Photo: Flickr user Sarah Worthy.

Engineering, green infrastructure and land protections must all be part of the flooding solution.

Houston, we all know, is a city of engineers. Indeed, it’s often been said that Houston has more engineers than any other city on the planet — petroleum engineers, NASA engineers, civil engineers, even a few software engineers. 

And the result, of course, is that Houston is a highly engineered city — a city where detention basins, interchanges and many other built pieces of infrastructure stand as testament to the role that engineers have played in creating a great city.

But if Hurricane Harvey taught us anything, it taught us that in order to create a truly 21st Century city, we have to use our engineering chops more effectively than ever before — and pair those engineering chops with other city-building and resiliency techniques that can both protect the city and help move it forward.

In particular, we are quickly learning that we must combine engineering solutions with two other types of solutions:

— Green infrastructure solutions, which will help restore and enhance our natural environment’s ability to absorb disasters such as hurricanes and floods; and

— Protecting some land from development, which will complement both hard and green infrastructure solutions by protecting both new and existing development from future flooding.

It may seem this debate began with Harvey, but in fact Houston has been engaged in a robust civic debate about the role of engineering and other solutions for quite a while now. Two years ago, Charles Birnbaum of The Cultural Landscape Foundation gave a presentation at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, in which he posed the question, “What Era of Design Is Houston In?” 

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Birnbaum suggested, Houston had been in the infrastructure era. That’s when we built all the freeways and a good portion of the flood control system.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, he said, we were in the monument era. That’s when we built the great starchitect office buildings downtown, near The Galleria, and elsewhere.

And now, he proposed, the city is in the landscape architecture era — the era of Discovery Green, Buffalo Bayou Park, and the Bayou Greenways 2020 plan, when we are discovering the natural environment and how it can be used to enhance city life in many ways.

Harvey accelerated this whole debate. Yes, we’re in the landscape architecture era — and we need to use landscape architecture more aggressively than ever to make our city more resilient. But we’re still in the infrastructure era as well, in a certain way. And, whether we like it or not, the time has come to consider protecting some land from development in order to make the city more resilient — something City Council recognized when it approved Mayor Sylvester Turner's floodplain development regulations Wednesday. These three approaches must work in a balanced way to protect Houston in the future.

Hard infrastructure solutions — the classic engineering approach — must remain the backbone of any effort to make Houston more resilient. But in the past we have relied too much on engineering to facilitate a build-first-and-ask-questions-later approach to development. From now on, we have to select and design these infrastructure projects thoughtfully to make sure that we spending money wisely to protect what’s important.

For example: A third reservoir is an essential part of Houston’s resiliency effort. But as this week’s Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium report pointed out, the third reservoir, at least as it is currently conceptualized, would primarily protect undeveloped land, increasing its value for development — rather than helping to fix existing flooding problems downstream.

This is typical of Houston’s traditional approach: Since growth is viewed as a key economic driver, protecting future development opportunities should be prioritized. But as the Harvey flooding revealed, sometimes this approach creates big, expensive problems down the line. Any large new infrastructure project must be carefully assessed to determine how to maximize the value created using the public’s money.

Green infrastructure solutions must work in combination with hard infrastructure solutions to further protect the city. The Katy Prairie, for example, is a valuable sponge that absorbs water and reduces the amount of flooding in the city. It needs to be protected, even as a third reservoir is planned. Similarly, we should plan our future detention basins not just around the need for flood protection, but in concert with our overall greenspace plans. Detention basins are clearly part of the solution — and as part of a larger parks and greenspace efforts they can provide many benefits to the city.

Finally, there is the delicate question of what limitations we should put on development. Houston has traditionally been a regulation-light city, and as the recent debate about additional city regulations on home elevation shows, there’s still a lot of resistance to the idea of limiting development in any way. But if Harvey proved anything, it proved that putting houses in the wrong place can be disastrous and expensive.

Land can be protected through regulation, which places the financial burden on the property owner, or acquisition, which places the financial burden on taxpayers and philanthropic donors. And it’s preferable to protect land before development occurs, because it limits the flood risk and it’s a lot cheaper. We are about to undertake a major regional property buyout program — a good step, but one that will be very expensive because we are essentially prohibiting development after it is built rather than before. Limiting construction of homes in some locations will minimize flood risk, increase Houston’s resiliency and it’ll be cheaper in the long run. Just ask anybody who bought a home in Cinco Ranch.

The point here is not that engineering is bad or that regulation — which Houstonians are allergic to anyway — is the only way to protect the city. The point is that after Hurricane Harvey, we are no longer in an either-or situation in Houston. We’re in a both-and situation. We need to build infrastructure projects and protect green space. We need to build detention basins and raise houses. And in some cases we need to buy out landowners not only after their property floods but before that property is developed in the first place. 

We’re a city of engineers and we always will be. But engineering alone won’t get us out of this mess. It’s time to take a step forward and complement engineering solutions with green infrastructure, buyouts and land protections — bringing all of these solutions to bear, together, on the problem so that Houston becomes a city resilient enough to withstand the next Hurricane Harvey.

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