An Optimistic Response to Harvey

Courtesy Willow Waterhole Greenspace Conservancy.

Cite Editorial Committee

As we begin to understand the extent of damage and start picking up the pieces from Harvey’s devastation, we need to think of how we should rebuild. The nomenclature of flood events, 100-year and 500-year events, has broken down. With now three major flooding events in little over two years time, the Memorial Day floods (2015), the Tax Day floods (2016), and now Harvey (2017), it is time to accept that we must face our new reality.

Some Houstonians are looking for a single culprit. For some, the fault for repeated, catastrophic flooding lies with developers who did not build adequate on-site detention. Others will point to continued sprawl and blame flooding on the loss of prairies, natural systems which store and absorb water. Others will call out unfinished infrastructure projects, along Brays Bayou in particular. Others still will take a historical view that Houston has flooded from the beginning and we are fools to expect anything else. All these views have some truth to them but we need to think even more comprehensively and synthetically than these points alone.

Harvey unloaded over 9 trillion gallons of water on the region and the ensuing devastation is so enormous it demands a more ambitious approach than any single magic bullet idea. In 2008, when Hurricane Ike indirectly hit Houston, the price tag came out to $27 billion. This storm is much worse and billions of dollars will be spent rebuilding. Will we be smart about how that money is spent? Will we keep repairing housing inside the floodzone instead of offering choices, buyouts, or incentives for people to relocate? The biggest challenge, in our view as the editorial committee of Cite: The Architecture and Design Review of Houston, is to be optimistic enough to imagine a way forward that addresses many challenges and opportunities at once. We can look to local examples like Willow Waterhole and Bagby Street that both mitigate flooding and enhance quality of life.

We must find a way to co-exist with the bayou ecosystem, not get in its way. As Albert Pope, a professor at Rice Architecture, has pointed out in a series of proposals, most of Houston’s housing stock will be rebuilt over the next 50 years. It would make the most sense to plan that development outside floodplains. It’s a simple idea that requires a big shift in how we insure, subsidize, finance, and govern ourselves. We have to rethink our economy the way Jim Blackburn, Rice Professor in Practice and co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED), has come to understand it: ¨‘economy’ as a flood mitigation alternative.¨

We should push for collaborative regional planning entities in lieu of independent fiefdoms of utility districts. Texas has produced innovative approaches in the past. Galveston reinvented municipal government to raise the entire city up after the Great Storm of 1900. When subsidence started swallowing up whole neighborhoods, the entire region worked together to transition from ground to surface water. Bayou Greenways 2020 is creating the beginnings of a new backbone that marries flood mitigation, parks, transportation, ecosystems, and economic development. The proposed Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area would provide a tourism infrastructure for private landowners and institutions that agree to preserve the natural buffers that protects our coast. Likewise, the dikes, floodgates, and seawalls we need to protect lives and industry from storm surges and rising sea levels can be designed to help not hurt wildlife and improve rather than impede public access to our bays and beaches. We should look to the lessons learned from New Orleans, where the response to Katrina exacerbated inequalities, and from the Dutch, who have developed a holistic approach to water management.

Most of all, we, as members of the art, design, architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, engineering, and construction communities, must remember that the work of rebuilding our city is about connecting people to opportunities for education, work, and a way to lead a healthy and happy life. We should be able to look back 30  years from now and say that, out of all the pain and suffering this storm has caused, Houston became a more resilient, beautiful, and equitable region.

This piece originally appeared on OffCite, the digital home of Cite: The Architecture + Design Review of Houston, a quarterly publication of the Rice Design Alliance

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