Name: Margaret Wallace Brown
Hometown: Houston, Texas
Degree: Bachelor of Science in Architecture
Graduation Year: 1983
Current Employer: City of Houston
Title: Director, Department of Planning and Development
Why did you choose the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design, and what drew you to design?
I have always been interested in buildings and neighborhoods and how the two relate to each other. As a child, I was fascinated by the intentionality of design, although I did not realize what it was, and was curious how buildings combined to make a neighborhood. In my teenage mind, I worked through the interplay between people and land uses, trying to understand how design related to aspects such as safety, openness, and beauty.
This interest led me to the University of Houston architecture program. As I progressed through the program, it became clear I was more interested in how people used buildings than in the design of buildings themselves. After choosing an Urban History class for one of my electives, my passion for community and “the big picture” was clear. I knew my future would be in building strong cities.
What was one of your favorite memories from your time on campus? Was there a particular professor who influenced your education?
When I was at UH in the 80s, the architecture school was in 40-year-old temporary buildings near the University Center. I remember the camaraderie among the students – the willingness to pitch in to help hold someone’s model until the glue dried, the long discussions about our studies, and the world around us. We all believed we could change the world with architecture. Years later, I remain convinced just how right we were.
Influential professors include George Tracy, who taught me how to think differently; Bill Stern, who helped me focus on my real talents; and Dean Jenkins, who listened, understood, and helped develop a degree plan serving both the College and me.
What has been your career path since graduation? Where are you currently working, and in what capacity?
Upon graduation, I spent several years working for Interfin Development Company, where I learned the ins and outs of land development. I refined my belief in architecture as a transformational discipline. Through collaborative and thoughtful design, architects have the power to improve entire communities.
In 1986, I took a job in the City of Houston Planning Department and put my community-building passion into practice. I thought the job would be a few years of public service, but I quickly realized I was making decisions and causing change that would have profound, long-lasting effects on the lives of Houstonians. Thirty-five years later, as the City’s Director of Planning & Development, I am still putting the lessons learned from the University of Houston to work – bringing together the principles of good urban design and community collaboration to improve Houston’s built environment.
As Director, I am working closely with the mayor to refocus the city toward more walkable, context-sensitive development. We are reviewing our development standards with an eye toward creating better streetscapes and more compact development, taking advantage of transit and other modes of transportation. Most importantly, we are assessing our rules to ensure that past inequities do not continue. We are building a city for all Houstonians.
What does a typical day look like in your job? Do you have a particular design or business philosophy?
I do not have a typical day. While I spend much of each day meeting with people, the subject matter varies greatly. The Planning Department has a portfolio including land-development regulations, strategic transportation planning, historic preservation, community and neighborhood planning, and Geographic Information Systems. Our work touches Houstonians in a myriad of ways.
One day I might be helping the owners of the few remaining historic structures in Freedmen’s Town navigate the complicated building permit system to preserve these 120-year old houses. The next day I am on a virtual call re-imagining the configuration of an urban corridor to maximize its multi-modality according to our Vision Zero Plan. Another day I assemble a committee charged with adjusting our development rules to encourage the construction of more affordable homes. These efforts have a common denominator – engaging strong design principles to strengthen Houston’s urban fabric.
What is one accomplishment of your career of which you are particularly proud? How do you feel that the College prepared you for this?
I am incredibly proud to be Director of Planning in the city I love, leading a talented group of professionals who have chosen public service. I take that responsibility seriously every day.
What is a valuable lesson you learned during your time at the Hines College of Architecture and Design?
I learned how to think broadly – how to bring disparate ideas together and make the sum greater than the parts. I learned hard work matters more if it is good work. I also learned the value of curiosity. Seek to learn new things because it makes you a more interesting person.
What is a piece of advice you would give to current Architecture and Design students?
Three things: (1) add value to everything you touch, (2) become someone others can trust and rely upon, and (3) remember integrity matters, always.
You can find out more about Margaret Wallace Brown ’83 by following her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook (Margaret Hobokan Wallace Brown). Check out the Houston Planning and Development Department on Twitter, Instagram, and their website.
Award-winning Walkable Places Users' Guide
Houston's Vision Zero Action Plan
Flyer from Workshop Conducted Jointly with AIA Houston
Allie and Margaret Wallace Brown in Buffalo Bayou park