In July, The Economist published an article entitled “Greening Houston: Changing the Plans,” which probably came as a surprise to most readers. As a Houstonian, I know firsthand that our city is not one known as progressively environmental. Houston is widely perceived as a sprawling, traffic-jammed, megalopolis… and for good reason! That said, our reputation is slowly but surely changing.
Houston is a city primarily built by oil and gas tycoons and continues to be a leader in these industries. A benefit of this fact is job creation; we have faired the recession better than most and have recently seen a related increase in population. According to the previously mentioned article, “the greater metropolitan area added more than 1.2m people” between 2000 and 2010, making Houston “America’s fastest-growing city” during that timeframe. Most of this growth came in the form of young professionals who were lured by jobs and the relatively low cost of living. These younger populations are becoming increasingly more aware and desirable of sustainable urban lifestyles including walkable neighborhoods, widespread public transportation, and access to green space – all characteristics that have eluded Houston for decades. The Economist offers evidence of the growing demand, stating that currently “51% [of the population] liked the idea of a smaller house in a more interesting district, and only 47% said they wanted the lavish McMansion.” These statistics are particularly striking in contrast to those of four years ago, when it was reported that only “36% preferred a smaller house within walking distance of shops and workplaces” and that “59% said they would prefer a big house with a big garden, even if that meant they had to use their car to go everywhere.”
Even with this cultural shift, Houston still has extensive environmental shortcomings, not the least of which is poor air quality. In 1999, the city “overtook Los Angeles as America’s most polluted,” causing a range of respiratory issues for Houstonians. The city’s infamous lack of zoning and relatively low commitment to urban planning are both partially to blame for this pollution, as they have created “a tangle of freeways running through a hodgepodge of skyscrapers, strip malls and mixed districts” and the resulting car dependency of almost all Houstonians. Needless to say, there’s been a growing need for serious action for some time.
Fortunately, Houston has been making big strides in sustainability due to citizen demand and through the leadership of Mayor Annise Parker and of Laura Spanjian, the mayor’s Sustainability Director. The city now has more than 50,000 acres of public parkland, which ranks Houston 9th in parkland percentage nationally. Houston is also the number one purchaser of green power in the nation by volume, with a third of the city’s total electricity coming from wind energy alone. Even farmers markets are becoming more prevalent in the inner city. In terms of transportation, three new light rail lines are currently in construction, and two other lines are in the planning process. Houston recently launched a bike-sharing program to go along with its blossoming bikeways, an initiative that has converted miles of underused infrastructure into easily accessible recreational space. The city is also greening its internal operations – “more than half the cars in the official city fleet are hybrid or electric” – as well as its infrastructure – “most of the traffic lights now boast LED bulbs, rather than the incandescent sort.” In addition, Houston is promoting sustainable behaviors city-wide through the mayor’s Houston Green Office Challenge. In its first year, more than 300 companies participated in this annual competition.
There is new energy in Houston, no pun intended. And though we have a long way to go, the changes seen in the past couple of years have started a significant snowball effect that I know will continue. Maybe the next time we read about Houston going green, it won’t be a surprise at all.
The Houston office of Perkins+Will invites you to come and see us; we will gladly show you what Houston is all about and reveal its growing sustainable side. We also encourage you to check out the article in The Economist referenced above and these other sites related to Houston:
Written by Oliver Sanchez