Jim Lester, president and CEO of the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), began the workshop by discussing various definitions of sustainability. Sustainability is traditionally thought of as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” the definition put forward in the 1987 Brundtland Commission report. Lester also presented two other definitions: “a strategy for improving the quality of life while preserving the environmental potential for the future” (NCE, 1993) and “the reconciliation of society’s developmental goals with the planet’s environmental limits over the long term” (NRC, 1999). He noted that the business community also has embraced “the triple bottom line” approach, which focuses on the economic, environmental, and social pillars of sustainability.
The challenge is to understand what these definitions mean for a large urban area, like the Houston metropolitan region. As Dr. Lester explained, the metropolitan region consists of eight counties, an area the size of New Jersey, with six million people, making it the sixth largest metropolitan region in the country. Contributing to the city’s economy are approximately 5,000 energy-related firms; the Texas Medical Center, which treats almost five million patients a year; and the Port of Houston, which ranks first in the country in terms of international tonnage shipped. Houston has international trade through its ports and airport, food sourced globally, and building materials shipped in from all over the world. In this context, making Houston sustainable is a global issue, said Dr. Lester; however, he noted that many of the drivers of sustainability for Houston can be addressed locally.
Katherine Lorenz, president of the Mitchell Foundation, stated that they have implemented such efforts locally, focusing on decarbonizing the power sector and funding projects around water issues for rivers and streams in central Texas. Sustainability is the issue of our time, she
stated, and more so than any other issue, it is important to get this one right.
Toward Sustainable Communities
John Randolph, professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), gave his vision of a sustainable community, explained its importance, and discussed potential pathways toward sustainability. He noted that a sustainable community is foremost livable, accessible, and affordable, with a stable economy, healthy ecosystems, and an engaged public. Air quality, the efficient use of resources, and reduction of carbon emissions have become strong indicators of a region’s movement toward sustainability. He explained that a sustainable community is also resilient, in that the community has the ability to adapt and change, in response to changes in the local environment and economy; economic resiliency is an important aspect of a sustainable community. Dr. Randolph described five “Ds” that relate to smart growth and mobility: density, diversity, design, destination accessibility, and distance to transit.
Five D’s to Smart Growth and Mobility:
- Density: population and employment per acre
- Diversity: mixed use residential and commercial/jobs
- Design: aesthetics, sidewalks, and street connectivity
- Destination Accessibility: ease of trip from point of origin
- Distance to Transit: ¼ to ½ mile from home or work
John Randolph, Virginia Tech,
January 18, 2012
Smart growth, he noted, is the type of growth needed in urban areas. To prevent urban sprawl, density needs to be built up in places to relieve pressure on outside areas. Diversity is key, with mixed-use development needed not only in terms of commercial and residential properties, but also in terms of income diversity. Compact, mixed use, and walkable places that are accessible in terms of distance from transportation are needed.
Many communities are developing around the concept of the 10- or 20-minute walk—the distance to public transportation and commercial cores. Arlington County, Virginia is often cited as a model with major economic development along the route of the Washington subway system. Many people who live in Arlington County do not own cars because they participate in car-sharing programs or use the Metro subway system as their primary means of transportation.
Arlington County reveals the clear advantages of a smart growth development pattern over conventional sprawl, in terms of carbon emissions, land consumption, household vehicle miles traveled, and property values, Dr. Randolph said. Combining affordability for transportation and for housing into one metric makes it clear that auto dependency consumes more household income, leaving less for housing costs. In communities where distances traveled are shorter, households do not need multiple cars, making more financial resources available to cover housing costs.
Armando Carbonell, chairman of the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, discussed scaling issues as they relate to sustainability. He cited a recent report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Making Room for a Planet of Cities (Angel et al., 2011), which stated that cities throughout the world and over a long period of time have been growing less dense. Rapidly growing cities in developing countries, where most of the urbanization will take place in the next 25 years, will take up twice as much space per capita as cities have taken up historically. There is a gross dedensification occurring even as our awareness of the need for density – and the value we place on it – grows.
Mr. Carbonell said that there are three scales that need to be considered when working toward urban sustainability: global, national/mega-regional, and local. As an example of a global issue affected by urban sustainability, he pointed to climate change. According to the Clinton Climate Initiative, cities cover less than one percent of the earth’s surface, but are disproportionately responsible for causing climate change. A recent policy report from the Lincoln Land Institute found tremendous carbon savings from increasing the intensity of development (buildings and transportation) in an urban setting (Condon et al., 2009). There is also a need to integrate across scales – from building to block to city to region – in order to understand how various factors that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change operate together, Mr. Carbonell noted (Figure 2-1).
