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American Society of Landscape Architects


July 2005 Issue

Evolution of an Ecoburb
In the 1970s, The Woodlands outside Houston was hailed as a model of ecological planning. Has its innovative natural drainage system stood the test of time?

By Ann Forsyth

Evolution of an Ecoburb
Cynthia L. Girling

In the field of landscape architecture, The Woodlands, a development outside Houston, is famous for its ecological planning under the direction of the late Ian McHarg. Initially developed by oil and gas magnate George Mitchell, The Woodlands is designed primarily to protect relatively invisible water systems, allowing aquifer recharge and limiting runoff. It combines an emphasis on hydrology with an aesthetic that uses the original woods to mask development. The development's significant commitment to the environment was unexpected for the pet project of a person who had made his money in energy exploration.

Opened in 1974, the development had a population of over 55,000 by the 2000 census; however, it has been growing rapidly since Mitchell sold it in 1997, and it now ranks in the top-10 developments for home sales in the country. Three decades after its planning, I examined The Woodlands, along with two other developments started in the 1960s and 1970s, Irvine, California, and Columbia, Maryland. All had been explicitly designed as alternatives to sprawl, and each had pioneered smart growth and sustainable design techniques still considered to be at the cutting edge. All are still under development and show what such strategies as smart growth or low impact design look like when implemented by highly competent design and development teams over a long period. To find out what locals thought of the three developments, I interviewed 140 people involved in the development of these new communities, as well as residents, civic leaders, and activists. I also read dozens of oral history interviews, census and other government data, archives, local histories, physical observations, and resident opinion polls, and I studied GIS data and analyses of maps and aerial photographs.

Of the three, The Woodlands had the most explicit early commitment to environmental principles, but even in its early planning, it made significant trade-offs between McHarg's desire to keep much of the site intact and the realities of development economics. The Woodlands has always focused more on designing for water quality than for habitat protection, waste reduction, or energy efficiency. While many see the development's recent growth spurt as moving away from earlier principles, there have always been compromises in The Woodlands.

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