If it hopes to overcome future Harveys, Houston needs to double down on resilience and planning


Hurricane Harvey Flooding. US Navy photo.

US Navy Photo

A new book serves as a guide for how cities can best learn from one another to design systems and build ways to endure the worst climate shocks to come. This includes Houston’s experience—both for what to expect from a changing climate and how to respond. Its authors say Houston has done several things right, but they also worry that future disasters could outpace these efforts.

This post is part of a series over the next several weeks reflecting on Hurricane Harvey, its impact and how we are still learning from the disaster. Subscribe to the Urban Edge to receive the latest posts. 

 “Managing the Climate Crisis: Designing and Building for Floods, Heat, Drought, and Wildfire,” examines past and predicted climate change calamities—from extended droughts and extreme heat to torrential rain and rising seas—and surveys the best urban design ideas around the world for how to best confront this new reality.

The authors, urban designers Jonathan Barnett and Matthijs Bouw—who is also a consultant for the city of Houston—note that this region’s experience with frequent devastating floods has made it kind of a canary in a coal mine for understanding the kinds of shocks that cities will experience.

But they also say the city is also a model for how to develop a response. To what extent Houston will succeed in carrying out its plans remains to be seen. The Kinder Institute’s Urban Edge spoke to the authors to help put Houston’s experience into perspective.

The interview has been edited.

This book is a compendium of urban climate disaster scenarios and ways to mitigate them. What do you hope to add to the conversation about resilience?

Barnett: We’re both urban designers, so we approached the problem of climate change as urban designers. We look at the huge amounts of money continually being invested in cities and suburbs and think about all the ways climate change should transform location and design decisions over the next several decades. There is a lot of important work and debate to figure out how to prevent climate change from getting worse, but we are already experiencing severe impacts from the changing climate which are certain to be even more dangerous by midcentury. We wanted to take people through what we need to do now, and then what can be staged over the next 30 years, to withstand the worst of what’s coming, Because there is almost no part of the country that will be safe from some kind of disaster from floods, heat, drought, or wildfire.

Houston has contended with flooding, but this summer saw extreme heat; last year you saw extreme cold. It’s becoming clear you don’t just design for one type of calamity; you have to think about several possibilities.

We write about diverse strategies, some big, some small, but they all have a role to play. Take heat, for example. A local community could decide to reduce work hours during the hottest part of the day. It could set a maximum indoor temperature for rental units. People could add more awnings and attic fans to help keep homes from overheating. We also write about large-scale urban design decisions which could help keep whole cities well shaded and ventilated.

You acknowledge that Houston has especially bad climate challenges, but that it also has a challenging environment to work on solutions, given its sprawl and disparate governance structures. But you also say Houston is doing some things right—where would you point to show us what’s working?

Bouw: One thing is the Resilient Houston plan. When we talk about climate adaptation, and climate resilience in general, communities are greatly helped with a felt urgency. The fact that Houston had these disasters and continues to have these disasters makes resilience a very urgent topic. So when the city worked on its plan, Resilient Houston, it was not some abstract production. Of all the plans that came out of the 100 Resilient Cities Network, it was one of the few that had a real sense of urgency behind it, almost a pressure-cooker environment.

Another thing, Houston is a high-capacity city. It can do difficult things. It's a sophisticated city. There are a lot of fantastic societal partners, the Kinder Institute being one of them. So there's just a lot of knowledge and expertise at the table. Houston is working out how to collaborate between agencies, between different levels of government, between communities and governments, with philanthropy, with the private sector, with academia. And that is really powerful. All that to say, Resilient Houston is also a dynamic document that will change, but it is being tested and implemented today, as we speak. The momentum is there, which is important. 

Barnett: Speaking of that plan, the most striking thing to me was that the document recognizes and clearly says, “People are going to have to move.” That is something that most governments are not comfortable saying, particularly if it's not an immediate problem. If we're talking about an issue 10 years from now, there's a big inclination to kick the can down the road. So I think that's an exemplary aspect of the plan.

[ Note: You can explore the city's progress on the Resilient Houston through the Kinder Institute's Resilience and Recovery Tracker. ]

Recently the region celebrated a win with Congress approving funding for further study of the “Ike Dike” or coastal spine. It’s one of several coastal barriers in various stages of planning across the country that you discuss in the book. Meanwhile, our flood control district is also exploring flood tunnels below our bayous. When do these expensive, massive-scale projects make the most make sense?

Barnett:  Many coastal communities around the world would benefit from a storm surge barrier of some kind. For Houston, and the Ship Channel, its importance and its heavy industrialization, makes the “Ike Dike” likely to be one of the ones that actually gets funded. If a hurricane storm  surge went right up the ship channel, the whole country has a problem, not just from damage to the petroleum industry concentrated there, but because the Port of Houston is such a big national gateway. Yes, the barrier will be huge and hugely expensive. But the work will take decades and can be funded incrementally, and, when its costs are compared to the costs of the damage it can prevent, it can be a manageable and worthwhile investment.

But an issue that has to be considered, as Matthijs would tell you, is the health of the waters and other environmental factors when you interfere with the natural system. There is an existing barrier in St. Petersburg (Russia) where flood-surges up the Neva River are constrained by a construction comparable to what is being considered for the Ike Dike. It works, but it is also creating a lot of eutrophication (an imbalance of phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients) in the water behind it. So these can be big, big problems which should be considered and solved up front.

