The immersive new exhibit will now open next year. Image courtesy of Houston Zoo

Houstonians eager to meet sea lions, giant tortoises, sharks, and Humboldt penguins at the Houston Zoo will have to wait a bit longer, the zoo announced.

Galápagos Islands, the highly immersive Houston Zoo experience showcasing one of the most pristine, ecologically rich areas in the world, will not open until early 2023.

The Galápagos exhibit is part of the zoo’s 100th anniversary celebration and was slated to open fall of this year. Zoo officials cite supply chain issues for key construction materials — such as acrylic viewing panels for the state-of-the-art sea lion habitat — as the reason for the delay.

This planned exhibit is the first of its kind to showcase the wildlife of the legendary island chain that Charles Darwin studied and made famous.Guests can dive into an environment evoking the archipelago’s unique landscapes and oceanic habitats — all meant to inspire intrigue and preservation.

One major draw should be the Galápagos penguins, which are threatened by overfishing, ocean pollution, and climate change and are highly protected by the Ecuadorian government. It is the most threatened penguin species in the world, the zoo notes, with an estimated population of less than 2,000 individuals.

The Galápagos is often heralded as the planet’s ultimate area spotlighting unique species, the delicate balance of ecosystems, and the pressing need for conservation action, the zoo notes.

“We’re disappointed that the project has been delayed, but we know we’re not alone in experiencing supply chain problems,” said Houston Zoo president and CEO Lee Ehmke in a statement. “Our commitment to conservation in the Galápagos Islands, our animal residents, and our guests here in Houston remain unwavering. A short delay in our exhibit opening will not deter us from our mission of connecting communities to animals, inspiring action to save wildlife.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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

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

Living on a prairie

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.

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2 Houston suburbs roll onto top-15 spots on U-Haul’s list of growing cities

on the move

More movers hauled their belongings to Texas than any other state last year. And those headed to the Greater Houston area were mostly pointed toward Missouri City and Conroe, according to a new study.

In its recently released annual growth report, U-Haul ranks Missouri City and Conroe at No. 13 and No. 19, respectively among U.S. cities with the most inbound moves via U-Haul trucks in 2022. Richardson was the only other Texas cities to make the list coming in at No. 15.

Texas ranks No. 1 overall as the state with the most in-bound moves using U-Haul trucks. This is the second year in a row and the fifth year since 2016 that Texas has earned the distinction.

“The 2022 trends in migration followed very similar patterns to 2021 with Texas, Florida, the Carolinas and the Southwest continuing to see solid growth,” U-Haul international president John Taylor says in a news release. “We still have areas with strong demand for one-way rentals. While overall migration in 2021 was record-breaking, we continue to experience significant customer demand to move out of some geographic areas to destinations at the top of our growth list.”

U-Haul determines the top 25 cities by analyzing more than 2 million one-way U-Haul transactions over the calendar year. Then the company calculated the net gain of one-way U-Haul trucks entering a specific area versus departing from that area. The top U-Haul growth states are determined the same way.

The studies note that U-Haul migration trends do not directly correlate to population or economic growth — but they are an “effective gauge” of how well cities and states are attracting and maintaining residents.

Missouri City is known for its convenient location only minutes from downtown Houston. The city’s proximity to major freeways, rail lines, the Port of Houston, and Bush and Hobby Airports links its businesses with customers “around the nation and the world,” per its website.

The No. 19-ranked city of Conroe is “the perfect blend of starry nights and city lights,” according to the Visit Conroe website. Conroe offers plenty of outdoor activities, as it is bordered by Lake Conroe, Sam Houston National Forest and W. Goodrich Jones State Forest. But it also has a busy downtown area with breweries, theaters, shopping and live music.

To view U-Haul’s full growth cities report, click here.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston-based creator economy platform goes live nationally

so clutch

An app that originally launched on Houston college campuses has announced it's now live nationwide.

Clutch founders Madison Long and Simone May set out to make it easier for the younger generation to earn money with their skill sets. After launching a beta at local universities last fall, Clutch's digital marketplace is now live for others to join in.

The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more. With weekly payments to creators and an inclusive platform for users on both sides of the equation, Clutch aims to make digital collaboration easier and more reliable for everyone.

“We’re thrilled to bring our product to market to make sustainable, authentic lifestyles available to everyone through the creator economy," says May, CTO and co-founder of Clutch. "We’re honored to be part of the thriving innovation community here in Houston and get to bring more on-your-own-terms work opportunities to all creators and businesses through our platform.”

In its beta, Clutch facilitated collaborations for over 200 student creators and 50 brands — such as DIGITS and nama. The company is founded with a mission of "democratizing access to information and technology and elevating the next generation for all people," according to a news release from Clutch. In the beta, 75 percent of the creators were people of color and around half of the businesses were owned by women and people of color.

