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The 'Most Sustainable Cities': Houston, We Have a Problem
Joel Makower, 4 Jun 06

The 2006 rankings of America's "most sustainable cities" were announced last week -- released, with more than a little irony, at a mayors' conference in Las Vegas -- and as usual they fomented a feeding frenzy for local media. Reporters in and around the top-ranked winners -- among them, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Chicago -- produced glowing stories touting their green standings. Meanwhile, media in the 40-odd other cities tended to look the other way.

While the victors (and especially their elected officials, chambers of commerce, and tourist bureaus) enjoy their spoils, what happens to the "losers"?

The case of beleaguered Houston -- home of Ken Lay, Katrina refugees, and the nation's dirtiest air -- which ranked dead last in the 2005 rankings, may be instructive.

The rankings, produced each year by SustainLane, an online community focused on sustainable living, are based primarily on public data, supplemented with primary research and interviews with city officials conducted by SustainLane's San Francisco-based team. Some cities, it seems, provide a wealth of information and data about their performance -- everything from air quality and green buildings to local food and agriculture and "city innovation." And some cities provide little or nothing.

Houston fell into the latter category. When SustainLane sought out a contact in the city government who could fill out the group's questionnaire last year, one woman, Sylvia Brumlow, identified herself as the best point person for environmental issues for the city.

But despite follow-up calls and e-mails, they say Brumlow (who, it turns out, works for the Environmental Investigations Unit of the Houston Police Department) never followed through, contributing to the city's rock-bottom ranking last year.

"That created quite a stir, and a lot of hate mail came pouring in from Houston," James Elsen, SustainLane's founder and CEO, told me last week. "But then a cool thing happened. We started getting comments posted to our Web site that we were right in placing them last -- comments from consultants and academics working with the city, as well as from residents of Houston. We were on local Houston radio and covered in their papers, and a real debate ensued about Houston's record."

Elsen continues:

About a month later we got a call from Karl Pepple, recently appointed by Mayor Bill White as Director of Environmental Programming. Karl said he would work with us, which he has done quite effectively this year, and he told us that Houston did indeed have environmental management functions within numerous departments, but they never met with one another or knew of each other's work until Karl was appointed. He told us that now they meet monthly across many departments and are thankful they are now able to do so, as they are involved in new learnings and discussions, as well as being able to create new efficiencies for the city of Houston's environmental programs.

Houston's problem, it seems, had as much to do with its lack of self-knowledge and coordination of efforts as with its actual performance. And that put it in good company -- not just with other cities, but with thousands of companies that have good, green stories to tell, if only they knew about them. Sometimes, it's the simple matter of finding the stories -- along with good storytellers -- that can begin a positive spiral of inspiration and innovation -- leading, of course, to even more good stories.

Put another way: If only Houston knew what Houston knew. Now, increasingly, it does.

A happy ending? Well, not exactly. In this year's rankings, SustainLane expanded its coverage from 25 cities to 50, and Houston, sadly, dropped from 25th to 39th, slightly ahead of Tulsa and Detroit. Seems that Houston's "good stories" don't measure up to those of 38 other cities.

Meanwhile, what of Columbus, Ohio, which won this year's dubious 50th-place honor? Says Elsen: "We're already being set-up with interviews there so they can understand why they finished last."

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Funny. There was a piece on about the gas-price crunch a while back that focused on lifestyle changes--or lack thereof--in Houston. The accompanying picture showed a line of suburbamoms picking up their kids at the local school. With the exception of maybe TWO sedans, every single driver was wedged behind the wheel of an SUV. Stretching as far as the eye could register.

Interviews with these folks had them stating that "Raises in gas prices were the taxes for living in a democracy" and other absurdly jingoistic crap. Some people are going to hit the transitions for the next century with a running start, and some are going to have to be hitched to the bumper and dragged, I think.

