Our Living Resource – Part 1

March 22, 2022   /   Project News

In the last decade, Houston has increasingly experienced more extreme and severe billion dollar weather events from unprecedented rainfall witnessed during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 to the failed power grid during the deadly Historic Winter Outbreak in February 2021.

These events have bolstered our ability to rapidly respond in the immediate aftermath; however, without a cohesive and robust strategy for future weather events in a changing climate, the city continues to remain vulnerable to the next event.

To paint a more complete picture about Houston’s mitigation efforts and long-term resiliency, we sat down with our planners and designers to understand Houston’s relationship with water. We are excited to introduce Our Living Resource, a four-part series about water. In part 1, we discuss how a multi-scalar, transdisciplinary approach can inform strategic planning for Houston’s water infrastructure. In the remainder of this series, we take a closer look at how adaptive design can be applied across three fundamental areas of this approach: Conservation of Forests and Upland Prairies for Inland Water Storage; Integrated Urban Water Infrastructure; and Living Shorelines and Coastal Resilience.

The Visible and Invisible Hydrologic Cycle

Water is a living resource that ebbs and flows across the landscape. As a coastal city, Houston’s water infrastructure runs from upland prairies and forests through a network of lakes, rivers, bayous, and pipes before draining into Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

While it travels across this infrastructure network, water is flowing, infiltrating, evaporating, and precipitating as it shifts from its liquid state to a gas and back again.  In its liquid form, water is visible and present in reality, but in its invisible gaseous form, water is invisible and exists in a sort of ephemeral, omnipresent state. The former can be utilized as a resource, carrying soils, debris, boats, goods, people across vast distances.

image from: https://tinyurl.com/bthkv9nu

In the pre-colonial era, the relationship between people, land, and water was harmonious. Tribal groups such as the Akikosa inhabited the Galveston Bay tributaries of greater Houston including Buffalo Bayou, San Jacinto River, Cypress Creek as well as Clear Creek.  These larger water bodies acted as a food source for fish, reptiles, and crustaceans and used timber from upland forests for dugouts that enabled further fishing expeditions along rivers and the bay at large. Smaller water bodies such as creeks and tributaries allowed for collection of fresh drinking water, cultivation of cane and reed grasses and a reliable source for bathing. 

The relationship to water changed with the colonization of the landscape through the industrial era. Buffalo Bayou became a colonized asset as it was seen as an essential component of Houston’s economy and urban footprint. The City of Houston was founded along the banks of Buffalo Bayou at Allen’s landing in 1836. The bayou was seen as the perfect place to establish a wharf and turning basin and become an economic driver for shipping goods, namely cotton and grains. As a result, the City developed around the bayou, setting up mills to power cotton manufacturing, grain mills, timber industry, and many other industries bolstered by the connection to the railroad.

Other water infrastructure projects were erected over the years that have transformed the system. These were designed to improve stormwater drainage and protect communities from rising waters.

Notable Projects:

  • 1904 Galveston Seawall
  • 1940s Barker & Addicks Reservoirs
  • 1950 Channelization of 1260mi of streams
  • 1953 Lake Houston Dam Construction completed
  • 1971 Channelization of White Oak Bayou
  • 1973 Lake Conroe completed

Today’s stormwater system handles nearly 50inches of rainfall per year, but we have seen an increasing number of flooding events that have overwhelmed this system. This infrastructure was designed to meet a specific moment in the hydrologic cycle. A maximum or minimum requirement. Yet, this moment is static and superficial in a much more complex and evolving hydrologic cycle. As the climate evolves, we are seeing more and more unprecedented events that crack at an aging infrastructure. 

Like the colonization of water bodies, Houston’s urbanization also reinforced a one-way use of water where upstream water serves as the primary fresh water source that is used and discarded as wastewater. Water in Houston has gone from serving just under 400,000 people in the ‘40s to over 2 million today. With the projected population expected to double by 2100, increased water demand will challenge this conventional one-way system.

Strategic Planning Efforts

In response to the one-way use of water, the One Water approach offers a more interconnected relationship between land, water, and people. This approach emphasizes collaboration, rethinking infrastructure, management of waters, and choice of technological solutions to develop a more integrated water system. Adapting to the new realities of climate change and a growing population with aging water infrastructure means reframing our relationship with water. What does an integrated water concept look like in the Houston-Galveston region? How can we better incorporate other moments of the hydrologic cycle that are invisible to the eye? How can we adopt a more cyclical use of water in our communities? How can we blend blue and green infrastructure into a resilient network?

We highlighted several plans, projects, initiatives, and organizations that have contributed to a larger conversation about resiliency and water.

Resilience // Our work on Resilient Houston led residents to think about how, from an individual and family scale to a regional scale, environmental and infrastructural systems could but support large scale, systemic improvements to resilience and equity outcomes. The integration of social resilience principles in our thinking on Resilient Houston meant that we were able to better integrate goals around anti-displacement, affordable housing creation, and equitable economic development, alongside climate and environmental resilience goals.

The Convening on Coastal Policy and Priorities brought together top thought leaders in the space of coastal action, adaptation, and resilience for a discussion on how the City of New Orleans can take an active role in making coastal Louisiana a more physically, economically, and socially resilient system.

Vision Galveston was created so that the people of Galveston could shape their own future. A 9-month process, funded by local foundations and guided by an inclusive steering committee, asked Galvestonians what they valued about their city, what they feared, and what they wanted. This resulting plan is only the beginning of an ongoing effort. The City of Galveston and other public agencies will incorporate these ideas in their adopted plans. An ongoing organization (the Vision Galveston 501(c)(3)) was created to convene, coordinate, and advocate on behalf of this visioning process.

Equity // As part of the Pasadena Healthy Parks Plan, Asakura Robinson designed an equity map which was used to inform an in-depth assessment of 10 high-need parks. The map was designed using a suitability analysis that stacked environmental and socioeconomic vulnerability, community health and park access indices. In the end, the overall priorities map shows  areas across the four indices with the highest need for park investments. Investments in these areas would create the greatest potential for multiple, stacked benefits across health, equity, and environmental goals.

Growth and Accountability

Economic Development // Asakura Robinson worked for Oxfam America and Limitless Vistas, Inc on the Oxfam Creating Career Pathways for Coastal Opportunity project to create new paths for low-income residents of the Gulf Coast to gain access to employment in coastal restoration work. The study focused on new credentials obtainable with less than a four-year degree that could give Gulf Coast residents access to well-paying, middle-skill technician jobs with skills that would be transferable to other environmental occupations. The team interviewed employers, regulators, funders and owners of restoration projects, community colleges and other training organizations, and local residents.

Development // Cognizant of the growing need for sustainable development, H-GAC’s Designing for Impact: Regional Guide to Low Impact Developmentpromoted the use of low impact development (LID) as an environmentally friendly and cost-effective approach to development. The project highlights Asakura Robinsons philosophy of incorporating sustainability into landscape architecture, planning, and design and the firm’s ability to accommodate future development and manage stormwater. Following this effort, the City of Houston developed the Houston Incentives for Green Development guide which provides recommendations for the private sector to implement green infrastructure in development.

Adaptive Futures

As Houston’s greatest living resource, water is key to a more resilient future. In the next few posts of this series, we will discuss some of the proposed projects that are down the pipeline and some of the innovative design solutions that support an integrated water system.

For more information now, please contact our Marketing Manager Amanda Wheeless who would be happy to connect you with the right team members!

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