Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Golden Opportunity

http://www.citylab.com; September 7, 2017

Hello Everyone:

A lovely Tuesday to you all.  Blogger is in a good mood thanks to a couple of very nice developments in her personal life.  Before we get going on today's subject: Houston's redevelopment, time for the daily hurricane relief and DACA reminder.  Southeast Texas, Georgia, and Florida need your help as they begin to dig out from Harvey and Irma.  Please text 90999 (minimum $10) to the Red Cross.  Second, the clock is ticking for DACA-recipients.  You must renew by October 5, 2017 otherwise your application will no longer be under consideration.  Please go to uscis.gov for all the latest information. That done, shall we move on?

The images of a devastated Houston were horrific.  Whole communities were destroyed, streets flooded, people stranded on rooftops waiting for rescue.  However, do not write Houston off for good.  The city will rebound.  The Houston metropolitan area is one of the United States' fastest region with a population approaching "...seven million people and projected to grow to more than 11 million by 2050."  It economic is nearly $500 billion dollars, roughly equivalent to Sweden, Poland, or Belgium, ranking "...25th most productive nations in the world."  Houston is also the epicenter of high-tech energy production, with a plethora of highly regarded software engineers and high-tech talent that would make Silicon Valley envious (sorry).

Thus with all these abundance of talent and economic assets extolled by Richard Florida and Jonathan F.P. Rose in their CityLab article "Houston's Big Opportunity for Better Urban Development" and confidence in the city's ability to rebuild, the authors ask the very basic question: How?

How will Houston and now, the hardest hit areas of Florida will rebuild?  Natural disasters are a fact of life.  In California, we deal with earthquakes, fires, and floods.  Hurricane Harvey left at least 50 people dead, about 40,000 homes destroyed, and property damage that will easily the total $100 billion dollars.  As that oft-repeated Chinese proverbs goes: "with chaos comes opportunity."  In this case, Houston has the "...unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine growth itself, recasting urban infrastructure and economies in more resilient sustainable and inclusive ways."

Christopher Kennedy's book, The Evolution of Great World Cities (amazon.com), looks how great cities have reset their development path following natural or man-made disaster.  For example, London's rise to global commercial prominence in the 17th century was powered by the catastrophic 1666 fire, which led to major "...sweeping changes in the city's building codes and widening of its streets, which in turn led to increased densities, the adoption of new building techonologies, and ultimately remade the city in ways that put it on a new growth trajectory."

This, according to the authors, is what "Houston can and must do today."

Make no mistake, there is an awful lot of work that needs to get done right away: rebuild damaged homes, apartments, commercial buildings, and roads.  However, the author consider it "urban malpractice" if the Houston region did not seize the opportunity "to re-imagine its future, and create a long-term vision and plan for greater economical and economic resilience."  This re-imagining the future should be based on acknowledging increasingly volatile weather events and crafting a more economically sustainable and inclusive development model which enhances the quality of life for everyone.

The authors write, "Greater Houston has been widely admired for its entrepreneurial approach to land use and zoning, which fueled its growth.  But its lace of development guidelines has also come under fire for producing its low-slung, sprawling, auto dependent urban form with little permeable surface area, which as left vulnerable to devasting flooding."  If there is one good thing to come out of this catastrophe, the region has been granted the chance to rebuild in a more progressive minded, resilient, and inclusive manner.

Building more and better pipes, walls, and infrastructure is not the answer.  The solution is more efficient use of Houston's natural flood protection system and mitigation.  The authors report, "Philadelphia is now investing over $1.7 billion in its green infrastructure plan, planting trees, creating parks, gardens and swales in a way that will reduce the city's storm water outflow by  $85, and  saving another $7 billion in hard infrastructure costs."  Rotterdam's climate change strategy makes of use of its natural areas as type of "sponge" to absorb storm water and the canal to hold and move water during floods.  The authors opine, "Adding trees, gardens and green space during the city's rebuilding will help to more effectively absorbs storm water and reduce summer temperatures."  This is something that the Los Angeles region would be well advised to do.  Think about it, a more ecologically friendly approach to infrastructure will allow the Houston region to better manage floods, contribute to a better quality of life, make more attractive to talent that drives its knowledge-based economy.

