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Category: Environment

Mark Schatz and Anne Eamon at their house on Grace Lane, 2013. Photo: Jack Thompson.

Saving Grace: A Small Experiment by Two Architecture Students Led to a Big Struggle for Their Neighborhood

The post below was first published in the print issue of Cite 93 available for a limited time at bookstores.

The CES Environmental Systems site is easy to miss. The small building and gate at the front do not announce themselves as villainous. “Environmental Systems” sounds vaguely green and ecological, after all, like a windmill factory. But when, some five years back, I first turn on Grace Lane, which runs to the side of the deep CES lot, the fumes hit me. They don’t burn my throat exactly. They are not sulphuric. They are not like sewage or the wet, flatulent smell of paper mills. It’s more like I’m breathing inside an inflatable air mattress.

Grace Lane itself is a narrow street of single-family homes built in the 1930s and ’40s interspersed with small churches, an apartment complex, vacant lots, and newer homes. In the late 1960s, the area flipped from being exclusively working class and White to predominantly Black.

Near the end of Grace Lane is something unexpected: three contemporary structures set in a lush garden dotted with abstract sculptures. The concrete and steel buildings are home to Mark Schatz and Anne Eamon, and the offices for their firm, m+a architecture studio.

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Detail from agro-ecological infrastructure map by Steven Mikulencak.

Learn the Song of Our Land, Part 2: The Map

The post below is the second in a series that excerpts from “Learn the Song of Our Land” by John Jacob. Read Part 1. The full article is available in the print issue of Cite 93.

In conjunction with the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the Texas Coastal Watershed Program — a part of the Texas Sea Grant at Texas A&M and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service — recently undertook the mapping of the significant remaining habitat fragments in the eight counties constituting the greater Houston area. By “significant,” we mean habitat patches of 100 acres or greater that have some kind of ecological value. Within the ecological literature, 100 acres is considered a more or less minimum size where some semblance of ecological integrity can be maintained. Limiting our mapping to patches greater than 100 acres allowed us to complete the inventory with the resources we had at hand and in a reasonable time. The map is a major step forward in get- ting a handle on the remaining ecological resources in the region. Still, it should be recognized that no claims of 100 percent accuracy are made for this map, particularly for including every one of the smaller patches. Although it is unlikely that many 1,000-acre expanses were missed, some 100- and 200-acre patches here and there could easily have been left out, as well as the occasional patches of less than 100 acres with unusually intact flora that merit preservation as parks or educational sites.

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A native palmetto in the understory of an intact upland forest is a moment of small-scale beauty. Photo: Ron Billings.

Learn the Song of Our Land, Part 1: Now Is the Time to Save the Ecosystems Ringing the City

The post below is the first in a two-part series that excerpts from “Learn the Song of Our Land” by John Jacob, Professor and Extension Specialist at the Texas A&M Sea Grant Program and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service through the Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Science. The full article is available in the print issue of Cite 93.

Real sustainability has to be about place. It can’t just be about consuming less. It’s not even really about “the planet.” It’s about us, right here where we are. Is this place a sustainable place? Could our grandchildren or their grandchildren continue to live here and thrive? Sure, we can buy organic “sustainable” strawberries from the San Joaquin Valley now, but when it becomes too expensive to ship those strawberries 1,800 miles to Houston, will there be sustainable produce grown right here that we can buy? Just exactly what could we buy locally if skyrocketing fuel prices meant we would have to live off the land? Off our land, that is. What is there here that could sustain us?

But we need more than farmland to sustain us. We also need natural areas, both prairies and forests, to make sure we have enough clean air to breathe and enough clean water for both us and the rest of creation that depends on the waterways in this area. The farmlands, prairies, and forests that surround us can be thought of as our “agroecological” infrastructure. We can’t do much without the “gray” infrastructure we are all familiar with — bridges, buildings, power lines, the Internet — but in the long run, we can’t do anything at all without the green or agroecological infrastructure that sustains us and provides us with clean air and water. Unfortunately, we are about to lose the very best of what is left in terms of both farmland and natural areas, all in the next 30 to 50 years. We will consume at least 1,000 square miles of forests, farms, and prairies in this period if we continue building out in the same pattern and at the same density as we do today. What does this say about our long-term prospects for sustainability?

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View from Hartman Park, Manchester, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester.

Still ‘In Harm’s Way’? Ten Years of Struggle to Reduce Air Toxics in Houston

In 2004, Dina Cappiello, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, investigated air pollution in Manchester and other neighborhoods along the Ship Channel. The article, “In Harm’s Way,” won national accolades, including the Kevin Carmody Award for Investigative Reporting. Then newly elected Mayor Bill White took on air pollution as one of his signature efforts. Ten years later, the question is, did he succeed? Are Houstonians still in harm’s way?

The 2004 Chronicle study found levels of the carcinogens benzene and 1,3-butadiene high enough to pose a threat to public health. Consider this excerpt from the report:

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All renderings and sections by Erling Cruz.

A Proposal for Birdwatch Towers along Galveston Bay

For more on the environment, get a hold of Cite 93 and see OffCite’s previous coverage.

When 170,000 gallons of heavy crude oil spilled into Galveston Bay on March 22, naturalists noted that the timing was potentially catastrophic. In Spring, Galveston Bay is a rest stop on a superhighway of bird migration. According to a recent report in the Houston Chronicle, as of April 4, 39 dolphins, 17 turtles, and 331 birds had died in and around Galveston and Matagorda Island since the spill. Apparently, wind blew much of the oil into the Gulf. Damage to the bay could have been far worse.