Posted by: Mel. on 4 Jun 06

it might be worth noting that Houston is also the only major metro area in the US to NOT have any form of zoning. Not that zoning is "the answer," but simply that the lack of it could be seen as an indicator of the strength of the free-market, individualistic mindset in that location. Here's an interesting article on what Houston DOES have instead of zoning, and what that structure of regulations has wrought:
and another on the fight to introduce land use regs and planning to a reticent population (note the source, and take salt grain as necessary):

Wasn't it Anders Duany who said something like, if you involve the people in the process, all smart growth initiatives will fail? Perhaps not true in all places, and certainly its not an optimistic viewpoint, but in the case of places like Houston (and perhaps Columbus?), it may not be so far off base. The public mindset has to change, too.

Posted by: katuah on 4 Jun 06

" If only Houston knew what Houston knew." Exactly.

When we worked with the City of Oakland a few years back - at the very inception of their sustainability initiative - the generally mod from the city was "we're not doing anything - certainly not as much as Berkeley." So one thing we asked staff to do was to catalog all sustainability related initiatives, across city government.

Lo and behold: there were many. Both city staff and the sustainability commission and [quite pleasantly] surprised, Oakland has continued to put a focus on sustainability -- and ranks #6 in this years SustainLane ratings.

Posted by: Gil Friend on 4 Jun 06

PS: I guess, since recycling's a good thing, that recycling titles is a good thing too. ;-)

Posted by: Gil Friend on 4 Jun 06

Hmmm, interesting comments about Houston. I have lived in and around Houston for about 30 years. I have also lived in quite a few other places in my 50 years of life, including Philadelphia, Albuquerque, Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Denver (just to name the big cities). All big cities have their personalities and I suspect a person's like or dislike of any given place depends a lot on how and where they grow up.

That said, Houston has a lot of plusses as well as a few minuses. It's a great place to work, it's very convenient in the sense of supplying any service you need and plenty of businesses close to home (this is an affect of the zoning thing, I think). It's equally true that there is a lot of driving required and traffic on the major highways can be horrendous any time of the day. Houston has tons of great restaurants, which is probably why Houston averages one of the fattest populations in the country (plus, because of the driving required :).

My biggest gripe about Houston is that the city seems to be in the boondocks for anything high tech. For example, I am working to make my home more energy efficient in a number of ways, yet in the Houston area (an area that comprises about a 100 mile radius) it is tough to find much of anything that is leading edge for home energy consumption. And this is in a city just 160 miles from a leading US tech city (Austin, TX).
Regardless, it is good to see someone (Karl Pepple) beginning to bring it together in Houston. Hopefully, we will see some improvements soon.

Posted by: David on 5 Jun 06

I'm currently visiting my family in Houston, and on their side of town I-10 is being widened from four lanes each direction to *eleven.* That's eleven each direction. This project swallowed up a perfectly good place to put light rail (the old Katy railroad line).

People around here drive SUVs. It's a cultural thing; Houstonians are proud of being blue-collar, and everything's supposed to be bigger in Texas.

Gas stations citywide are pumping about 10% ethanol with their gasoline, which is good for helping pollution problems, but bad for mileage and economy. A news story on TV recently talked about people who drive outside city limits to get 'real' gas, because of the better mileage-per-dollar.

Also: Down on the coast, there's a plan to put up a huge wind farm in the Gulf of Mexico. The only problems: Hurricanes, and the turbines' location smack dab in the middle of substantial migratory paths of birds from the Yucatan.

Posted by: Enoch Root on 5 Jun 06

It is sad but not surprising (as a former Houstonian) to hear people talk about gas prices being a "tax" and not realizing that this "tax" is being paid only to corporations and foreign governments.

I'm so glad I don't live in Houston anymore! (now I live in #10's twin).

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 5 Jun 06

there's a plan to put up a huge wind farm in the Gulf of Mexico

Ah, the forethought of Texans.
I moved to Houston in July 2004. I was out of there by December. Hated it.

Posted by: David Lucas on 5 Jun 06



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