Rice-Shell Center issue report on Houston’s sustainability: how future looks for economy, ecology and more


Rice-Shell Center issue report on Houston’s sustainability: how future looks for economy, ecology and more


Posted 24 July 2011, by David Ruth, Rice University (Shell Center for Sustainability), The Pearland Journal (Your Houston News), yourhoustonnews.com

What does it mean for a city to achieve “sustainability?” Rice University’s Shell Center for Sustainability has embarked on a wide-ranging project to determine Houston’s sustainability through 25 measurable categories, ranging from energy efficiency to public transportation to poverty levels.

“Ultimately, the merger of economic, ecologic and societal considerations — the honest integration of these three key aspects — will be required to reach a sustainable urban system,” said Jim Blackburn, professor in the practice of environmental law in Rice’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the sustainability project’s director.

A new report, funded by the Shell Center, sets out 25 indicators to measure sustainability and then gathers data describing how the Houston metropolitan area performs in relation to these indicators. Most of the indicators are illustrated by graphic representations, like a map depicting benzene concentration across Harris County and another showing the location of toxic waste sites in the county.

Titled “Measuring City Sustainability: Project Houston,” the white paper defines a sustainable system as “one that has a stable economic base, equitably provides for the needs of its citizens and exists within ecological limits.” Furthermore, it says, “sustainable practices minimize the use of materials and energy while taking care of the needs of the people and the natural system ‘and represents’ a departure from past development practices and human settlement patterns.”

The Shell Center plans to build on the report by continuing to gather data on the same subjects to provide a view of Houston’s sustainability issues over time. A conference is planned for October that will concentrate on further developing ways to measure the city’s ability to thrive.

Blackburn and Stephen Klineberg, professor of sociology and co-director of Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, co-taught a class at Rice that determined the set of measurable indicators of sustainability. They settled on three broad areas of study: economics, ecology and social factors. “The economic inquiry was concerned with the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services in a way that meets the needs of today without compromising the needs of future generations,” Blackburn said. “This necessitates including concepts of efficiency and materials and energy flows. The ecological issue was concerned with the physical state of water quality, air quality, biodiversity and ecological health. The social issue was focused on aspects of the equity of distribution of benefits, wealth and impacts in the Houston area.”

Among the specific categories selected were some that would be expected in any discussion of sustainability like air quality, biodiversity and public transportation. Others, however, point to the broad, interdisciplinary nature of the project. For example, the report includes the cost-of-living index, the growth of community and school gardens in the area and the levels of debt incurred by various governmental entities. Some of these indicators, such as debt, will be the subject of more focused investigation and all indicators will be monitored and updated over time.

“In the past, Houston’s sustainability has been looked at through only a few lenses, such as air and water quality,” wrote Laura Spanjian, the sustainability director for Houston Mayor Annise Parker, in the report’s foreword. “These indicators are important, but a full picture of Houston’s sustainability landscape needs to be measured to understand how multiple issues overlap and intertwine, and work together. A complete and balanced understanding of what determines sustainability for a region is also critical to implementing initiatives, prioritizing actions, creating partnerships and making policy changes that improve sustainability.”

To read the report in its entirety, go to http://shellcenter.rice.edu/Content.aspx?id=2147483695





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