Green Infrastructure as an Incremental Policy Option for Houston

The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season, described as “extremely active” by NOAA, produced ten hurricanes. Six of these hurricanes were either Category 3, 4, or 5, and for the first time in twelve years, two of these storms hit the continental U.S. [8]. There is growing scientific consensus regarding the effects climate change will have upon the Earth. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a body of scientists from 195 countries tasked with assessing science related to climate change [7]. As scientific consensus suggests, the IPCC claims:

The type, frequency and intensity of extreme events are expected to change as Earth’s climate changes, and these changes could occur even with relatively small mean climate changes. Changes in some types of extreme events have already been observed, for example, increases in the frequency and intensity of heat waves and heavy precipitation events [7].

Therefore, evident from this past summer’s hurricane season and scientific consensus, the consequences of anthropogenic climate change are becoming increasingly apparent. For this reason, hurricanes such as the incredibly deleterious Harvey and Maria have drawn attention to climate change and subsequently, climate resilience policy in the U.S. Policymakers in regions already disproportionately vulnerable to strong hurricanes should be looking for solutions to reduce damage these increasingly powerful and prevalent hurricanes may cause.

In August of 2017, Category 4 Hurricane Harvey struck. Causing $125 billion in damage, the storm affected thirteen million residents from Texas to Kentucky, killing 88 people [1]. At the storm’s peak two feet of rain fell in the first 24 hours, leaving a third of Houston underwater [1]. Texas needed more than $125 billion in federal relief, not including the 738,000 Texans who received $738 million in assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency [1].

In the aftermath of Harvey, experts point to one main human-induced reason the already powerful storm caused so much flooding in Houston: urban sprawl. With 6.5 million residents, the nation’s sixth largest metropolitan area continues to grow. Northwest Houston grew by 70%, adding 587,142 residents between 2000 and 2010 by converting prairie and wetlands to impermeable concrete for housing and suburban life [4]. Nearly three quarters of Houston’s original landscape has been lost to this development [2]. As less water is now naturally held by vegetation and wetlands, the city is prone to immense flooding. Unsurprisingly, Harvey caused the last of three large floods the city has endured in the last three years [4].

Houston is America’s largest city without zoning laws [3]. Zoning regulations are meant to ensure complimentary uses between land and property markets [9]. Houston’s lack of zoning regulations enables sprawl by encouraging development anywhere in and around a city, including areas that were previously swampy, natural wetlands. Zoning regulations are a contentious matter for Houston politicians. Therefore, policy that implements zoning regulations to aid flood mitigation must develop gradually and begin with smaller, less drastic policies.

A first step to flood mitigation could be green infrastructure. Green infrastructure uses soil and vegetation to absorb and filter stormwater runoff [5]. Cities build levees and barriers to help reduce flooding during storm surges, but for added flood water retention Houston must supplement these projects with more natural options; including wetland development, retention ponds, and other water-absorbing green infrastructure projects [6]. Green infrastructure especially incorporates flood-reducing opportunities into communities through projects such as downspout disconnection, rainwater harvesting, and rain gardens [5]. Programs or tax incentives promoting green infrastructure in Houston metropolitan neighborhoods can raise awareness for sustainable opportunities to reduce flooding. A more environmentally aware and informed public is more likely to demand more sustainable policies from their government.

While the city is currently missing an opportunity to reduce emissions and promote sustainable practices through zoning regulations and urban planning, Houston is not afraid of implementing climate change legislation. Between 2007 and 2014 the city reduced greenhouse gas emissions across city operations by 32% and is currently one of the many cities committed to honoring the Paris Climate Accords [6]. Houston policy should bolster green infrastructure projects. Beginning with green infrastructure, an increasingly environmentally cognizant government and community can move towards preserving and restoring Houston wetlands through increasingly comprehensive policy culminating in zoning regulations.

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[1] Amadeo, Kimberly. Hurricane Harvey Facts, Damage, and Costs: What Made Harvey so Devastating. (2018). Retrieved from The Balance website, https://www.thebalance.com/hurricane-harvey-facts-damage-costs-4150087. Last accessed March 28, 2018.

[2] Block, Melissa. Houston Officials Consider How to Prevent Future Floods After Harvey. (2017). Retrieved from NPR website, https://www.npr.org/2017/09/13/550757727/houston-officials-consider-how-to-prevent-future-floods-after-harvey. Last accessed March 28, 2018.

[3] Boburg, Sean. Beth Reinhard. Houston’s ‘Wild West’ Growth. (2017). Retrieved from   Washington Post website, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/investigations/harvey-urban-planning/?utm_term=.39baaad949f1. Last accessed March 28, 2018.

[4] Collier, Kiah. Neena Satija. Analysis: Four Things Houston-Area Leaders Must Do to Prevent    Future Flooding Disasters. (2017). Retrieved from The Texas Tribune website, https://www.texastribune.org/2017/08/29/four-things-houston-area-leaders-must-do-prevent-future-flooding-disas/. Last accessed March 28, 2018.

[5] Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Green Infrastructure. (2017). Retrieved from EPA website, https://www.epa.gov/green-infrastructure/what-green-infrastructure. Last accessed March 28, 2018.

[6] Fleming, Billy. The Real Villain in Harvey Flood: Urban Sprawl and the Politicians Who Allowed It. (2017). Retrieved from The Guardian website, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/31/real-villains-harvey-flood-   urban-sprawl. Last accessed March 28, 2018.

[6] Hargrove, Brantley. Greening Houston. (2014). Retrieved from NRDC website, https://www.nrdc.org/onearth/greening-houston. Last accessed March 28, 2018.

[7] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). FAQ 10.1: Are Extreme Events, Like Heat Waves, Droughts or Floods, Expected to Change as the Earth’s Climate Changes? (2007).   Retrieved from IPCC website, https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/faq-10-1.html. Last accessed March 28, 2018.

[8] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Extremely Active 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season Finally Ends. (2017). Retrieved from NOAA website, http://www.noaa.gov/media-release/extremely-active-2017-atlantic-hurricane-season-  finally-ends. Last accessed March 28, 2018.

[9] The World Bank. Zoning and Land Use Planning. (2015). Retrieved from the World Bank website, https://urban-regeneration.worldbank.org/node/39. Last accessed March 28, 2018.

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