Downtown Houston
Courtesy Jim Whitaker via Flickr Commercial Commons Downtown Houston

When Houston's Downtown Management District hired Boston- and Shanghai-based landscape design and planning firm Sasaki to devise a 20-year vision for the city center in November, the group had specific requests: new infrastructure needed to support the city’s ongoing boom in jobs, incorporate housing options, and improve the area's connection to the sprawling neighborhoods. (The Texas state Department of Transportation is preparing to rework the tangle of highways around downtown.)

Now, as the Houston area dries out from historic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, this work has taken on a new tone. Sasaki principals Gina Ford and Martin Zogran—along with project lead Asakura Robinson, HR&A Advisors, and Traffic Engineers Inc.—must also plan for a future that climate scientists say will be filled with more frequent and costly natural disasters.

ARCHITECT spoke with Ford and Zogran about Sasaki’s updated plans for the country’s fourth-largest city.

You were working on a new plan for part of downtown Houston already, before the storm hit. How did Harvey change your plan?
Martin Zogran: Well it's interesting. Downtown is immediately adjacent to Buffalo Bayou, which has gone through a series of really interesting landscape rethinking in the last five to seven years. [Ed.—See ARCHITECT's past coverage of Buffalo Bayou here.] Those were the parts of downtown that really were affected most severely by flooding during Harvey. It floods a lot in Houston, so the resiliency strategies both at the building level and at the landscape level have always been a part of this plan, and it's just come into sharper focus because of Harvey.

Key ideas that have been incorporated into the project include a network of blue streets to handle water more effectively and recommendations that take advantage of the highway realignments to create new locations to handle water. We've been thinking about how downtown can become a model for more compact, walkable urbanism in the region to reduce impervious cover. How does downtown create a relationship to the bayous that recognizes the flooding realities, but also engages them as important assets in the city for recreation and other activities? How do we design ground floors to be resilient to flooding while contributing to the public realm year-round?

Harvey was unusual because it lingered for so long and went back out to sea, which allowed it to dump an unprecedented 50 inches of rain on parts of Texas. Can green infrastructure ever really handle that much rain?
Gina Ford: No. All of the things that we talk about as best practices—resiliency, disaster recovery, green infrastructure—do help with that sort of small-scale, day-to-day flooding, but what happened in Houston with Harvey—50 inches of rainfall—speaks exactly to the reason why people are talking about resiliency more than sustainability these days. Sustainability was about setting benchmarks and having design strategies that enabled us to meet certain benchmarks, and shoot for specific targets. But things like Harvey show us that things are going to happen way beyond our control and way beyond our current understanding of what is possible. Resiliency planning is really about understanding that things are going to happen in our environment that we can't necessarily plan for, and you can't necessarily always design for that.

It was interesting in Houston that you saw the convention center being used to shelter people. Most communities that we work in, you see that cities are often on the high ground. The whole notion that downtown has an infusion of infrastructure and density really helps in these situations where you have the lower-lying areas flood.

Should it be part of a resilient strategy for a city like Houston to plan for how their downtown will physically function as a kind of emergency operation center in the next big storm?
MZ: Yes, I think so. That is actually a real benefit of the downtown—not only does it have access to good infrastructure, both electronic and physical, but it's the major concentration of employment in Houston. Because of the fact that it was on higher ground and did not suffer the damages from the flooding as you saw in a lot of the lower-lying, outlying areas, it feels like it did pretty well. It could offer a place of refuge and sort of a stable core within the region. That's actually something that's a little surprising to come out of this. Downtown feels really like it's back to business already and they're happy that they're high and dry.

GF: I have worked in a number of communities that have had disasters or have had major flooding events, whether it's in the Midwest at Cedar Rapids or the work we did on the Jersey Shore after Sandy, or some of the work we've done on the Mississippi Delta in the New Orleans area. It does bear out across all of those examples that you have these dense early downtowns that typically are high and dry. It's sort of the way American cities were planned. You can almost track the level of risk associated with any development with its timeline—later in a city's development people started colonizing and living in places that were lower-lying, typically. So you have this pattern of high and dry denser areas and these low-lying, often socioeconomically challenged neighborhoods. It's an unfortunate pattern where you have people displaced out of those neighborhoods.

