observers see Houston not only as the site of a demographic revolution, but also as a critical test bed for the state of Texas and the nation as they too move toward a “majority minority” population. Although ethnic diversity can provide a rich social environment for all residents, it can also be a source of strife as cultural misunderstandings and conflicts arise. In fact, such confrontations are presently the exception rather than the rule—given the remarkably spread-out nature of the metropolitan area, different ethnic groups tend to live in their own separate enclaves. Nevertheless, Houstonians are increasingly building social capital and showing tolerance and pride in their city’s diversity; citizen groups, for example, strive to involve all local ethnicities in their deliberations.
Houston residents routinely list poor air quality as the region’s worst pollution problem—the result of a broad array of highways, refineries, and other industrial facilities, many of them in close proximity to where people live, work, or go to school. Compounding this situation is the city’s heat island effect—that is, elevated urban temperatures that in addition to being a risk in their own right enhance the formation of photochemical smog. Results of such exposures are higher levels of respiratory diseases and cancer incidence. Major air pollution problems also result from indoor allergens and irritants such as dust mites, mold, pet-derived allergens, air fresheners, cigarette smoke, and cleaning solvents. Although after-the-fact fixes can improve the situation at the margin, experts suggest that the greatest improvements will come from longer-term and supply-side solutions such as partnership with industry and regulators; smart growth in community development (with improved public transportation options); green buildings (which are energy efficient and built with more healthful materials); reflective surfaces and trees; and devices, systems, and creative economic policies for reducing emissions from cars, trucks, and stationary sources.
The landscape of much of the Houston area, and indeed of so many other cities in the United States, is characterized by sprawl—poorly designed and often unchecked growth in outlying low-density areas, with little or no attention paid to the resulting social, environmental, and human health impacts. One very tangible set of outcomes is the dominance of the automobile and the near inevitability of traffic congestion, with extended times for commuting and virtually any other vehicle usage (i.e., running errands, picking-up children), enhanced risk of accidents and exposure to exhausts, and heightened stress and frustration. In many polls, traffic is listed as the region’s greatest problem, ranking higher than pollution, the economy, crime, and schools.