seeing green

City of Houston launches pilot program to promote stormwater infrastructure growth

The roof of Carnegie Vanguard High School features an example of the Green Stormwater Infrastructure. Photo courtesy of the City of Houston

The City of Houston has launched a pilot project that will speed up the permitting process for environmentally friendly stormwater projects.

The Green Stormwater Infrastructure Expedited Permitting Pilot Program, announced August 4, will approve at least 10 projects in the Houston area by August 2022. In conjunction with the Resilient Houston initiative, the city is targeting 100 green stormwater infrastructure projects by 2025.

The city is working on rules and regulations that will govern development of green stormwater infrastructure. Mayor Sylvester Turner rolled out a tax abatement program for green stormwater infrastructure projects last December.

According to a city news release, green stormwater infrastructure improves the performance of drainage systems and can make real estate projects more attractive to buyers, while delivering benefits such as heat reduction, improvement of air and water quality, and conservation of native habitats.

Green stormwater infrastructure helps reduce the downstream impact of development and mimics how rain behaves when it falls onto an undeveloped green landscape. Techniques that fit into this category include green roofs, rain gardens, rainwater harvesting, permeable pavement, and urban forests.

"In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we have taken critical steps to address our flooding and drainage challenges. As Houston has rapidly developed, we have relied on traditional gray infrastructure systems to keep us safe. However, as we build forward, we must consider new and innovative approaches for achieving greater flood resilience in Houston," the city says in a 2019 report about green stormwater infrastructure.

Traditional "gray" infrastructure, designed to move urban stormwater away from the built environment, includes curbs, gutters, drains, piping, and collection systems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Generally, gray infrastructure collects and moves stormwater from impervious surfaces, such as roadways, parking lots, and rooftops, and into a series of pipes that ultimately send untreated stormwater into local waterways.

In tandem with Houston's new permitting program, the city has created the Green Stormwater Infrastructure Awards and Recognition Program. The program salutes green development and redevelopment projects. It "is intended to recognize some of the most effective and exemplary of 'green' building in Houston and encourage more development projects to adopt resilient measures," according to the news release.

Projects considered for the awards program will be judged on factors such as:

  • Proximity to nearby communities.
  • Impact on nearby communities.
  • Efforts to conserve native plants.

Turner says the permitting and awards programs are part of an initiative aimed at "futureproofing our city" to ease harm caused by hurricanes and flooding.

"In Houston and in towns across the U.S., climate change is no longer knocking on our front door; it's broken into the house," Turner wrote in an opinion piece published in July by The Hill.

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Building Houston

 
 

UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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