In the past five years, six federally declared flooding disasters have wreaked havoc in Houston — most notably Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Now, you might say Houston stands tall as a hub of resilience when it comes to disaster preparedness and myriad other pressing issues.
The Texas chapter of the American Planning Association recently honored Mayor Sylvester Turner's Resilient Houston initiative as the top entry in the resilience category of the chapter's annual awards program. In addition, Turner was just named chairman of the Resilient Cities Network.
With backing from Shell Oil Co., the City of Houston hired its first chief resilience officer, Marissa Aho, in 2019 and developed a multibillion-dollar resilience strategy to address threats from hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, and climate change. The plan also seeks to boost the resilience of Houston's economy, neighborhoods and natural resources.
"Our efforts need to be bold, transformative, and aligned to achieve the outcomes Houstonians deserve," Turner said in unveiling the resilience plan in February. "Resilient Houston is a framework for transformative change that comes from thinking and acting together to build and grow Houston's long-term resilience. We will need our partners and every Houstonian at the table to achieve this vision."
Dallas and El Paso also have resilience plans in place.
Houston's resilience effort outlines a number of ambitious goals, such as:
- Updating city building codes and standards by 2030 to reduce damage from disasters.
- Attracting or incubating 50 Energy 2.0 companies in the Houston area by 2025.
- Planting 4.6 million new native trees by 2030.
- Building at least 375,000 homes in Houston for all income levels by 2050.
- Providing all Houstonians with easy access to high-frequency public transportation by 2050.
As explained by Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, hurricanes and floods are examples of "acute shocks" in terms of resilience. These are sudden, large-scale events that disrupt and endanger life. Other shocks include economic crisis, cyberattacks, terrorism, chemical disasters, and extreme heat.
The Kinder Institute points out that Houston's resilience strategy not only addresses these shocks but also takes on "chronic stresses" that hamper recovery from these shocks. Those stresses include poor air quality, health disparities, crime, economic inequality, urban sprawl, and limited access to education.
"Stresses do not impact every Houstonian the same way," says the institute, which helped develop the Resilient Houston project.
Startups participating in Houston's Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator are tackling many of the same challenges that Resilient Houston is. The accelerator's second cohort launched in April with six startups.
Funded by Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp., the accelerator "is committed to solving challenges Houstonians face every day," Christine Galib, director of the accelerator, said in an April release. "We connect participating startups with mentors, partners, and stakeholders so they gain access to the resources they need to build, validate, and scale their technologies. Together, we are building a safer, smarter, and more accessible city for all Houstonians."
Houston's push for resilience meshes with Turner's new role as chairman of the Resilient Cities Network. The network is a global city-led nonprofit that aims to "empower cities to help them build a safe, equitable, and sustainable future for all."
"The reach, achievements, and vision of the Resilient Cities Network are impressive. I'm honored to be part of an organization that supports the critical needs of vulnerable communities by implementing projects that address multiple shocks and stresses and are improving the lives of people," Turner says in a release.
Among other goals, the network strives to strengthen local economies and bolster local campaigns to combat climate change.
Supported by $1.8 million from Shell, the City of Houston joined the Resilient Cities Network in August 2018. Houston is the U.S. headquarters for Shell.
"A year after Hurricane Harvey, Houstonians can clearly say we didn't let the storm get the best of us. Nevertheless, there's still work to be done across a wide range of challenges that we share as a community," Bruce Culpepper, who then was president and U.S. chairman of Shell, said in a 2018 release about his company's backing of Resilient Houston.
"Building long-term resiliency is much more than disaster response," Culpepper added. "It's about enabling the people of our city to thrive."