Climate adaptation will be necessary in adjusting to a world with more water than we currently have, added Mr. Carbonell. The Netherlands, for example, has about 50 percent of its land, 60 percent of its population, and 70 percent of its gross domestic production below sea level. After experiencing major flooding in the 1950s, the country built up a lot of experience in structural flood control and adapted by being resilient to floods. Their policy, called Room for the River, examines humanity’s relationship to water and allows for more space to be given up as a way to accommodate changes occurring due to climate change.
FIGURE 2-1 Scales of urban form and policy instrument to impact green house gas emissions.
SOURCE: Armando Carbonell presentation, January 18, 2012.
As an example of a national-scale sustainability effort, Mr. Carbonell discussed America 2050, a plan that the Lincoln Land Institute developed with the Regional Plan Association in New York (America 2050, 2012). The plan addresses issues such as national-level infrastructure planning, population change, climate change, dependence on foreign oil, and economic disparities. Though not widely known, Mr. Carbonell noted, the United States has a long tradition of national
planning. In 1808 Thomas Jefferson was responsible for encouraging the Gallatin Plan (Fishman, 2007), and in 1908 Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot developed a natural resources plan for the country (Black and Saundry, 2008).
Although population growth has slowed in the United States, distinct megaregions have developed around the country (Figure 2-2), Mr. Carbonell said. For example, the zone running along the Atlantic corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C. is surrounded by a vibrant ecostructure—the Appalachian Mountains, coastal areas, and major river systems—which supports the cities of the eastern megaregion. While population growth in many of these megaregions has slowed, urban sprawl has not. If a more compact pattern of development were to occur, often referred to as smart growth, much less new land would be required to meet population needs. An important complement to smart growth is landscape conservation, biodiversity, and reduced impacts of climate change on the viability of these habitats. What is needed, Mr. Carbonell stated, is to link cities to wilderness areas and create opportunities for people who live in cities to have contact with nature.
On the local scale, Mr. Carbonell described edgeless cities—underutilized spaces or vacant and dead spaces that could be developed. Taking this space into consideration, there is enough land available to accommodate future population growth in the United States and much of this land could be redeveloped in a more sustainable way. One example he cited is the City of Surrey, British Columbia; the city wanted to design a community where sustainability policies became tangible elements of community development. The result is a 560-acre development in the East Clayton neighborhood with 5,000 units of housing, 13,000 residents, over 5,000 jobs, and a projected development time of 20 years. This development has proceeded in a sustainable way, with features such as a naturalized water retention system, greenways, and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly corridors (East Clayton Neighborhood Concept Plan, 2000).
FIGURE 2-2 Mega-regions in the United States.
SOURCE: Armando Carbonell presentation, January 18, 2012.
Local and Regional Efforts in the Houston Metropolitan Region
Jeff Taebel, director of community and environmental planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC), gave an overview of a recently awarded $3.75 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under its Partnership for Sustainable Communities with the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).1 Houston was one of 45 regional areas that received funding through this program, aimed at building economic competitiveness by connecting housing with good jobs, quality schools, and transportation. In addition to the initial grant money, another $2 million in matching contributions was given by consortium partners. The consortium is composed of government, nonprofit, academic, economic development organizations, private sector, and other special purpose entities, Mr. Taebel explained. Activities funded by the grant are now 14 months into a three-year planning process, which will conclude at the end of 2013. Despite the size and breadth in scope of topics covered, Taebel emphasized that they still view this as a neighborhood plan.
1Created in June 2009, the Partnership for Sustainable Communities was formed to ensure that housing and transportation goals are met, environmental protection is ensured, and equitable development promoted.
Mr. Taebel commented on Houston’s rich history, including its geographic and demographic diversity, economic vitality, community inclusiveness, and affordability. H-GAC serves as staff and main fiscal agent for the project, with a steering committee providing guidance. HGAC is made up of the region’s local governments and their elected officials, and works with public-and private-sector organizations to solve area-wide problems. The 13 counties in H-GAC’s service region are: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Matagorda, Montgomery, Walker, Waller, and Wharton. Additionally, there are more than 100 member cities in the region.
In addition to H-GAC’s oversight, there are also technical advisory groups, comprised of experts in five subject areas: housing, transportation and infrastructure, economic development, the environment, and sustainable communities. The advisory groups provide technical input, and review and ensure that the plan is grounded in best practices. Social equity is cross-cutting and an element of all the subject areas, Mr. Taebel noted. The technical advisory groups define problems, and explore options for meeting goals. These options and goals are then evaluated by four Regional Transect Groups made up of stakeholders with expertise in urban, rural, and coastal topics, who are tasked with reviewing implementation strategies and ensuring that plan metrics are suitable for all geographic areas.
