Shell Center for Sustainability hosted an Oct. 9 program on The Sustainable Development of Houston Districts: The Health of the City. Dr. Lester King presented findings from the 2013 Houston Sustainability Indicators. Participants then broke down into three working groups to analyze Economics, Environment and Social Factors. The economics group observed that all the factors are ultimately about economics. Social fabric and a healthy environment often boil down to perceived costs and economic benefits of maintaining a healthy, livable, human-friendly city. Affluent flight to planned (zoned) suburban communities was cited as an example of elites getting the benefits of the highest paying jobs in the urban employment centers, while diverting capital spending to the suburbs. The blighted central neighborhoods and poor performing schools are abandoned to less affluent residents without the capacity to improve their local conditions. The appalling drop-out rate for HISD explains much of the local poverty. Yet we see that the job market is not clearing properly, as local college graduates complain they cannot find good local jobs while employers bemoan the lack of “qualified’ candidates. Underemployment and job dissatisfaction are rampant at all levels.
Another common theme was the incompatibility of growth and sustainability. Even under ideal studio design conditions, we see there is no perfectly sustainable solution, and real world economic constraints severely limit the range of practical solutions. However, often the primary constraints are not economic, but antiquated and stifling government regulations that prevent innovative, cost effective solutions. Government has long been lagging behind private efforts and public consensus. For example, city parking space requirements add unneeded costs to a development around public transport whose residents do not plan to be reliant on cars. Rice has addressed this directly by allowing students to share zip cars so they don’t need to bring a car to campus. If the city allowed parking spaces to be replaced by covered walkways/bus shelters and pooled cars for residents, a high density, mixed use complex could be much more affordable and the paved lots could be replaced with green space to reduce runoff and heat island effects. Another example is the high proportion of city capital improvement funds that go to building new freeways to support suburban development not even in Houston’s tax base, while existing infrastructure is falling apart. Think about how many local streets and sidewalks could have been upgraded with a small portion of the dollars spent on the Katy freeway expansion.
Government property presents another huge asset that could be converted to mixed use at considerable economic gain. Steve Stelzer’s Houston Green Building Resource Center is an example of such a building, which houses a city program that directly supports sustainable building. A poorly used asset is the 6.6 billion square feet of public school facilities in the US. If we want a huge economic bang for our limited dollars, we can begin to repurpose all school properties for mixed use. Examples of profitable multi-use of existing school facilities are after school centers, daycare, community centers, open playgrounds and urban gardening replacing school lawns. Using the buildings and grounds 24x7 for community activities that are now paying for a separate facility could generate additional funds for school maintenance, as well as changing the image of the school to a more welcoming, community friendly place.
Middle and High School property is also an ideal location for green demo projects, such as solar panels or small wind turbines. Students can apprentice for future green jobs by coursework in developing and maintaining such facilities on the site. Other obvious apprenticeship programs include in-school computer and electronics repair businesses and perhaps even a magnet HS program with a high-tech hybrid/electric auto repair shop to prepare students for future jobs in the same way that schools of the 1950’s taught auto repair.
Changing human behavior is hard. Even those with good intentions are often working at crossed purposes due to lack of understanding of the complex interactions. Change starts with an understanding of where Houston is now and ways of measuring our progress towards a better future. The Sustainability Indicators are a first step toward fostering conversations around our future. If you want to learn more, Lester is offering a course in November, Sustainable Houston and You.