PennDesign’s Billy Fleming talks about the consequences of poor city planning.
The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey has brought attention to the massive urban sprawl in the coastal region of Houston. With 6.7 million residents, Houston is the fifth largest metropolitan area in the United States. It also faces a problem typical of large cities around the globe: the environmental impact of development. The paving over of large tracts of natural habitat often means draining wetlands, building impervious surfaces and generally reshaping the landscape. Scientists and urban planners say this very human activity can worsen natural disasters and make it more difficult for cities to recover.
Billy Fleming is a research coordinator for the Ian L. McHarg Center at PennDesign pursuing a doctorate in city and regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-founder of DataRefuge, a research and advocacy group making copies of environmental data at a time of climate change. He also worked on the White House Domestic Policy Council during President Barack Obama’s first term. Fleming discussed the problem of urban sprawl recently on the [email protected] show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: It seems that there is a lot of concrete in Houston. That played a role in the flooding after Hurricane Harvey. When you have that much concrete, there’s nowhere for the water to flow when it rains.
Billy Fleming: Exactly. In the case of Houston, that’s one of the world’s most predictable disasters. When a storm like this comes through, and you’ve spent the better part of 20 years building highways and roads and low-density development to become one of the world’s geographically largest cities, there’s nowhere for that water to go.
The primary outlet for Houston when all that stormwater hits — whether it’s from a storm like Harvey or whether it’s from a summer shower — is to eventually get into Galveston Bay. When a storm like Harvey comes in and pushes a little bit of surge into that bay, it pretty much closes off its only real outlet.
Without all the natural systems that were there before the highways were built, without all of those green systems that have been replaced by strip malls and tract housing, that water doesn’t have anywhere to go.
“In the case of Houston, that’s one of the world’s most predictable disasters.”
[email protected]: There are also houses built behind the city’s reservoirs. Why would you put houses there if, on the off chance that the reservoirs go over the limit, that water is going to end up in people’s yards?
Fleming: Flooding is not a new phenomenon in Houston. The unfortunate part of all of this is that Houston gets held up by a lot of folks as the model of what a deregulated land market can look like, of how to become an affordable city in an otherwise unaffordable environment for most folks in the U.S. There’s a lot that you can say about that that’s good. But the reality in a place like Houston is that the most vulnerable places, those places along the edge of the reservoir or along the coast, the places that are going to flood no matter what, that’s where we shuffle all of our lowest-income families. They move into the cheapest homes we can provide, and we tell them they’re on their own after that.
[email protected]: You talk about regulation and zoning. Most likely, not enough was done to protect the city and its people. Obviously, you want to see a variety of buildup because that’s economically sound, but you can go too far as well.
Fleming: There are all kinds of other models where growth can be channeled in smart ways across the city, even at the most simple level of not shuffling a bunch of your most vulnerable residents into the places that are the most likely to flood. That’s not a particularly heavy-handed set of regulations to say, “We know this place will flood. We don’t want to build here. Where else can we put folks and keep housing prices affordable?” Lots of other cities have figured out how to do it. Houston knows how to do it, they’ve just made a political choice not to.
[email protected]: Is it your expectation that because of the severity of this storm, Houstonians will try to change the regulation and zoning laws?
Fleming: I think there are a couple things you can set your watch to after a disaster. One is that somebody, either a mayor or a governor or whoever, is going to stand up and say, “Houston is stronger than the storm. We can figure out how to do this.” The reality is that no city or person is stronger than a hurricane. If you look at the case of New Jersey after Sandy, Gov. Chris Christie was the first one to stand up and say that. My hope is that Houston and Texas don’t go down that route. The other is that they’re going to start trying to push through a recovery process before all the folks who have been hit by Harvey are able to come back and partake in it. Whatever vision for Houston’s future is put together, if it’s not co-produced by the people who live there, or if it’s put together by a group of experts who can tell you the best way to engineer the city but don’t know anything about the folks who live there, it’s not going to matter what they come up with. It’ll never get built. And if it does, it won’t be shared by the people who live there now.
[email protected]: But did that part of the story play out with Hurricane Katrina and the people of New Orleans?
Fleming: Absolutely. New Orleans gets held up as an exemplar of post-disaster recovery. But if you look at who was able to come back after Katrina, it wasn’t the folks who lived there before, especially on the low- and middle-income side. New Orleans has gotten richer and whiter since Katrina. Houston remains one of our country’s most diverse, and for me, most interesting cities. It would be a shame to see the same process unfold there.
[email protected]: We watched as Hurricane Irma hit Florida, which also has tremendous development, especially along the coastal areas. You have the buildup, the concern of rising sea level and other factors that make Florida a place to watch over the next 40 to 50 years.
Fleming: If you think about the way that a building on a college campus like this is maintained, you have a thing called deferred maintenance where you’re not putting money into the building every year. You’re putting it in a set-aside to invest when the roof caves in or a window goes out or an HVAC needs to be replaced. In cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, for a long time that deferred maintenance fund hasn’t been capitalized. There hasn’t been money put aside to deal with the reality of climate change and sea-level rise. That bill has come due for a lot of those cities now. I think the question before us