Houston, Texas has been the self-proclaimed Energy Capital of the world since the turn of the twentieth century when a massive oil field discovery at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont rapidly industrialized the area in 1901. Fast-forward nearly 120 years, and Houston, the fourth largest city in the US, is leading the clean energy revolution. Houston is the largest municipal user of renewable energy, with 92% of power for city buildings coming from wind & solar sources. They’ve recently committed to making that number 100% by 2025.

The transition to clean energy is only part of a comprehensive plan to make the city more resilient, adaptable, and secure in the future. As much as Houston is synonymous with oil & gas, it’s become known as a hot spot for natural disasters. From Hurricane Ike in 2008, to the Memorial Day Flood in 2015, to –most devastatingly—Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the city has been challenged and rebounded year after year. The onset of COVID-19 is yet another shock to the system of Houstonians (and communities everywhere) and has underscored the need for local government to quickly respond to challenges.

According to Lara Cottingham, Houston’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Hurricane Harvey shifted the mindset around climate change and resilience for Houstonians. Citizens and city officials started thinking more about responding not only to issues at hand, but the coming challenges due to factors like climate change and population growth. In 2018, thanks to a sponsorship from Shell, Houston joined the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities (which has evolved into the Global Resilient Cities Network). The city spent 18 months collaborating with local stakeholders as well as national and global partners to develop a framework for collective action towards building a more sustainable, more equitable, and safer city. This past February, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Chief Resilience Officer Marissa Aho released that framework – Resilient Houston.

Resilient Houston outlines five thematic visions for the city and 18 goals with action items, each goal referencing a global case study. The plan is a living document, and just last week was updated to include language around COVID-19, noting that because the virus is “first and foremost, a public health emergency, the City will need to mobilize entities at all scales—from individuals to regional partnerships—to provide Houstonians with the resources and services to remain safe and healthy.” The addendum outlines how Resilient Houston’s existing framework can be applied to the crisis at hand.

The five thematic visions are for Houston to be:

  • A healthy place to live
  • An equitable, inclusive, and affordable city
  • A leader in climate adaptation
  • A city that grows up, not out
  • A transformative economy that builds forward

A testament to the city’s unending work towards progress even in the midst of a pandemic, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day last month, Houston’s Office of Sustainability released a Climate Action Plan. The plan focuses on four specific areas with three defined goals for each sector. The plan highlights several co-benefits of climate action like affordability, resilience, workforce development, environmental quality, and better health. It also sets goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions for 2030, 2040, and ultimately a 100% reduction by 2050.

The four areas of focus and goals are:

  • Transportation:
    • Shift regional fleets to electric & low emission vehicles
    • Reduce miles traveled per vehicle
    • Ensure equitable mobility choices
  • Energy transition:
    • Increase investment in renewables
    • Make Houston a leader in carbon capture tech
    • Enhance Houston’s natural ability to capture & store carbon
  • Building optimization:
    • Reduce building energy use
    • Expand investment in energy efficiency
    • Invest in local jobs to optimize building operations
  • Materials management:
    • Reduce waste and transform the circular economy
    • Optimize waste operations and create power from waste
    • Ensure safe & cost-effective long-term disposal capacity

Both Resilient Houston and the Climate Action Plan are prime examples of partnership across city departments and other stakeholders. In a conversation with Lara Cottingham last week, she noted that one of the great things about working for a city is that everyone is part of the same team, and everyone can chip in, a mindset crucial for the COVID-19 reality we’re facing. “It’s not uncommon to have someone working in payroll step in to help out at a shelter during a disaster.”

“COVID-19 has reinforced important lessons, including the ability to reimagine our future, the importance of equity, and that resilience means more than the hardening of infrastructure against a narrow set of backward-looking disasters. As communities move through their sustainability and resilience journeys, many understand these needs. Leaders are now focused on the hard work of delivering change—transitioning energy, mobility, and building systems to stable, clean, equitable 21st century forms. They are using tools like community engagement, finance, data, and program management to get it done,” says Britt Harter, director at Guidehouse and leader of the State and Local Government group.

This Thursday, May 28, Lara, Britt, and my Zpryme colleague, Chris Moyer, will discuss how Houston and other local municipalities are responding and recovering to COVID-19 challenges, how infrastructure is critical for sustainability and resilience, and as Houstonians say, how we can “build forward, not back.”

Register here to join the conversation.