Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | May 16, 2016
After this year’s Tax Day flooding in Houston, the Houston Chronicle wrote a story asking a question on the minds of many residents: “Is this the new normal?”
It had been less than a year since the 2015 Memorial Day floods battered much of the area, and residents were again contending with dire circumstances. In the aftermath, Houstonians asked whether the city’s sprawling growth had gone too far. From 1992 to 2010, development ate up 30 percent of Harris County’s wetlands, according to research from Texas A&M University. Now, Houston may be witnessing the consequences.
“That causes some serious problems in terms of water quality and quantity,” said Rachel Powers, director of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, a Houston-based environmental nonprofit.
Here, residents have become all-to-familiar with the term “100-year flood,” which happens more than every 100 years (technically, the term refers to a flood event that has a 1 percent probability of occurring in a given year).
The Tax Day flood dumped as much as two feet of rain in some parts of greater Houston. “Some areas saw the 10,000-year flood,” said Powers, who previously worked with the Harris County Flood Control District and Houston-Galveston Area Council before joining the advocacy group.
Powers said that, naturally, some Houstonians expressed the viewpoint that major flooding shouldn’t come as a surprise here and assumed — perhaps erroneously — that devastating floods are just a factor of life in the Bayou City.
But others are increasingly questioning the thinking behind the region’s booming, sprawling growth. Places like the Katy Prairie Conservancy — which includes 20,000 acres of protected prairie northwest of downtown — are increasingly being seen not just as open spaces but as critical water management infrastructure. “It looks like wildlife preservation, but it’s really protecting the city,” explained Jaime González, community conservation director with the conservancy.
Houston is not alone in rethinking its planning and development strategies. Experts from across the country joined Powers and González Friday for a discussion on water and environmental equity as part of Next City’s Vanguard conference, hosted by Next City and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Each shared examples of how cities are beginning to plan and design for disaster and recovery.
Flooding is the costliest natural disaster, said Justin Scheid, deputy director for the Office for International and Philanthropic Innovation at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Samuel Brody, of Texas A&M University, calculated that for every square meter of pavement it creates, Houston can expect at around $4,000 in flood damage. “Green spaces like Katy Prairie Conservancy,” González said, “are not luxury items. They’re actually forms of ancient technology.”
Part of the shift in thinking requires educating policymakers who often aren’t aware of the ecological underpinnings of their own cities, González said. Don’t take the emotion out of it, he warned. Make the problem visible. “If you can show somebody something, just show it to them,” he said.
In New York City, city officials and academic researchers partner on environmental and design issues through a program called Town and Gown. Once elected officials are better informed, said Ifeoma Ebo of New York’s Department of Design and Construction, her colleagues can use that knowledge to support their initiatives making more resilient neighborhoods.
But understanding a city’s environmental context is only one part of the equation. Finding the will to spend money to address problems is another. As Scheid said, the costs of bad decision-making are high. Pointing to the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Scheid said, “We destroyed an entire city’s water infrastructure, and that’s happening all over the place.”
In Houston, there are signs of a political shift. After the Tax Day flooding, Mayor Sylvester Turner appointed the city’s first flood czar, charged with developing both short- and long-term solutions to the city’s ongoing flood problems.
“Property owners throughout our area have become weary of flooding in the Bayou City, impatient with elected officials who offer explanations with no practical solutions,” Turner said at his state of the city speech earlier this month. “And some have and others are close to packing up and leaving our city unless we can convince them that we are going to do exponentially more than what they currently see.”