Still, the best hope for our region is to see our defenses against storm surges, our industrial base, and our natural habitats as coexisting in a single system rather than locked in conflict, according to proposals backed by John Nau and James Baker, as well as academic experts associated with the SSPEED Center. OffCite covered the proposed basic idea. Lisa Gray wrote about University of Houston architecture professor Thomas Colbert’s concept for linking tourist infrastructure and a storm barrier with bird habitats.

But what would Galveston Bay look like as a tourist destination?

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Residents of Northwood Manor protest Whispering Pines landfill in 1979. Courtesy: Robert Bullard.

Can Houston Be Green Without Brown and Black?

This post is excerpted from “The Mountains of Houston: Environmental Justice and the Politics of Garbage,” published in Cite 93.

In 1990, environmental justice leaders sent a letter to the “Big Ten” environmental and conservation groups (Sierra Club, Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund [now Earthjustice], National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Policy Institute/Friends of the Earth, Izaak Walton League, The Wilderness Society, National Parks and Conservation Association, and Natural Resources Defense Council), charging them with elitism, classism, and paternalism. The letter also called their attention to their lack of diversity in terms of staff, board members, and program. A March 2013 Washington Post article headlined “Within mainstream environmentalist groups, diversity is lacking,” hit on this same theme more than two decades later.

Progress in Houston has been slow and uneven. Although Houston is a city with people of color in the majority, for some reason it has not developed a strong network of environmental justice organizations to address issues facing its people of color population such as those in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Although the city has several well-known environmental justice groups run by people of color (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services among them), much of the heavy environmental lifting in Houston is still left to the White environmental groups. One need only examine the member groups of the Houston-Galveston Citizens’ Environmental Coalition (CEC) to see that Houston’s environmental community has a serious diversity problem. Of the 102 CEC member groups, only two are organized by people of color (Great Plains Restoration Council and Pleasantville Environmental Coalition).

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Photographs by Tom Colbert and Raj Mankad. Illustration by Sarah Welch.

The Alps of Pasadena

In the process of developing Cite (93), a special issue on the environment, guest editor Tom Colbert and I drove all around the Houston region, from the bay to the piney woods, photographing landfills. We were inspired by Dr. Robert Bullard, a contributor to the issue. His 1979 study of solid-waste disposal in Houston revealed that five out of five city-owned landfills and six of the eight city-owned incinerators were sited in Black neighborhoods. That research helped spark an international environmental justice movement. In his article for Cite, Bullard describes the low-tech methodology behind the 1979 study: “If we noticed a hill in the usually flat landscape, we investigated it because a change in topography often indicated a dump.”

With that history in mind, Colbert and I wanted to create a comprehensive photographic guide to Houston’s “mountains,” but our region, it turns out, has far more manmade changes in topography than a team of two can document over a couple of weekends. In this post, I share a series of photos that show one of the most mind-boggling sites in the Houston area, the Alps of Pasadena.

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Photos courtesy Actar.

The Petropolis of Tomorrow

Before I had children, Houston was to me a city of writers, artists, and activists. The oil and gas industry was an abstraction. Once I started attending parent meetings and playdates, however, I came to know families with a father spending weeks away from home on a regular basis. They flew to some deep-sea platform or a rig in the middle of North Dakota. Given this local familiarity with the human struggle behind every gallon of gas, it is appropriate that the proposals in a new book called The Petropolis of Tomorrow (Actar Publishers 2014), co-edited by Neeraj Bhatia and Mary Casper, were partly developed here in Houston and that the book will be launched on March 17 at the Rice School of Architecture.

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Sunday Streets HTX, 2014 Spring. Map by Asakura Robinson.

Mayor Parker Announces Sunday Streets

Yesterday, Mayor Annise Parker announced that on the first Sundays of April, May, and June a street will be closed to motorized vehicles from 11 am – 3 pm and opened to pedestrians and bicyclists. A petition I launched — inspired by an article on this very blog — created much of the momentum for this effort, which is documented here.

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Houston Ship Channel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Growing Risks: Balancing Houston’s Prosperity and Air Quality, Part 2

The post below is the second in a two-part series on the complexities of air pollution in Houston. Click here to read Part 1. Each post excerpts “Growing Risks” by Larry Soward, a former Commissioner at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The full article is available in the print issue of Cite 93.

THE COSTS

So, given all this growth and economic development that is happening or about to happen in the Houston region, what are the costs in terms of risks to our environment, our health, and our quality of life? The most significant costs stemming from all this growth are the impacts on public health. Out of a total population of almost 4.2 million in Harris County, over 93,000 suffer from pediatric asthma; almost 223,000 suffer from adult asthma; 156,000 live with COPD; almost 1 million have cardiovascular disease; 300,000 have diabetes. At particular risk are the almost 1.2 million residents who are children under age 18; more than 350,000 individuals who are 65 and over; and the more than 800,000 people who live in poverty. Most of the expected major industrial growth will be in communities along the Ship Channel which are already inundated with petrochemical plants and refineries and overburdened with pollution and health risks. Already experiencing higher levels of air pollution, increased incidents of cardiac and respiratory illnesses and increased risks of air toxics-related illnesses, these communities will very likely have their health problems made even worse.

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