That's something that we do note as planners, that the downtown plays a really essential role because downtown kind of belongs to everybody, and oftentimes it is well-positioned.

There's a social infrastructure, too, a strong sense of community. Whenever we work in post-disaster communities we tend to come at it from a physical strategy, and the city brings the social strategy.

What can a city like Houston do to promote those benefits of downtowns so they're better prepared for the next disaster?
MZ: Houston is a very spread out and sprawling city, and it actually has multiple centers: Galleria, Texas Medical Center, downtown Houston. They all vie for the hearts and minds of Houstonians in terms of living and economic stability. Before Harvey, Houston was very aggressive about trying to incentivize people to move downtown. That's a real big change for downtown Houston compared to 20 years ago.

GF: I'd also add that Houston's bayou system is something I've been looking at as a landscape architect over the last decade. Buffalo Bayou is this new greenway model that provides stormwater retention and provides a connectivity function, having trails alongside it; it has arts and culture and potential for community gathering. That's outside downtown but very much connects right to downtown.

No amount of bayou restoration and adaptation could have absorbed this amount of rainfall. So you have to also think about what happens when those overflow and really plan for that failure. But the other 364 days out of the year those solutions are really intelligent green infrastructure.

Do you feel like you're swimming upstream against political momentum? What's holding back the region from really preparing for climate change, sea level rise, and flooding?
GF: In all of the cases that I've worked in, political will is really the key to success. I think about Cedar Rapids and our work there where 1,500 people were moved out of a 100-year flood plain. To most people, that's a retreat strategy and it's politically unthinkable, but there was political will there to really not have that disaster happen again to those same places.

Then you have other places that we've worked where either the political will isn't there or the problem is just kind of wicked in its scale or scope. I think about New Orleans—as much as it's recovered from Katrina, there are still ongoing environmental crises.

We worked on the western Florida Coast recently, which was hard hit by Irma, on Alabama's Gulf State Park, which is a significant part of that community's frontage on the gulf. We've been thinking that there needs to be kind of a holistic look at the whole Gulf Coast edge as a broader regional strategy within that context. How do we think about the future there? Louisiana is losing land rapidly. And then in places like Houston we have these periodic, completely disastrous events. How do we think more broadly about it and come up with a vision that could last for 100 years?

Is there a policy change at the local or state or federal level that you think would make a huge difference in terms of how to actually realize the things that you're talking about? Should we be doing something that we're not that would make a big difference on a larger scale?
GF: One of the most interesting professional experiences I've had was working with a sociologist—Karen O'Neill out of Rutgers University, who was part of our team for the Changing Course competition in New Orleans—looking at land loss and land subsidence in the delta region around New Orleans. She does a lot of research around retreat from disaster-prone areas and the sociology behind that. She helped us understand why communities choose to live in places of risk that get hit over and over again. Those decisions are really based on things that have nothing to do with the environment or politics, and everything to do with a cultural connection to specific landscapes, or to specific communities or specific economic livelihood issues. In the case of the Gulf Coast, it's about living out in a place where you can work on an oil rig or do shellfish harvesting at different times of the year and you have this really tight-knit, small community. I would just say that we have to understand that the disasters that are happening need to be understood both from an environmental perspective and political lens, but also from a sociocultural lens.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is saying he wants more reservoirs and levees, and maybe even a giant storm surge barrier. Do you think Texas should be considering any large-scale infrastructure like that after Harvey?
MZ: Outside of the very specific infrastructure around water, whether it be dams and barriers, et cetera, what's been really fascinating is looking at what has been proposed by [the Texas Department of Transportation] and that is the North Houston Highway Improvement Project. It's a close-to $9 billion investment in routing the highways around downtown Houston. That's really an opportunity to think about multimodal, multidimensional solutions for new absorbent systems at the city scale. Also from a cultural standpoint, what are the opportunities that something even like a highway project is going to offer a city in terms of opening up new land and community benefits? It's popular now to think of cities as systems, and that's a very positive thing, because even something like a transportation project can be an opportunity for the water system, the ecological system and the community.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.