As sea levels rise and weather becomes more volatile, the Greater Houston area will have to fight off the Gulf of Mexico edging its way on to its eastern shore and improve drainage capabilities in the city center in the west.  The authors observe, "Unfortunately, the region is very flat, sloping only four feet across its entire downtown."  Richard Florida and Jonathan F.P. Rose offer this solution, "...rebuild in a more dense  and clustered way which can be raised above the flood plain.  Green construction, energy efficient building technology and distributed energy systems will not only increase the region's resilience to flooding and weather events, it will reduce operating costs, and create a market for new technologies, industries and jobs."

Another area primed for a reset is the Houston region's transportation system (http://www.citylab.com; Sept. 5, 2017; date accessed Sept. 12, 2017).  The authors note, "Houston's notoriously car-dependent road and highway network has contributed to its sprawl and left it vulnerable to flooding."  In the wake of Harvey, waitlists for car rentals have grown by dizzying proportions and gas prices have gotten outrageous (Ibid).  This has Houstonians dealing with how to get to work and their children to school without a car.  Houston's famed "bus lady" Janis Scott (http://www.pbs.org; Oct. 15, 2017; date accessed Sept. 12, 2017) said,

I keep hearing on the radio that people won't be able to get anywhere...But this doesn't need to be the end of the world.  Now is the time to get with METRO.  (http://www.citylab.com; Sept. 5, 2017)

Although Los Angeles is the prennial leader in traffic congestion-the average driver will spend about 104 hours during peak travel periods driving in congestion (http://www.latimes.com; Feb 20, 2017; date accessed Sept. 12, 2017), Houston is right up there.  "The average Houstonian spends an average of 74 hours-roughly two full work weeks-stuck in traffic each giving it the fourth worst rate in the nation."  The clogged roads and highways make it nearly impossible to evacuate the city when disaster strikes.

Now is the time to invest in mass transit and rail.  This goes for Los Angeles as well.  The authors state, "It will not only make the region more compact, sustainable and resilient, it will increase the velocity of people, goods, and ideas, creating a better ecosystem for innovation."  In short, wise investment in mass transit and rail has the potential to greatly increase the scale and scope of its economy.  Consider this, a high speed rail system linking Houston to a mega-region spanning Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin would spawn an economic region of 20 million people, generating an economic output of $1.5 billion, making it one of the world's top ten economies, larger than Canada, Russia, Spain, and Australia.

One of Houston's most vexing issues exposed by Hurricane Harvey is growing gap between rich and poor; the declining middle class.  Here is a chance for the region to address income inequality and strengthen the middle class.  The authors report, "The metro suffers among the highest levels of inequality and segregation, ranking behind only New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco on composti measures of economic segregation and economic inequality."  Although its urban neighborhoods have revitalized, the city and region are a patchwork of "..concentrated advantages and concentrated disadvantages, with the latter neighborhoods most at risk from flooding and environmental disasters: More than three-quarters of the city's closed landfills and nearly 90 percent of its hazardous waste sites are located in low-income, largely minority neighborhoods."  Any and all rebuilding initiative must include a genuine effort to create an inclusive model "...based on mixed used development, affordable housing, and access to better jobs."

Houston's is a rapidly growing region with global ambitions.  Hurricane Harvey afforded the region a golden opportunity to redefine its economy and become a better example for coastal cities around the world.  Richard Florida and Jonathan F.P. Rose write, "Human civilization emerged in flood zones of river valleys, where soil was most fertile."  Further, "More than three-quarters of the world economy is based around coastal cities."  No surprise here that these coastal cities are the "...world's most innovative and productive places, but they are also among the most vulnerable."

As Houston emerges from the pummeling it took from Hurricane Harvey, it has the unique opportunity to not only recreate buildings and infrastructure but also the golden chance to remake its economy and development for the future.  Imagine what would happen if it replaces its expiring sprawling, automobile-oriented, energy-intensive model with an innovative model founded on clustered mixed use neighborhoods linked by transit and circled by abundant green space that incorporates green building technology.  By following this prescription, Houston will set the example for cities around the world in bad need of new model for building resilient, sustainable, economically robust and inclusive communities.