Much of the time and budget for the Sustainable Communities plan will be invested in two components, case studies and public engagement. Case studies will be done in each of the four transect areas. The intent is to use local jurisdictions in the urban, rural, and coastal groups to develop a comprehensive approach to improving sustainability by working with local officials, staff, and stakeholders. Feedback will be gathered on possible ways to implement the plan, in order to shed light on the activities most likely to be achievable. The public engagement component, Mr. Taebel explained, will consist of 200 community meetings throughout the region, a major survey, kiosks at high-traffic events, and a multi-prong social media approach. Additionally, there will be focus groups, interviews with community leaders, and training for community ambassadors, particularly in communities of color and communities where English is not primarily spoken, in order to gather ideas and input into what a more sustainable Houston would look like. Lastly, a governmental advisory community composed of elected officials from rural counties and other urban areas in the region will be tasked with periodically assessing the work as it is developed.
Several synergies have evolved from this process, Mr. Taebel explained. The first was with the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). The public engagement process for the Sustainable Communities plan can also serve as the public engagement process for the RTP. In addition, the two projects will share goals, scenarios, and metrics moving forward. Another area of synergy involves the Conservation Fund, a non-profit organization aimed at conserving land, training leaders, and investing in conservation. The organization is leading efforts on a green infrastructure planning project for the Houston-Galveston region, and elements of the project will be incorporated into the environmental strategy for the regional Sustainable Communities plan. A third area of cooperation involves the Gulf Coast Economic Development District, a non-profit that envisions a healthy regional economy for citizens of the Gulf Coast. This organization, which is required periodically to do a comprehensive economic development strategy, will use the economic element of the Sustainable Communities plan as that strategy.
During the workshop, a breakout group highlighted some of the many local and regional sustainability activities in the Houston metropolitan area. Some neighborhood activities discussed included Transition Houston;2 Green and Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI);3 Houston Bike Ways Program;4 Urban Harvest5 and community gardens; the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC) Sustainable Communities Plan,6 and the expansion of the city recycling program.7
The Coastal Prairie Partnership8 was discussed as a key effort for protecting the remaining coastal prairie ecosystem, which used to be the most prominent ecosystem in the Houston area. The partnership is trying to build an organizational structure that will restore and protect the coastal prairie. Those involved are passionate about protecting the prairie because they see it as the basis for the initial development of Houston as a major city. It also is symbolic of the need for restoration on a national
scale, as much of the tall grass prairie across the United States no longer exists.
Challenges and barriers to the efforts of the local organizations listed above and others were also discussed. Many participants stated that limited financial resources were the most critical barrier to pathways forward, and that more work needs to be done to identify and share funding sources. Cultural change and education were also mentioned as elements necessary to support sustainability efforts. Some participants offered the example of the Bike Ways Program, which tries to better educate bicycle riders and automobile drivers about road safety. Communication was also mentioned as a challenge, as well as the lack of coordination among organizations and businesses that are focusing on the same issues.
Several participants discussed the possibility of developing a sustainability plan for the region. The group recognized the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) as the central planning agency for the 13-county region, and therefore a key player in any regional sustainability plan. Participants in this breakout discussion also suggested including Region H for planning purposes in the region. Region H, which includes portions of the Trinity, San Jacinto, and Brazos river basins, and encompasses the Houston metropolitan area, adds an additional five counties outside of the H-GAC’s 13 counties.
Several members of the breakout group suggested that a comprehensive regional sustainability plan could be developed from a set of existing separate plans. For example, regional plans for energy and transportation are currently being developed, and could feed into this larger plan and possibly serve as models for other areas, such as public health or education, where plans are not being developed. The regional plan would need to be implemented incrementally, as the challenge of dealing with many individual jurisdictions and partners is enormous. Conceivably, partners and stakeholders in the plan would be involved in some issues but not necessarily in all decision making. The five additional counties in Region H, for example, might be involved only in water planning issues in the region.
They explained that although most components of the plan, such as transporta tion or water, would have a clear agency lead, some areas such as hazard management would not. This plan would need to entail both hazard mitigation and adaptation strategies; so a research component would be needed to help identify those strategies. The group finished by discussing how such a plan would be implemented, and again identified
H-GAC as a key organization with the breadth and influence to implement a plan covering many topical areas. Other agencies, such as the Region H water planning group or Texas Forest Service, would also be expected to collaborate with H-GAC to implement different components of the plan. Another key component of the implementation plan would be public participation; however, a functional model for how best to do that still needs to be identified.