On the coastal protection barrier and other items, there’s much debate here and elsewhere about natural vs. hard infrastructure—green vs. gray. Based on your broader view across multiple cities, where do you find a good balance?

Bouw: Where these ideas really come together, and we give attention to this in the book, is the intersection of climate and land use. And in Houston, there’s so much to improve in land use practices but there’s really an opportunity to give even more space to nature. The thing is, when you do this, add and preserve nature, it actually makes for a better city. Houston really has become a fantastic city when you look at what it has done with the bayou projects and the way parks have emerged and recreational trails—it’s magnificent.

You asked about what Houston has done right, and Houston in this way is really one of the most underappreciated American cities because they are doing so many things right. I just continue to worry, of course, that the impacts of the climate are just going to be very severe, so there needs to be a doubling down on this.

Making these things happen takes willpower and money, and one of the things that can move that involves culture shifts—changing how we evaluate risk, whom we trust, what we value. From what you understand about Houston, what remains its biggest cultural obstacle?

Bouw: Let me tell you something. In the Netherlands, we pride ourselves on our long history of dealing with the water. We have a very technical system to manage this water, and we have balanced to some extent the concerns of the farmer, who does not want us to hold water on their land too long, and the concerns of urbanization, etc., and the need to protect lives. We have had 10 centuries to work on this. Our democratic institutions have been built around it, so there is a lot of trust in institutions. For any Dutch person, flooding is just something that you leave to the professionals. But as things like nuisance flooding keep occurring—it is not devastating, but it is starting to become a problem—what it does is it starts to erode that trust. Taking that and other things that we are seeing, the Dutch are not necessarily set up to deal with the other challenges posed by climate change.

What you’re dealing with in the US to start with is that it’s just a really stressful country to live in, by comparison, unless you’re in the top 10%. People have a lot of daily worries that come before thinking about flooding. So it’s not a culture necessarily that you can change, but you can start with awareness and capacity building—you want your local neighborhoods and communities to have agency and to be an actor in addressing these things. Unfortunately, the way the government is structured, funding is very opaque, and it can be a challenge just thinking about who to even talk to about the issues to make real progress. But it is critical to work through these issues with the community. People are interested in making changes, they are engaged in it, but it’s very difficult to do.

Barnett: What you want to see happen is people recognizing there is a new situation that requires a response. You may have a belief system when it comes to the climate; well, go ahead and have that belief system. We don’t want to argue with people about religion. But look at the disasters and the cost to recover or the cost to defend. People will respond to a business case for something. Spend an amount of money—in the book we mention improving the water quality of Boston harbor, where investing $5 billion has created $100 billion in value – and you can also see a return. A construction project like the Ike Dike creates a lot of jobs. There could be a strong economic benefit from the money spent, as well as from the problems prevented.

Also, the best evidence for the urgency of having to do something to bring down greenhouse emissions is to look at what they are costing us now and how much more they are going to cost. The more people see that connection, the more you’ll start to see engagement on solutions that require a larger culture shift and world-wide cooperation.

To your point about neighborhoods: Houston’s resilience plan calls for neighborhood-level planning, and Matthijs, you are actually helping the city do that. What do you hope comes about through those discussions?

Bouw: The idea is to position neighborhood planning as an essential ingredient within a broader planning approach of nested scales—where there are certain things that you want to do on a regional level, some things you do at a city or county level, some things you need to organize at the neighborhood level.

There has been a lot of fantastic planning work from the Living With Water plan and Susan Rogers’ work. … But one of the things that we have discovered that in spite of all the planning that has happened, not much has been implemented. … If there's anything that the neighborhood planning effort can do at this moment is connecting not only all the different insights that have been developed, but also specifically connecting the different actors so that each understands what they need to do in order to bring this further.

We are trying to have the neighborhood's resilience plan be the connective tissue, such that implementation can start happening. The next level is making sure that this thinking is embedded in the capital planning and the operations of the different city agencies. You’re seeing that happen somewhat.

We are doing a few plans now—EdgebrookEast Houston, and Independence Heights—and from there we're trying to create a sort of structure and an approach to planning that can also be replicated in all the other super neighborhoods in the city of Houston.

That's the argument that Jonathan and I make in the book as well—often the solutions are there, so we want to give clear insights into those solutions for people who are relatively new to this. But we also want to make the argument that because the solutions are there, the challenge is to make sure that we start adapting now.

In doing that—making these plans a reality—the people can play a part in the daily practice of shaping our environments and our cities. And if we start doing that now, seriously and robustly, we may not come to a point where the climate crisis has overwhelmed us, and it's either bankrupting us culturally, financially, morally, or will just require incredible amounts of effort and investment to catch up.

We all know that creating these changes takes sweat, and it takes muscle, and you need to build the muscle in order to do the work.

“Managing the Climate Crisis” is available through Island Press or through Amazon and other bookstores.

Resilience and Recovery Tracker

The Houston area’s Resilience and Recovery Tracker was developed by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research with support from Chevron. It provides information on disaster recovery efforts from natural and man-made hazards, such as floods, climate disasters, public health crises, and chemical spills.



Mailing Address

6100 Main St. MS-208
Houston, TX 77005-1892

Subscribe to our e-newsletter

Physical Address

Rice University
Kraft Hall
6100 Main Street, Suite 305
Houston, TX 77005-1892

Featured Sponsor

Support the Kinder Institute