• Congress Avenue in downtown Austin, looking toward the Texas State Capitol, days after the snow first fell. - photo by Leonid Furmansky

The winter storm that descended on the United States in mid-February was particularly hard on Texas. Temperatures plunged into the single digits, and snow and ice blanketed the state from Amarillo to Brownsville. This nearly unprecedented weather event (a similar storm hobbled Texas in 2011) crippled the state’s infrastructure, caused approximately $200 billion in damage, and killed at least 111 people, most of whom died from hypothermia. 

While the state legislature focuses on energy policies that led to widespread power failures, the built environment itself is also in need of some scrutiny. The storm revealed the equalizing power of natural disasters while at the same time exposing disparities that have come to light during the coronavirus pandemic and at this moment of racial reckoning. The extreme cold vividly demonstrated how severe weather events can create climate refugees, particularly the semi-homeless and homeless working and middle classes. It also pointed up the difficulties of recovery for the vulnerable and marginalized Black, brown, yellow, and immigrant communities left behind as a result of systemic racism, redlining, disinvestment, and disparate access to healthcare.

“How are we going to deal with those communities that have contributed least to the problems but are feeling the pain first and longest?” says Dr. Robert Bullard, Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University in Houston. “Climate change will not affect everyone the same.”

Bullard, who received the United Nations’ Champions of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020 and is the author of 18 books that address multiple issues — sustainable development, environmental racism, urban land use, industrial facility siting, community reinvestment, housing, transportation, climate justice, disasters, emergency response, community resilience, smart growth, and regional equity — believes research, policy, and practice must operate with an equitable lens to drive solutions that will work for everybody. “Justice and equity need to form the core principles of sustainability and climate resilience planning,” he says. “Every social justice movement that has been successful in the country has had a strong and fearless youth and student component that pushes the envelope beyond baby steps and incremental change. This was the case for the movement for civil rights, women’s rights, anti-war, environment, Black Lives Matter, and climate. The multiple converging threats facing humanity today call for transformative change.”

What can architects, designers, and planners do to create a more equitable built environment? The first step is to not repeat historical injustices. Says Bullard: “In the past, [architects] were complicit in designing and building spaces that supported segregation and creating a sort of outdoor apartheid. Their roles will be beyond just planning and talking about the responsibility of what is planned and add to redressing some of the mistakes and inadequacies that promoted those issues.”

But promoting equity and social justice can be politically difficult, especially when perceptions of those who are most vulnerable are not always favorable. San Antonio District 1 Councilmember Roberto Treviño, AIA, has been caught between his city’s homeless encampments, one of which is right outside his office, and those who believe they are dangerous and should be removed. “What is happening outside my office is happening all over the city,” he says. “It’s a growing homeless crisis with over 3,000 out in the streets. At the heart of this is [that] the city’s approach to the crisis is not working[; they are] hiding behind other apparatuses, including public safety. We have underfunded human services.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that during the pandemic, homeless people living in encampments be allowed to remain where they are if no individual housing options are available, but that social distancing be encouraged and hygiene resources provided. Still, from June 2020 through February 2021, San Antonio conducted 151 “abatements,” a term officials use for cleaning up the camps and forcing the unsheltered to leave. Treviño discussed the need for long-term solutions and services that provide outreach to those experiencing homelessness to dismantle the barriers allowing the vulnerable to recover. He looked to Austin’s ProLodge program as a possible path forward for San Antonio. In ProLodge, the city purchases hotels to provide shelter to people experiencing homelessness as the first step in getting their lives back on track. Treviño envisions a similar model, with San Antonio purchasing a hotel in each district. “There is no excuse for how we treat people,” he says. “These are people, not objects. During the storm, we were all in crisis, just as the unsheltered [were]. What was needed during the storm is what we all needed: water, food, warmth, medical attention. I am hopeful that we can set a good example and a good framework to help the most vulnerable and improve the emergency preparedness plan.”

In preparation for the Texas Society of Architects’ Annual Convention, which is scheduled to take place in San Antonio in October, Treviño has been meeting with AIA members. He is convinced there is a way forward to protect the environment and the most vulnerable by building smarter and reducing energy consumption. “Architects need to be out in front of this,” he says. “This is the built environment with homes, shelters, and facilities. We throw millions of dollars at this issue operationally [which] doesn’t work. This is a challenge I would like to set out there for all architects to think about. There are truly meaningful projects with purpose to use your talents and ability to be creative and produce a multitude of ideas. We can set an example to have compassionate and responsible design.”

Darren James, FAIA, president of national design and construction firm KAI Enterprises and a board member of the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners, also believes design and construction solutions can provide avenues to avoid the devastation experienced due to the last storm. He spoke of tailoring, learning from, and leveraging the solutions in other regions of the country that are more experienced with inclement weather, in preparation for future events that will be just as devastating and impactful. “How do we adjust and adapt the design to respond to the environment?” he says. “Because we are a connected community, we have resources across the country that can offer insight for a ‘future-ready’ approach. The convergence of forces has opened eyes across the region and state, including social justice issues. When you peel back the layers, [you] recognize [that] the community as a whole benefits when everyone participates. When one sector suffers, the community suffers.”

As a leader of a national firm, James has been engaged in conversations about creating economic capacity for communities on the margins of prosperity — about how to provide sustainable and inclusive job opportunities as opposed to cyclical jobs with finite construction starts and stops. He doesn’t see progress as a sequential, stepped process but as a concerted effort with some commonality across all platforms and sectors simultaneously. “We need to have people moving in all sectors and all cylinders for progress to happen,” he says. “I know not everyone is on the same page to create empowered communities that don’t have food deserts or healthcare disparities with meaningful jobs.”

One way for architects to participate and be part of the efforts is by having authentic conversations without pat, ready responses. “We cannot bring preconceived solutions from other communities,” James says. “We must re-engage the community and be part of the conversation. We cannot cherry-pick who we listen to. We should listen to the detractors and hear what the other side has to say.”

Florence Tang, Assoc. AIA, is a journalist,  designer, and project manager based in Houston.

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