Walking downtown in Houston often means walking in “those bleak tunnels,” as Peter Brown put it, not on the street.

Flickr user Liêm Phó Nhòm.

Irascible, ornery, unconventional, Pedestrian Pete pushed Houston to be better and embrace walkable urbanism.

 

 

This post has been updated.

After serving on Houston City Council and an unsuccessful run for mayor, Peter Brown found another way to serve Houston as Pedestrian Pete. Through videos, poetry and editorials, Brown championed walkability and neighborhood-level planning in a city that struggles with the concepts still. With an architect’s eye, planner’s sensibility and a fedora, he railed against thoughtless new development and what he called “litter on a stick,” utility poles with a tangle of wires that sprout from Houston’s limited sidewalks like weeds in the concrete, only these weeds impede strollers, wheelchairs and walkers.

At 81 years old, Brown, founder of the non-profit Better Houston, still had a lot of fight in him left but cancer claimed the rest Tuesday.

“Our city owes him much,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner, who noted that Brown had worked with him on his own mayoral run back in 1991. “He helped shape my views on how to design and build an urban city, the importance of density, how to construct an effective transit-mobility system. It was Peter who recently gave the money to the city to change the street signs from Dowling to Emancipate Avenue.”

Brown supported a variety of efforts to help rethink and reshape Houston, including supporting planning studies and working with Metro.

“Today, we talk about urban design in Houston quite a bit. We have formal city efforts, we have some great public and private projects to show off, we even have people coming here from other cities to see them,” said Christof Spieler, engineer, Rice University senior lecturer and Metro board member. “None of that was happening when Peter Brown first started talking about how Houston could create great urban places and why it mattered.” Before the Main Street light rail line was even built, said Spieler, “he was talking about how transit could be part of a great street, that stations and tracks could work together with sidewalks and street trees and art to make a place where people would want to be.” Now, he said, “On my commute down Main this morning, I’ll be passing nice wide sidewalks, outdoor cafes, landscaping, new buildings that open up to the street, and lots of people, walking, outside, in Houston, Texas. Peter Brown played no small role in making that happen.”

Council member Robert Gallegos remembered Brown as a friend and passionate advocate for the city. “I remember him visiting my neighborhood when I was president of my civic club,” said Gallegos, “He had such a colorful and effective way of advocating for issues important to him and our city – whether pushing for smarter development, making Houston more pedestrian friendly, or advocating to harden our city’s electrical grid by removing unsightly overhead electrical wires, which he dubbed ‘litter on a stick.’”

Brown’s reputation traveled across the country. “Brown was one of the few people in Houston that I knew before I moved here,” said Bill Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute. “Most urban planners and urban designers in the United States knew who Peter was and admired his persistence in advocating for a more humane urban environment.” Though he said Brown could “be ornery and irascible and often didn’t have much patience for other people’s opinions,” Fulton said Brown did something revolutionary for Houston in asserting that people walking or taking transit had as much claim to the city as people driving. “This hasn’t always been a popular idea in Houston,” said Fulton, “but it’s an essential concept in building Houston as a 21st Century city.”

In his latest editorial for Houston Free Press, Brown asked, “Is Houston ready for walkable urbanism?” He found his answer in the work of his friend, Stephen Klineberg, and his Kinder Houston Area Survey.

Klineberg, the founding director of the Kinder Institute, called Brown “the personification of an engaged citizen.” Brown’s concerns were simultaneously practical and revolutionary. “Sometimes confrontational and controversial, he put his considerable energy and expertise to work in continually pushing Houston to develop into a more equitable, walkable, and attractive city,” said Klineberg. “He will be sorely missed by all who knew him and by the Houston community as a whole, whose urban life has been incomparably enriched by Peter Brown's many years of dedicated service.”

Indeed, surveys show that Houston is warming to the idea of walkable development. In 2017, 56 percent of Harris County respondents said they preferred to live in “an area with a mix of developments, including homes, shops and restaurants,” rather than in “a single-family residential neighborhood,” according to the Kinder Houston Area Survey.

Still many of his ideas – some of which included simply enforcing existing regulations – have yet to be fully realized.

“In the last month when I visited with him, he was still talking about what steps needed to be taken to improve this urban city which he deeply loved,” said Turner.

“As we move forward, we all should thank Peter every day for insisting that we listen to him and pay attention to his ideas,” echoed Fulton.

“This city is a better place because of the conversations he started, and that's making people’s lives, like mine, better every day,” added Spieler.

In his own words:

We drive and drive and drive,
And there’s nobody out there to meet,
But the city comes alive
When I start walking on the street!
I’ll keep walking and never despair,
even if the sidewalks are bare.
I’m out looking for pedestrians to greet,
because my name is Pedestrian Pete!

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