on Oct 19, 2017
The 2017 Hurricane Season has been one of extraordinary magnitude and devastation. The back-to-back Hurricanes of Harvey, Irma, and Maria have been economically and physically destructive across the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, particularly so in Puerto Rico and many Caribbean nations. While immediate recovery efforts demand a focus on emergency operations and restoration of basic services, we must shortly turn to the opportunity to rebuild better, including in Houston, the fourth-largest and second-fastest-growing city in the United States.
Houston thrives on its promise of economic opportunity, socioeconomic diversity, and a high quality of life. Continued growth will require a new commitment to the social and physical infrastructure on which the city depends, delivered equitably and resiliently. These advances could be expedited by the influx of federal disaster recovery funding coming Houston’s way – $14 billion has already been appropriated, and if past events are any precedent, billions more could be forthcoming. Rebuilding is a generational opportunity for the region to define its future: the significant investments in rebuilding after Harvey can ensure the region is better able to withstand a wide range of future climate risks, while also providing a platform for continued growth, creating opportunities and ensuring more equitable results for current and future residents.
HR&A recently met with public, private, and non-profit leaders in the Houston area to support the long-term recovery from Hurricane Harvey and its more than 50 inches of rainfall. Building on those conversations and drawing on our work in Houston on Buffalo Bayou Park, Plan Downtown, and the Menil Collection, and our work building resilience in New York, Norfolk, New Orleans, Boston, and internationally through the 100 Resilient Cities program and the National Disaster Resilience Competition, we offer these recommendations:
Coordinate flood protection at the watershed level
Just as floods cross political borders, the response to Hurricane Harvey calls for joint planning and response across the affected region, including the City, State, Harris and other counties, and regional planning organizations such as Houston-Galveston Area Council. With nine counties and approximately 2,500 miles of waterways, including 22 bayous, within the Houston metropolitan area, water management and drainage is a regional issue, and interventions at the property or neighborhood scale can adversely impact other locations within a watershed. For reasons similar to those stated in the Climate Ready Boston plan, Houston’s regional agencies, utilities, and institutions must collaborate to conserve wetlands and mandate that open spaces are equipped with green infrastructure elements such as floodable waterfront park edges, porous pavement, rain gardens, and bioswales to help reduce the severity of flooding. Public sector leaders should work across jurisdictions to prioritize major infrastructure and policy investments that protect the region, including coastal surge protection of the Ship Channel, investment in major reservoirs, and preservation of the Bayou network and prairie ecosystem. Coordinated appropriately, local infrastructure investments and land use decisions become tools of a regional watershed approach.
Tailor neighborhood rebuilding to reflect the range of climate risks, neighborhood types, and community planning capacities
Some communities, such as Meyerland, have strong established institutions and a clear vision for future investment while other Houston communities have less robust local capacity and therefore require public leadership of planning and rebuilding. While planning leadership often looks to zoning as the central tool in response to climate preparedness and community development, Houston has shown that non-zoning responses, including innovative building and fire codes, stormwater requirements, public investments, and community-determined deed restrictions, can also be effective in delivering resilient land use.
Both for Houston neighborhoods and particularly for the communities along the coastline of southeast Texas, a model of allocating federal and State funding based on creation of neighborhood-based long-term plans could also be effective. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the New York Governor’s Office for Storm Recovery initiated the New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program. This local planning process helped communities across the state impacted by Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee to design community projects that could be funded with federal disaster recovery funds. This process was unique in its ambition to give communities ownership over locally-appropriate projects based on their own understanding of risk and vulnerability. Houston should leverage existing planning efforts, such as the Complete Communities initiative, to capitalize on the opportunity to tie rebuilding efforts into long-term community planning. Organized within a regional water management framework, neighborhood-level resilience plans should inform reinvestment and rebuilding in each community.
Houston is not the first city to be laid bare by a climate event and unfortunately it will not be the last. But from experiences helping other cities rebuild, we know that while natural disasters devastate, they also create opportunities for reinvention. From a record-setting storm comes a chance for the city of Houston and its surrounding region to emerge even stronger than before, revealing the silver lining of Harvey’s destructive path.