In late 2015, the first ship exporting crude oil to the global market left the Port of Corpus Christi after the end of a historic 40-year ban. By the end of the decade, the state of Texas had undergone a petrochemical renaissance regaining its image as a global fossil fuel superpower. At the dawn of this late oil-boom, regions in the Permian Basin in West Texas, in the Eagle Ford Shale, and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico are thriving with economic growth and prosperity. The colonial settlement history along the Texas coast goes back to the 18th century. Over the following 200 years, the success and failure of coastal towns in Texas have been connected to two crucial recourses: oil and water, which have been both a premise for settlement and a motor for growth. Within this context, an interdisciplinary team of architects, engineers, and public policy professors from The University of Texas at Arlington have started to conduct a design and research project focusing on the relationship between these two critical recourses and the built environment.
Climate Adaptation Strategies
The aim of the project is to assess the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the petrochemical industry on the built environment around Corpus Christi Bay. The team analyzes (built) assets, identifies (ecological) challenges based on community input, and synthesizes these into climate adaptation strategies.
As assistant professor in architecture for ecological environments and digital design, I strongly believe that ecological approaches are based on the notion of place. As architects and academics, we must interact with communities and places to comprehend the complex networks between the natural and built environment which form, and are informed by, cultural habits. We need to let places guide us as designers. We need to listen and learn from local experiences gathered over generations. We need to translate the knowledge provided by nature, and by people, into parameters which shape the face of built interventions.
Respect and Be Respected
After taking my architecture design studios on field trips to New Orleans, Gulf Port, and Galveston to meet with communities, NGOs, and experts from various disciplines, we finally landed in Corpus Christi in the fall of 2018.
Born and raised in Austria, I had doubts on how coastal communities would react to, what I later called, a “double outsider,” as I was neither from Corpus Christi, nor from the United States. Our first interactions with Corpus Christi City Planning and the Port of Corpus Christi Authority unveiled the strong Texas values of hospitality. The entire team, including the students, collaborators, and myself, was welcomed with open arms. Big controversies on sensitive topics relating to industry happened in a respectful and constructive way. As architects, we must respect the given context, including fauna and flora, as well as the people we design for.
Social Media Communities
To organize successful community workshops, the first step is to identify key stakeholders who could bring their constituencies to the table. These stakeholders might be elected officials, public or private institutions, or community and social media groups. Their networks can ideally be activated to promote events and engage a variety of community members to start a dialogue. In our case, we were only successful when we reached out to individuals directly, explaining who we are, what the project was about, and what we would like to achieve. As we started to promote events in social media groups, we quickly earned several negative comments, as people did not trust us or our intentions as an academic institution. Questions on project funding, and potential ties to political groups and corporate players were raised. Gaining trust after the initial postings was time-consuming and only successful as I started to personally approach each and every one of the 40+ people who repeatedly commented on postings. Hiding behind institutional platforms, logos, or affiliations is not possible: People want to meet real people. Only personal involvement enables the formation of essential networks across communities.
Find the Right Venue
After we had met with a variety of stakeholders, we identified several locations for community workshops. One event was scheduled to be held at the Ortiz Center in Corpus Christi, a facility owned by the Port of Corpus Christi Authority. While the Port has been a reliable and important stakeholder for us, certain parts of the community were outraged of the Port’s development future plans and questioned our integrity by choosing this location. We earned a lot of mistrust and lost important groups of community members by choosing a venue that looked great for us in the organizing phase but sent the wrong message to community members. While we tried to hold only three events, hoping to have participants from different communities attend, we came to realize that each community preferred their own meeting within their own neighborhood. We had to be flexible and adapt the strategy in an attempt to host additional events, or we would have lost representation of certain areas. Institutional framework and grant funding allow for little flexibility, as schedule, budget, and outcomes must be pre-defined. Ultimately, we developed an overarching additional research proposal to spend more time in the engagement phase while finishing up the initial project simultaneously.
Participatory design processes, as a collective dialogue between the respective community stakeholders and the design team, allow for a better understanding of the complex systems which establish urban environments. These processes are based on personal involvement and are built upon the values of integrity and honesty. They are essential to gain respect and to build trust beyond professional interaction.
We followed a World Café method (Brown, 2005) for our community workshops, ensuring that each person has the chance to be part of each discussion at a certain point during the event. We provided four topics to discuss assets and challenges as they relate to the built environment in the larger Corpus Christi Bay area. In addition to the focus group discussions, we had a video booth set up for individual interviews. These booths often provided a more intimate atmosphere where people felt more open to speak out on critical topics. The events ended with a closing discussion where the respective table hosts reported major discussion points to the entire group. The exit survey allowed us to collect quantitative data from the participants. While a structured schedule was important to finish on time, discussions in small groups of interested people would continue way beyond the set timeframe. In the phase of forming relationships with community members, it is important to spend extra time making sure every voice is heard.
To synthesize this article, here some key take-aways:
1. Be Personally Involved
Have a true and honest desire to work with communities to develop a certain project. Show the community that you are not just doing your job, but that you care about the project and the community with which you work.
2. Motivate Your Team
Community work is a team effort. Make sure to motivate your co-workers, employees, or students and make them excited about the project and place you are focusing on.
3. Be a Mediator
To keep a broad range of stakeholders at the table, become a mediator between different mindsets and opinions, especially when discussing sensitive topics.
4. Explore Particular Solutions
Different places ask for different solutions. Unique strategies apply generic concepts giving places a particular identity.
5. Stay Connected
Understand the communities’ input without preconceived opinions. Stay in touch with updates, keep community members informed about the progress, and share outcomes.
Oswald Jenewein is an architectural designer, teacher and researcher working on the convergence of architecture and design of built landscapes, geopolitical territories and spatial regimes in context of Post-Oil Environments. Oswald is an assistant professor in architecture for ecological environments and digital design at The University of Texas at Arlington, where he also founded and directs FUELED – the Future Environments Lab for Ecological Design. He was a 2019 Marshall-Plan Research Fellow and was selected to exhibit at the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale as part of the UNESCO Water and Human Settlements Initiative. Recent publications include “The Texas Coast as Geopolitical Territory: The Spatial Regime of Burning Fossil Fuels in Coastal Landscapes of Oil.” Oswald received his professional architecture degree at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.