries created by accomplished firms and municipal planning departments,” said Shannon Van Zandt, interim head of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning. “I couldn’t be more proud.”
Graduate planning students also earned both awards in the chapter’s student planning category.
The awards, recognizing the most innovative, extensive student and professional planning projects in the state, will be presented Nov. 3, 2017 at the Texas APA’s annual awards luncheon in Frisco, Texas.
A “stunning blueprint” to guide growth
Hailed by the Houston Chronicle as a “stunning blueprint” and a “gold mine of help and direction for coming growth,” the students’ 176-page Liberty County plan, which earned the Texas APA Comprehensive Planning Award, guides the county’s development of its economy, public infrastructure, housing, and transportation system, and guides its environmental stewardship.
The document has already been used by county officials for economic planning and will be a useful tool for years to come, said Jay Knight, Liberty County Judge.
The plan was completed September 2016 during two long semesters by students and faculty in four planning courses and one engineering course, with input from a diverse cross-section of the county’s residents.
An undertaking of the College of Architecture’s Texas Target Communities, a service, learning and public outreach program, the plan was based on public comments in 17 well-attended public forums attended by residents in the county’s three largest cities and in its unincorporated areas, said Jaimie Masterson, TTC program coordinator.
The county’s engagement with Texas A&M grew out of a partnership between TTC and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, which in 2015 was contacted by Knight who realized Liberty County, faced with development pressures from expanding Houston, had no plan for its anticipated growth.
“The extension service helps us identify communities in need and we, in turn, provide expertise on built environment issues,” said Van Zandt, a TTC faculty affiliate. “Many communities served by AgriLife are also dealing with development-related issues."
In the the TTC project, three Liberty County teenagers envisioned beneficial changes to the area in multimedia blogs and created a logo to brand the comprehensive plan and associated print materials with help from TTC, the Institute for Applied Creativity, and visualization students.
New life for an aging neighborhood
Sunnyside, an inner-city Houston neighborhood benefited from a plan, developed by former master planning student Saima Musharrat ’17, that garnered Texas APA’s Student Project Award. Mursharrat is now a planner at the Asakura Robinson Company.
Her plan addresses multiple needs in Sunnyside, one of Houston’s oldest African-American neighborhoods. Sunnyside, which has a 40% poverty rate, suffers from too many vacant lots and abandoned structures, is also vulnerable to hurricane-related flooding from Sims Bayou, which carries waters polluted Houston Ship Channel water into the neighborhood.
To spur the neighborhood’s economic growth and reduce its vulnerability to flooding, Musharrat developed a land use plan using input gathered by TTC-affiliated planning students from Sunnyside residents, who identified their neighborhood’s economic and environmental issues.
Her three-phase plan includes the development of a “green” neighborhood infrastructure that includes storm water mitigation techniques, new housing for residents in a variety of demographic groups, a new hospital and commercial areas.
She also created a master plan for a 202-acre site in the neighborhood to serve as a model for the overall plan.
Musharrat estimates her proposal, if implemented, will create more than 6,000 jobs, reduce the vacant lot rate from 50 to 6%, and increase the “green” space from 9 to 26% in the master plan area.
“This project should be considered as a starting point for regenerating underutilized lots and increasing flood resilience,” said Musharrat. “Vacant lands and abandoned structures provide excellent opportunities to increase resilience among hazard vulnerable populations.”
Planning for Grimes County’s transportation future
A comprehensive transportation thoroughfare plan for Grimes County, a mostly rural area east of College Station facing the major expansion of a state highway and a proposed high-speed rail line, earned its creator, Lauren Simcic ’16, a former Master of Urban Planning student, an honorable mention award.
In her plan, Simcic, now a strategic planner at Via Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, collaborated with policymakers to evaluate the state of the county’s transportation system, predicted the area’s growth in the coming decades, and presented tools to help the community guide transportation system growth in a positive direction.
She also proposed road design standards to bolster driver safety, clearer signage and roadway adjustments to improve county intersections with high crash rates, and the adoption of “green” road infrastructure to reduce flooding.
The plan, which she created as her graduate program final study, also included implementation steps and funding options.