Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday unveiled a resiliency master plan, a multi-billion-dollar effort aimed at better preparing Houston and the region for disasters such as Hurricane Harvey through a broad range of efforts, including the planting of 4.6 million new trees and the removal of all homes from city floodways.
Those were some key items of “Resilient Houston,” a 186-page documentthat spells out how the city and its residents can orient themselves to best prepare for future disasters, as well as the effects of climate change.
The plan is supposed to “build on and connect” the city’s various other guiding documents — including Plan Houston, the general plan adopted in 2015, and Complete Communities, the mayor’s framework to lift up historically neglected neighborhoods.
“This is what pulls it all together,” Turner said Wednesday, holding up the hefty document.
The framework addresses resiliency at five scales — people, neighborhoods, bayous, the city and the region — and sets 18 targets, along with a corresponding set of 62 actions to make those happen.
“There’s a lot in there,” said Marissa Aho, the city’s chief resilience officer, who has spearheaded the production of the plan since her hiring last February. Aho previously was chief resilience officer for Los Angeles, where she developed a similar framework.
Turner on Wednesday also signed an executive order asking city departments to align their priorities and budgets with the plan, and to appoint a resilience officer within each department within 60 days.
The plan is aimed at what it calls a “new normal” — Houston has suffered six major flooding events with federal disaster declarations in the last five years, including Tropical Storm Imelda last September.
“We understand from experience what experts have quantified: $1 invested before a disaster saves more than $5 after — and sometimes much more than that,” the plan states. “Yet most federal funding is not available for months, or even years, after a disaster.”
The plan could be instrumental when it comes to doling out the city’s portion of Housing and Urban Development mitigation grants, a new type of funding created in Harvey’s wake. The city already has received a direct allocation of $61 million in those funds, and it has created a master plan for spending those dollars that Aho helped craft.
Houston also is fighting for more money from the $4.3 billion allocation to the state, which will be rolled out through the General Land Office.
Many of the initiatives included in the resiliency plan already were in place or build upon existing programs, but some are new. Those include a goal to remove all habitable structures from the floodway, a tall task that would involve an expanded and costly effort to buy out homes. The plan gives no indication how many homes would need to be removed.
“To accomplish this objective, some mapped floodways may be able to be made smaller through engineering solutions; in other areas, buyouts and property swaps will need to occur,” the document says. “Local ordinances have already been updated to prevent the development of habitable structures within the FEMA-defined floodway and other high-hazard areas.”
The city plans to conduct buyouts with Harvey recovery dollars from the federal government. While it has done similar buyouts with city money in the past, it never has endeavored to clear the entire floodway.
About a third of the initiatives laid out in the plan already had been announced and are in the works. That includes such lofty goals as achieving zero traffic deaths by 2030, and becoming carbon neutral by 2050.
Turner previously announced the goal to end all traffic-related fatalities — one he recognized is likely considered unachievable — in an executive order last August. Under the order, Turner established a committee of officials from the city, county, METRO and TxDOT, with the goal of transforming how the city designs its roads and sidewalks.
The carbon neutrality goal, outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, was announced last July as part of the city's draft climate action plan.
Many of the priciest items in Resilient Houston already are in the works, as well. The plan calls for a $50 billion investment in “recovery, mitigation, and modernization projects” by 2040, which assumes a $28 billion price tag for the so-called coastal spine barrier system and includes previously approved funds, such as the $3.5 billion METRO bond plan, Harris County’s $2.5 billion flood bond and $3.8 billion in Harvey recovery funds.
Other expanded initiatives include efforts to develop 50 neighborhood plans, and construction of 500 miles of trails and bike lanes by 2050. The city already operates a 345-mile network of bike lanes, bike routes, shared lanes, bayou trails and other paths. There are an additional 80 miles of hiking, biking and nature trails in city parks.
Turner’s Complete Communities program, meanwhile, already includes 10 historically underserved neighborhoods. As part of the program, each neighborhood gets an action plan to provide “access to quality affordable homes, jobs, well-maintained parks, improved streets,” and more.
The resiliency plan also calls for providing all “Houstonians with access to high-frequency public transportation choices within a half-mile by 2050.”
Such an effort would require hundreds more buses and high-capacity lanes they could use. Currently fewer than 30 percent of households in the city are within a half-mile of frequent bus or rail service during the day, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago transit advocacy group that tracks accessibility in major metro areas.
Metro’s long-range plan, which voters approved last November, lays out $7.5 billion spending on 75 miles of new bus rapid transit, 21 new park and ride locations and increased service, 110 miles of bi-directional HOV lanes along area freeways and a 25 percent increase in local bus service.
Resilient Houston was created in coordination with The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program. Houston’s membership was funded by a $1.8 million grant from Shell Oil, which also funded the first two years of Aho’s salary.
Turner lauded the plan as a significant step forward.
“In this term, we have to be intentional and we have to move with the greatest degree of urgency,” he said. “We’re not going to build a resilient city in four years completely. But with this plan, we can start moving today in the right direction.”