It’s been one year since the launch of Resilient Houston, an effort to improve the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within the Houston region to not only survive any and all chronic stresses and acute shocks they might experience, but adapt and thrive as well. These shocks and stresses, which include extreme weather events and threats to public health, have become increasingly common in the lives of Houstonians and area residents.
The importance of this work, particularly in adapting and modernizing our infrastructure, cannot be understated. It was underscored most recently when a historically brutal winter storm led to the catastrophic collapse of the state’s energy grid, leaving many Houstonians (and millions of Texans) stranded in their homes for days without power, heat, potable water and food.
Many hard questions will be asked in the months ahead as Texans grapple with the social, economic and political ramifications of a short-sighted, deregulatory approach to energy policy that has led to independence from the national grid as a way to avoid federal regulations. This catastrophe makes it abundantly clear that all levels of government — not just local authorities — have a responsibility to plan and invest in more resilient systems. Recent Kinder Institute research outlines ways the Biden Administration can factor vital input from local and regional leaders into shaping its infrastructure plan. In the aftermath of this disaster, that also extends to state authorities as they pursue winterization reforms and investments to make infrastructure more resilient.
To mark the anniversary of the Resilient Houston launch, Kinder Institute researchers wanted to learn how implementation of the resilience strategy was going and view it in tandem with the city’s climate action plan (also released in 2020) and other ongoing disaster recovery efforts. To help do that, the Resilience and Climate Progress in Houston page featuring the first-year evaluation of both programs has been created on the Kinder Institute. The City of Houston’s own one-year anniversary report can be found there as well.
Later this year, the Kinder Institute will launch its Resilience and Recovery Tracker, which consolidates the recovery, mitigation and adaptation efforts of Harris County and the City of Houston on one website. Facilitated with lead support from Chevron, the tracker can be used to access spending dashboards, interactive maps and thematic pages related to recovery from — and resilience to — extreme events, including federally declared disasters like Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Resilience and Climate Progress in Houston page will be incorporated into the tracker when it’s launched and expanded with additional interactive elements drawing on data from the city and county.
Some noteworthy progress since the Resilient Houston strategy and climate action plan were implemented include:
The resilience strategy and climate action plan have a “community” goal of planting 4.6 million native trees by 2030, which supports both mitigation (CO2 removal) and adaptation (reducing flood risk). Progress toward this goal in the first year was impressive on various fronts. Over 432,000 trees were planted in 2020 (713,000 in the past two years) on public rights of way and in major private development projects, a sizable jump-start to Houston’s ambitious effort. However, knowing where trees are planted is important in understanding if this work will help curb longstanding inequities in Black and Latino communities that have been historically segregated, disproportionately exposed to harmful chemicals and pollution, as well as higher levels of urban heat. Planting trees in underinvested communities can have an impact on the health, safety and welfare of vulnerable Houstonians by removing toxic air pollutants, increasing shade — which combats rising temperatures and supports more comfortable access to public transit — and reducing flood risk. We are striving to analyze these aspects further.
Another positive outcome in the area is housing production. Over 19,400 housing units were built in Houston last year, surpassing the annual target of 12,500 new-builds set by Resilient Houston in order to reach the goal of 375,000 new housing units by 2050. The pandemic undoubtedly is impacting housing preferences in the short term, but these preferences may have staying power. It’s an issue the Kinder Institute will be tracking in future Kinder Houston Area Surveys. Housing starts, however, remain a critical factor in the affordability puzzle. Much more must be done to solve deep affordability issues (i.e., housing for households earning less than 60% of the median household income) that — like many U.S. cities — plague the Houston region, where nearly half of renters are cost-burdened (i.e., spend more than 30% of their income on housing). The county’s 10-year housing plan and the city planning commission’s review of its land-use code to incentivize construction of more diverse housing types, called Livable Places, will go a long way to support life-cycle housing and affordability at all levels. The Kinder Institute’s State of Housing reports will continue to track annual progress on affordability, and we will explore more concrete ways to measure the impact of housing production on affordability for Houstonians of different household budgets.
Green Stormwater Infrastructure.
In 2020, the city approved incentives for developers and property owners who integrate green stormwater infrastructure techniques into development projects. Despite being an inaugural year (and a short year), over 30 development projects tapped into this opportunity in 2020. That’s a substantial down payment on the city’s target of 100 new GSI projects by 2025 and a reflection of the widespread support for more nature-based solutions that better treat and slow waters in the aftermath of what has been a flood-prone decade for Houston. This is a promising start, and demonstrates the concerted effort of the city and the development community, which not only helped generate realistic standards, but also secured buy-in and is supportive of implementation.
Understanding the impact of these initiatives is important for our region, particularly as they relate to racial justice and the irreversible damage of climate change if we fail to act in the next decade. City and regional partners also have an opportunity to address the legacy of deep-rooted racism in our communities by promoting an equitable approach to resilience and recovery that prioritizes the most vulnerable and centers implementation around their experiences. We also are exploring ways to make the Resilience and Recovery Tracker more responsive to this type of evaluation, which will help provide a more complete and clear picture from the vantage point of climate justice. Stay tuned in 2021 for more in this arena.