Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, our nation’s fourth largest city, in 2017. In the almost six years since, the city has been focused on “building back better” through new and increased funding opportunities and novel resilience strategies. Created with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the city’s resilience plan directs individual projects combining flood control infrastructure with public amenities. The implementation focuses on reducing shocks and stressors to Houston’s economy in various ways, including creating affordable housing and focusing on urban infill solutions.
In August 2018, the mayor’s office announced Houston had joined The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Network. Shell Oil Company sponsored the city’s participation in the program through a $1.8 million grant. With support from the foundation and its own team of consultants, Houston developed a framework for implementing 300-plus clear actions, using both public and private resources, to quickly bring policy to action. Titled Resilient Houston, the plan was adopted in February 2020. Simultaneously, Houston City Council reauthorized a 20-year, $6 billion urban drainage improvement program by issuing additional city bonds.
Three years later, in October 2021, Houston combined its sustainability and resilience offices and named Priya Zachariah as chief resilience and sustainability officer. Today, the Office of Resilience and Sustainability oversees implementation of Resilient Houston and leverages nine separate programs that include land use, mobility, and nature-based solutions for resilience coordination. “We must optimize our resources and do more with less,” says Zachariah. “Where there is funding, it should be put to work.” Available resources include the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a bipartisan infrastructure law that allows state and local funding to be deployed into public-private partnerships, and Chapter 380 property tax relief, which can be used to implement resilience design upgrades in projects already being built by private stakeholders. In discussing her office’s goals, Zachariah says: “Houston must avoid being in a constant cycle of recovery, and equity is a big piece of that. Our most vulnerable communities cannot be in a constant state of recovery.” Recovery generally focuses on repairing damage incurred while resilience strategies plan forward so that foreseeable shocks and stressors affect communities minimally, if at all.
To advance resilience through the entire recovery process, Houston formed the Office of Recovery in 2013, and though his title has changed over the years, Chief Recovery Officer Steve Costello (a civil engineer by training) serves Houston as the leader in flood management. When I first visited with Mr. Costello five years ago, he was thrilled to receive funding following Hurricane Harvey that allowed civil engineering projects focused on flood management — projects that had been on the boards for 20 years — to transition to active construction. In 2020, his office submitted two applications to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB): one requesting a $15 million, zero percent interest loan for the Taylor Gully Risk Reduction project, and the other requesting $12.3 million to improve the storm system and roadside ditches as the Wynnewood Acres project. TWDB approved a $10.1 million loan for Taylor Gully, and $8.58 million in loan proceeds and $3.7 million in grant funds for Wynnewood in May 2021.
For larger infrastructure projects, the Office of Recovery sought funding from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. These include Houston’s North Canal project, which will reduce the risk of flooding downtown and provide flood damage reduction to upstream areas along White Oak and Buffalo Bayou, and the Inwood Forest Golf Course project. The golf course was acquired in 2011 by the city of Houston and will be repurposed as 12 stormwater detention basins to provide flood reduction benefits to homes in the community. The project will also serve to mitigate the impacts for future drainage projects planned in the adjacent neighborhoods by Houston Public Works. Once the approximately $48 million flood management components are complete, the city of Houston will work with the Houston Parks Board to add park amenities to the 12 detention basins that are created.
The Office of Resilience and Sustainability and Office of Recovery both worked to create affordable housing projects with the Houston Housing and Community Development Department. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) allocated $450 million for the development of quality affordable multifamily homes throughout Houston. Ryan Slattery, who previously served as a senior advisor at the Office of Recovery notes, “The projects are transit oriented, located in high-opportunity communities, and have access to food, healthcare, and other amenities like quality public schools.”
Downtown, Houston added their own urban infill holdings to their resilient infrastructure response. The Lynn Wyatt Square for the Performing Arts, a redevelopment project by RIOS of an urban park at the center of Houston’s Theater District, incorporates solutions from the firm’s in-house Climate Action Committee to “replace gray with green” and includes: a multipurpose “center green” lawn for an array of large, programmed events; cool, oak-shaded areas for seating; a tiered and immersive cooling water feature in an activated plaza; nearly 28,000 sf of rich planting area to slow water runoff and provide a buffer from the streetscape; a series of sidewalk stages and other areas equipped for impromptu or smaller performances; and a two-story restaurant overlooking the park and sidewalk.
The site was flooded by Hurricane Harvey and its underground parking garage remained underwater for three months following the storm. New reinforced flood doors were installed at all points of entry into the garage as part of the FEMA garage recovery project (led by local Houston firm and Wyatt Square architect of record Harrison Kornberg Architects), and garage air intake openings were moved to new locations well above the future flood plain. “We believed from the start that it was critical to develop a place that not only was resilient to future flooding but created an environment that was comfortable and inclusive to all,” says Cameron Stewart, a senior project designer with RIOS. “The design spotlights the beauty and power of Houston’s performing arts culture with an entirely new offering that is symbiotic for the arts district and the urban context.” AIA Houston agrees the project is noteworthy: The chapter awarded it a design award in 2021 in the urban design category.
Houston’s success in implementing successful strategies has sent ripples across Texas, with other cities also looking to build beautiful park infrastructure in combination with resilient responses. Most cities lack strategic plans that include sustainability, equity, and other guideposts for a resilience framework. First steps in implementing a resilience strategy include hiring a chief resilience officer, penning a resilience plan specific to the city’s needs, and receiving commitment from leadership to implement these strategies — all requirements for membership in the Resilient Cities Network. A resilience planning effort generally costs about $2 million and is typically funded through philanthropic gifts from major donors. While Houston’s initial resilience plan was funded by Shell, the city of Tampa crowdfunded their investment, with community stakeholders like the Tampa Bay Rays contributing to the effort. One challenge, however, is that the process necessary before resilience implementation occurs — stakeholder meetings, assessments, synthesizing materials, and reviewing them for a consensus agreement — can take years. Despite barriers common to implementing strategic vision plans, resilience plans are a critical undertaking to build safe, habitable communities that resist the shocks and stressors of catastrophic events so that people and the city itself can move forward with ideological evolution and economic growth. Houston serves as a strong model for how other cities in Texas and around the country might successfully bring resilience plans to action.
Jen Weaver is a registered architect, registered interior designer, and realtor in the state of Texas. She developed Capitol Quarters, the first no parking multifamily building in Austin.