“As a Clutch Creator, I set my own pricing, schedule and services when collaborating on projects for brands,” says Cathy Syfert, a creator through Clutch. “Clutch Creators embrace the benefits of being a brand ambassador as we create content about the products we love, but do it on behalf of the brands to help the brands grow authentically."

The newly launched product has the following features:

  • Creator profile, where users can share their services, pricing, and skills and review inquiries from brands.
  • Curated matching from the Clutch admin team.
  • Collab initiation, where users can accept or reject incoming collab requests with brands.
  • Collab management — communication, timing, review cycles — all within the platform.
  • In-app payments with a weekly amount selected by the creators themselves.
  • Seamless cancellation for both brands and creators.
Clutch raised $1.2 million in seed funding from Precursor Ventures, Capital Factory, HearstLab, and more. Clutch was originally founded as Campus Concierge in 2021 and has gone through the DivInc Houston program at the Ion.

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Houston expert: Space tourism is the future — do we have the workforce to run it?

guest column

Throughout history, humans have always been fascinated in exploring and traveling around the world, taking them to many exotic places far and away. On the same token, ever since the dimension of space travel has been inaugurated with multiple private companies launching rockets into space, it has become an agenda to make space travel public and accessible to all. We believe that space travel is the next frontier for tourism just like for our forefathers world travel to faraway places was the next frontier, for recreational and adventure purposes.

In a world racing on technology, we can picture flying cars, invisible doors, and international cuisine in space. With this rapid expansion of the land, the idea of space tourism has stirred the space industry to think about running businesses, start trade, and set up universalization beyond the ring of the earth. It is no longer science fiction but our immediate future. However, the true question remains. Who will be responsible for all of it? Are we training the right workforce that is needed to build and run all of this?

Space tourism is an exciting idea in theory, traveling to extra-terrestrial destinations, exploring new planets, all by being in an anti-gravitational environment. Through these diminishing borders and rapid advancements soon we'll be living the space life, all the virtual, metaverse gigs coming to reality. But before that let's explore space tourism and how the solar system will welcome humans.

What is Space tourism?

Ever since 1967, Apollo opened the getaway of space travel and the technological intervention spun to rise. Just like nomad tourism, space tourism is human space travel for commercializing interstellar for leisure or pleasurable adventures of the unknown. Space has different levels of horizons, according to research, orbital space has high speeds of 17,400 mph to allow the rocket to orbit around the Earth without falling onto the land. While lunar space tourism goes into subcortical flights and brings people back at a slower speed.

Studies have shown that in the upcoming years, commercial space exploration will hike up the economical database, by generating more than expected revenue. On these grounds, space tourism won't be limited to suborbital flights but rather take onto orbital flights, this revolutionary expenditure will change the future.

Everything aligns when the right team works together endlessly to reach the stars. The space exploration will only take place with enthusiastic and empowered individuals catering towards their roles.

Astronomers, space scientists, meteorologists, plasma physicists, aerospace engineers, avionics technicians, technical writers, space producers, and more will work in the field to make this space dream come true.

The attraction of Space exploration

Curiosity is the gateway to the seven wonders of the world. Humans are born with novelty-seeking, the drive to explore the unknown and push boundaries. This exploration has benefited society in a million ways, from making bulbs to jets.

The attraction towards exploring the space stems from the same desire for novelty seeking. We want to answer the most difficult questions about the universe, is there only darkness beyond that sky? Can we live on another planet if ours die? To address the challenges of space and the world, we have created new technologies, industries, and a union worldwide. This shows how vital space exploration is to humans. Many astronauts dwell on the idea of seeing the iconic thin blue outline of our planet, the quintessential experience makes the astronaut go back and back. However, are we entering this dimension with the right skills? Is our future workforce ready to take need the best

Who will lead the path?

The main question that still goes unanswered is who will run space tourism. When it comes to the future, there are infinite options. One decision and you will fly into an endless sky.

This expenditure has opened multiple career opportunities for the future workforce to take on for diversification and exploration of space. Currently, we cannot predict how people will find meaning and improve their lives through space tourism, but it will be a soul-awakening experience. According to experts, travelers would prefer a livelihood in space for which companies are working day and night to figure out accommodation and properties. The ideas include having space hotels, offices, research labs, and tents for operations.

Lastly, space tourism is just a start, we are moving into a dimensional field of physics and astronomy to create new opportunities and ground-breaking inventions to explore the untouchable. The new era of more refined and thoroughly accessed careers are on the rise, let's see how the world evolves in the next 10 years.

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Ghazal Qureshi is the founder and CEO of UpBrainery, a Houston-based immersive educational technology platform that taps into neuroscience research-based programs to provide adaptive learning and individualized pathways for students at home or in the classroom.