Response to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston is, sadly, a great example of the severe political entropy and impotence at the top of our political system. But don’t look there.
If we look not up but down, to the level of grassroots, we’re going to see where the real solutions will come from. The innovative thinking is going to happen at the other end of the political food chain. Isn’t that always the way?
Don’t get me wrong: Houston needs big solutions. County Judge Ed Emmett is calling for 15 major projects — a new reservoir, fixing the old ones, a rebuild of the bayou drainage system, all of this at costs usually rounded in public statements to “in the billions” or “several billion.”
That seems low. The city’s immediate emergency recovery needs have been put at $15 billion, and that’s money that must be spent before Emmett’s capital investment campaign can even be taken seriously.
Small wonder the people at the top, from President Donald Trump to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, are all pointing at each other, saying, “You pay for it.” Meanwhile, recovery crawls and the city bleeds. These days, what else would we expect from the people at the top?
But if we scratch just a little deeper and look more closely, we will see intriguing signs of life and innovation at the other end of the scale, down where people live. Come to think of it, Houston has always had a lot of smart people in it.
Last week, The Texas Tribune published an intriguing story by Katie Riordan about a project in the Clear Lake area in southeast Houston, home to the Johnson Space Center. A regional water authority has partnered with an environmental group to convert a disused golf course into 10 large detention ponds.
Four years after its completion, the $28 million project is projected to protect 3,000 homes from flooding. That’s less than $10 grand per home to lift thousands of relatively expensive properties in this affluent area out of the flood zone and out of a relentless cycle of disaster and costly repair.
When it’s not full of floodwater, the detention pond area will serve as a big public nature preserve and recreational asset. But the thing I liked best about Riordan’s piece? She suggests that golf courses everywhere may make good detention pond projects because golf is losing so much popularity.
That’s the ultimate trifecta for me: Create greater flood safety, provide more urban access to nature and get rid of all those drunk people buzzing around in their irritating little Flintstone cars.
People involved in the project point out that the same disused golf course was never going to remain neutral in terms of its effect on flood safety. If this project had not come along, the golf course would have been paved over with condos, creating even worse flooding problems.
If you measure the detention pond project on that scale — from the worst that would have occurred with dense redevelopment to the best that can happen now — the benefit is even more substantial. Therein lies what I think is the larger power of this idea. While the people at the top can’t even begin to figure it out, the people in Clear Lake are coming to a clear understanding of the costs of development and the value of land-use planning.
Clear Lake was one of those going-and-blowing parts of Houston in the ’70s and ’80s at the height of the Sunbelt migration. Houston’s attitude was: “Slap those houses up as fast as possible and don’t even tell us about it.” Since then, the city has attempted to impose tougher controls on drainage and stormwater runoff, but back then the words “planning” and “control” were considered anti-growth rabble-rousing, possibly an expression of communism.
Lack of planning or control was copacetic in the view from the top. It meant bigger profits for everybody’s buddies, more golf courses, more tax revenue, more faster and more bigger.
But on the ground where the people lived, it meant 30-year mortgages on houses that were only solid for about six years. Cyclical disasters brought about by an absence of planning, design or simple prudence made the good life a nightmare for many.
Those lessons, I truly believe, are being learned on the ground now in Houston. I bet 20 years from now, Houston will be a thought center for urban design.
Another big factor emerging there is the crucial importance of mapping. When Harvey was at full blow, I read heartbreaking quotes from residents. The city was warning all who lived near drainage bayous to be wary, but many people said they had no idea if they lived near a bayou. Some didn’t know what a bayou was. What if you just moved from Indianapolis?
Think about it. In Dallas, immense concrete drainage canals are tucked away here and there throughout the urban landscape, but a person can only see them by craning sideways and out the window while passing on the freeway. Nobody knows what they are. There are no billboards over them with downward arrows saying, “Huge drainage canal right down there, could overflow and eat your lunch in a big enough storm someday.”
The other infuriating Houston story after Harvey was the role played by the real estate development interests in the going-and-blowing days. Back then, the real estate hucksters lobbied successfully to suppress the warnings and information homebuyers needed in order to know what sort of flood risk they were incurring. So that sort of knowledge was something people typically just didn’t possess.
In another intriguing response to Harvey, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University has created an online mapping tool that will enable the public to map the areas flooded by Harvey with precision. The tool also can be used to map Harvey’s impact against an array of social factors — population density, unemployment, education, even religion.
When I looked at the Kinder map tool, it looked to me like the flooding hit Catholics harder than Protestants, but people with no declared religion at all came out best. Just saying.
In the long run, specific solutions to specific problems will be less important than changes in knowledge and culture. It’s an immense intellectual milestone for people to recognize that permeable soil and floodwater detention are more essential to the good life than golf. No, really. It’s up there with people in the 17th century looking up at the sun and saying, “I think Gali-what’s-his-name may be right. It doesn’t go around us. We go around it.”
It’s also immensely important and wonderful that people like those at the Kinder Institute are harnessing technology to empower the average Joe, meaning most of us. That’s the foundation for a sea change in how these issues get defined.
But let’s not lose track of a dynamic that may be even bigger than all of the above. We need to remember where the golf course idea came from. Doug Peterson, vice chairman of a group in Clear Lake called Exploration Green, a partner in the golf course project, explained the history to me.
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First, there was Clear Lake, an independent city with an independent water authority. When Houston annexed Clear Lake in 1977, it was allowed to keep its own water authority. The Clear Lake Water Authority, in conjunction with Peterson’s group, fostered and pursued the golf course plan.
Peterson believes the independence and localism of the water authority had a great deal to do with the genesis of the plan. “The analogy in my mind is kind of like federalism,” he said. “We look to the states to try new things.” He sees the golf course project as a new idea born precisely because it came from the ground up, not the top down.
If we look at what’s going on in Houston from the top-down perspective, of course it’s a horribly depressing story. The only additional element of total dysfunction and gridlock still missing — I keep waiting for our lieutenant governor to bring it up — is a loud, angry debate about boys in post-Harvey Houston possibly invading the girls’ bathrooms.
If we look more closely, if we pay attention to what the people of Houston are doing and thinking on a more local scale, we can find grounds for real optimism, and not just for Houston.