The Dream of Designing with Nature: The Woodlands, Texas, USA
Kristine Swann


Photo Source: Ted Washington

           The Woodlands community development lies 30 miles north of Houston, Texas. The land lies in the Gulf Coast Plain, and as such, it is flat, near sea level, with a clay soil. Prior to its development, the land was thickly forested and owned by a lumber mill. The forest consisted of a mix of hardwoods and softwoods, although dominated by various pine species. The Panther Creek watershed runs through the area with many arroyos and one perennial stream, Spring Creek, forming the largest body of water in the southeastern section of the land (HUD, 1972).

            George Mitchell of the Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation spearheaded the development, purchasing 17,000 acres of land in the hopes of creating an alternative to the suburban sprawl he saw in Houston. While a large portion of the funds for the project came from Mitchell's company, as well as George Mitchell's own fortune, another large portion of the funds came from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), under Title VII, the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1970 (Forsyth, 2005). This funding source shaped the project's goals, as they had to comply with HUD's rigorous demands. To meet these requirements, Mitchell hired a dream team of some of the finest environmental planners, architects, and engineers to work on the project, including but not limited to: Wallace, McHarg , Roberts and Todd (environmental planning), William L. Pereira Associates (master planning and design), and Richard P. Browne Associates (development, engineering, and HUD liaison - also known for their work in Columbia, MD) (Morgan and King, 1987; Forsyth, 2005). The land was to be divided into separate villages, with each village having its own theme (HUD, 1972; Morgan and King, 1987; Forsyth, 2005). The proposed population was to be 150,000 by year 2000, with a gross citywide density of 2.8 units per acre (HUD, 1972; Forsyth, 2005). It is important to note that from the time the development was announced, The Woodlands was considered in extraterritorial jurisdiction of Houston, making the process for approval of the techniques used in the development much easier than it would have been otherwise, due to Houston's lack of zoning regulations (Forsyth, 2005).

            One of the key players, if not the key player in the planning process of The Woodlands was Ian McHarg, whom Mitchell had sought out in particular for the project after reading McHarg's Design With Nature (Morgan and King, 1987; Forsyth, 2005). McHarg looked at The Woodlands as an opportunity to apply his theory of ecological determinism - allowing the ecology of the land to determine what development could and should take place ( McHarg, 1969; Morgan and King, 1987; Forsyth, 2005). Along these lines, an in-depth study of the land took place, and it was decided that the two major environmental/ecological functions that needed to be protected were the hydrologic system and, as one would guess, the woodlands. Particularly within the hydrologic system, issues with storm water runoff were addressed, with a focus on reducing the runoff and using natural systems to do so (HUD, 1972; Morgan and King, 1987; Forsyth, 2005). The second goal was to preserve the woodlands, principally their biodiversity and species richness. In doing so, there was the hope that soil erosion would be reduced and the wildlife would be minimally impacted by the development (HUD, 1972). In addition to these major functions, there were more anthropocentric goals associated with the development, such as an extensive pedestrian/bicyclist system through the woods (to create a level of awareness of the local ecosystem), and a high rate of attached residential units and correlating to this, a high rate of low income housing (to create a more diverse community than could be seen in the suburbs of Houston). The methods by which they attended to these goals will be discussed in the Innovations page here.  

            The Woodlands opened to the public in 1979, and has been developing ever since. The Woodlands of today has changed quite a bit since the first plans were put into action. Surrounding land has been accumulated over the years, and the development now encompasses 25,000 acres. Many of the techniques used in the first villages have been abandoned, not due to any failure on the techniques parts, but rather, due to the market demand for a more conformal suburban feel. However, it is important to recognize The Woodlands for what it is: woodlands, and in this aspect, it has done quite well in achieving this portion of its goals.          







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Green Urbanism and Ecological Infrastructure || Instructor, Jack Ahern

Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

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