Living on a prairie

Houston conservationist is helping to find new ways to protect local species and ecosystems

Memorial Park, which is currently undergoing a master plan renovation, and other Houston parks can be a great opportunity for introducing urban conservation inside the city limits. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz

The Houston toad is a species that was discovered in Harris County in the 1950s. It has a very distinct, loud call that reverberates at quite a high pitch. But the Houston toad's call hasn't been heard in the city of Houston for almost 50 years. The species is locally extinct and critically endangered elsewhere. In fact, it's the most endangered amphibian in North America, says Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership.

"When we think about extinction, we think of the dodo bird or the woolly mammoth," Johnson says. "But extinction is happening right underneath our noses."

The Houston Zoo has a breeding facility for Houston toad, but other than that, it's extremely unlikely that the Houston toad will ever reside naturally in its namesake city.

"We have modified the environment so heavily, that it'd be a bit of a dicey thing to do [to reintroduce the species] because there are so few of them, it's better to focus on an environment where it's still OK for them," Johnson says. The largest population of the Houston toad is actually in Bastrop, however due to the Bastrop fires in 2011, the species is only just recently back to a good place even there.

Johnson is giving a free lecture in April at Rice regarding extinction, where she'll bring her Astros-named Houston toads, Springer and Julia Morales, as her teacher aids.

Changing tides in conservation
As cities like Houston continue to be developed, scientists and researchers are challenged with finding new ways to effect conservation. Johnson says within the industry, there's been a shift in thinking when it comes to preserving nature.

"There's a new burgeoning movement in conservation called urban conservation," she says. "For a long time, if you talked to the traditional conservationists, the idea of conservation is to protect big spaces — the national and state park systems are the perfect example."

But large parks are expensive and a huge undertaking. It's still the strongest form of conservation, but introducing conservation efforts in a city — perhaps in some of Houston's parks, like Memorial Park or Hermann Park — helps not only the species of animals involved, but also educates the local population and forms a connection with residents.

"That has a twofold kind of benefit," Johnson says. "It protects the greenspace so species to live with us, and then also it makes the connection to this place we try to protect."

Of course, this type of effort is new, and there's not a lot of data to show how this would affect the ecosystem and its species, from the migratory and genetic diversity standpoints. Despite the lack of data, Johnson says this type of effort needs to happen.

"We're going to continue to manipulate the world, and maybe if we started thinking about this now, that we can get to a point were we understand enough were we can make these some sort of functioning ecosystem," she says.

Part of the shift in thinking about these ecosystems has to do with new ways of tracking species and understanding their environments.

"Technology is helping us ask a lot of these questions," Johnson says. "Ecology is surprisingly complicated. There's so many variables. ... I think technology and our advance with computing is definitely going to help us understand it."

Using preservation to solve flooding
The educational component is also very important to conservation, and Johnson is making strides on campus with her class. Last year, her department and her class introduced a pocket prairie right on the Rice campus.

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Of course, there are other flood solutions being discussed — some even incorporating tech or even a tube system underground.

"Historically, there has been some budding of heads between the environment and technology, but I really think moving forward, those two fields have to work together. We need to use technology to save the environment," Johnson says. "I think Houston is one of the places where that conversation is starting to happen."

Missing the toads

Courtesy of Cassidy Brown Johnson

The Houston toad has been locally extinct since the 1970s.

The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Here are some other overheard quotes from the groundbreaking ceremony. The 270,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 18 months.


The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University


The Sears opened in 1939. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

“We have the capacity — if we work together — not only to make this a great innovation hub, but to do something that truly represents the Houston can-do, collaborative spirit.”

— David Leebron, president of Rice University. Leebron stressed the unique accomplishment the Ion has made to bring all the universities of Houston together for this project. "When we tell people the collaboration that has been brought together around this project, they are amazed," he says.

“The nation is seeing what we already know in the city of Houston. That this city has the greatest and most creative minds. We are a model for inclusion among people and cultures from everywhere. We are a city that taps the potential of every resident, dares them to dream big, and we provide the tools to make those dreams come true.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner, who says he remembers shopping in the former Sears building as a kid, but notes how Houston's goals have changed, as has the world.

“When this store opened in 1939, it showcased a couple of innovations even back then: The first escalator in Texas, the first air conditioned department store in Houston, the first windowless department store in the country.”

— Senator Rodney Ellis, who adds the request that The Ion have windows.

“Many people ask us, ‘why not just tear down the old building and start new?’ We actually see this as a very unique opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs to be located within a historic building, while benefiting from an enhanced structure, state-of-the-art technology, and Class A tenant comforts.”

— Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company. She describes the environment of being a beehive of activity.

“[As program partner for The Ion,] our mission is to build the innovation economy of Houston one entrepreneur at a time.”

— Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. Rowe describes Station's role as a connector between startups, venture capital firms, major corporations, and more.